Ink traceability: the key to safety and compliance in food and pharmaceutical value chains

Converters supplying end-user markets where product safety is critical must have a system for tracing ink batches to each job – and be able to resolve problems instantly. Modern ink traceability software is essential for complying with industry safety standards.

Increasingly, brand owners demand traceability of raw materials – including for ink and packaging. For food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, using the right ink and packaging for every job is a critical safety matter. Additionally brands may wish to prove their supply chains are free of slavery, and cause no environmental or social harm.

Ink: a critical safety matter in food and pharmaceutical packaging

Arguably the overriding safety concern relating to packaging ink for these applications is the risk of migration. This is where substances can transfer from or through the packaging, to the product.

A safety scare resulting from product contamination can cause the costliest ink-related error of all – a ‘field failure’ or product recall. This was the case for Nestlé in 2005, when traces of 2-isopropyl thioxanthone (ITX), a substance that initiates the UV-curing process, were discovered in an infant milk formula in Italy. It led to three million litres of the product being pulled from shelves in four European countries.

Tightening safety regulations

Today, brand owners and their suppliers must work with stringent health and safety standards that are enforced through food contact legislation in all major markets. In the European Union (EU), Regulation 2004 / No. 1935 lays down the principle that there must be no risky migration of food contact materials, no change in taste or odour, and no deterioration of food. Furthermore, to avoid such risks, the EU’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP; 2023 / 2006) regulations set limits on permissible migration levels. The European Printing Inks Association (EuPIA) provides guidance to help ink manufacturers comply with the GMP.

Traceability: the solution for safe, transparent supply chains

Traceability is the quickest and most effective way to identify the root cause of a problem, and recall the affected products to the supply chain. For this reason, a supplier must show capability of tracing raw materials to jobs in order to comply with industry safety standards. And as brand reputations are at stake, there can be no compromise on compliance.

One important standard where traceability is a key requirement is the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard. Adopted by over 3,500 manufacturers worldwide, it helps packaging manufacturers adopt good manufacturing practices and demonstrate quality assurance, legal compliance and authenticity.

Matching ink batches to the job – and vice-versa

Standards, such as BRC, require the recording of ink supplier batch ID numbers, and for a system that traces which sales orders those ink batches have been processed for.

In the manufacturing process and supply chain, batch numbers must be recorded from the raw material to the package. This enables raw materials tracing from two directions: from batch to job, and from job to batch.

  • Ink batch to job: if an ink supplier alerts the printer to a problem, the problematic batch is recalled on the system, to identify which jobs it was used for.
  • Job to ink batch: if a customer, such as a brand owner, reports an occurrence of contamination, and the supplier looks up the job number to identify the raw materials used for making the affected product.

Auditors demand evidence of organized tracing!

Tracing spot colour inks to jobs is complex, because the colours are made by mixing a recipe of base inks and coatings. Indeed, the recipe will likely include press return inks, which must also be identified.

To meet safety standards demanded by food and pharmaceutical brands, suppliers are regularly audited on their ink batch tracing capability. The converter must have an organized tracing system in place, and during an audit, prove they are following the procedures. The ability to instantly match an ink batch ID with a job is essential, because in the unlikely event of a crisis, the supplier will be expected to identify a problem within hours at the most.

GSE Traceability Software: instant reporting, automated record keeping

Given the complexity and short response times needed, it’s practically impossible to manage traceability manually. Thankfully dedicated software is available to automate processes, helping converters comply with minimum administration costs or delay.

Today, there are bespoke-designed ink management software packages that allow instant and automated record-keeping of ink batches. The GSE Traceability software module helps the converter create traceability reports instantly, described in batch-to-job or job-to-batch sequences.

Learn in detail how GSE Traceability software provides optimal assurance and compliance here.