Guide

Food labelling and packaging in international trade

How to package food for export or import

The packaging you choose for your food goods must provide enough information for handlers to move your goods safely and hygienically. You must also make sure that basic standards for all packaging used for importing and exporting are met. See how to label and package goods being shipped out of the UK .

Three types of packaging are used for food. Transport or export packaging is the outermost layer, which protects the product during transit. Outer packaging is an intermediate layer, for example a box containing several bags, tins or pouches of product, which is sometimes used to display goods in a retail environment. Sales packaging is the immediate layer of packaging around the goods.

Packaging materials

There are a number of requirements that cover packaging for foods and other materials. As well as dealing with packaging in direct contact with food, the rules cover packaging capable of affecting food through the migration of its constituents into the food. Key rules include:

  • Aluminium is considered safe for food contact, although it may not be suitable for highly acidic foods such as tomatoes and soft fruits.
  • Plastics are subject to an overall migration limit of 10 milligrams per square decimetre of plastic surface area or per kilogram of food. There are also many specific migration limits that apply to individual substances contained in the regulations, whether they are plastics monomers or plastics additives that are used to achieve a particular technical effect. There are also rules about the use of declarations of legal compliance that apply to packaging moving up and down the supply chain.
  • Other specific rules apply to regenerated cellulose film, ceramics, plasticisers in seals for food containers, certain epoxy derivatives used in coatings, adhesives and plastics when used in contact with food.
  • Rules apply to contamination from chemicals, including mycotoxin (mould-related) contamination (in, for example, cereals and dried fruit) and radiological contamination from the use of pesticides and animal medicines, as well as nitrates from green, leafy vegetables.

The overriding rule is that any packaging materials must not allow their constituents to migrate into the food in amounts that could harm human health or affect the nature or quality of the food. For those that manufacture or convert packaging materials into particular food packaging, there are also rules about documenting good manufacturing practice.

Packaging that meets the requirements for food contact is labelled 'for food contact' and may also bear a specific symbol resembling a wine glass and a fork.

New types of packaging material that actively maintain or improve the condition of food, as opposed to simply containing it, are now available. Other materials, known as 'intelligent packaging', monitor the condition of the food. These active packaging materials must comply with regulations on food additives. The 'intelligent' packaging technologies should not be used to disguise problems such as spoilage. Information should be given on the package to help consumers use them safely.

Products of Animal Origin (POAO) are subject to extra packaging rules. You must ensure that your products have an identification mark applied before they go into transit. Depending on the product, you can apply the mark to:

  • the wrapping
  • the packaging
  • a label affixed to the product, the wrapping or the packaging

For further information on POAO, see products of animal origin - international trade regulations.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has further information on the legal requirements with which food packaging must comply.