What is a label and what tasks does it have to perform? There is today no easy, generally applicable answer to this seemingly simple question. The days of the “traditional label” that was printed on paper and provided customers with everything they needed to know about the product are long gone. Although labels are still important as a means of conveying information to the customer, the scope of possibilities they offer has grown considerably. Labels enable the unambiguous identification of a product (name, quantity, composition, additives, price), as well as informing the customer about its shelf-life and origins. Sometimes they provide a warning in relation to possible allergen substances the product may contain. Nearly all the information provided on a label is in the meantime regulated by law. Within the EU, in addition to Council Regulation (EC) 104/2000 on the common organisation of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products it is primarily Commission Regulation (EC) 2065/2011 that stipulates in detail which information has to be on fresh, cooled, frozen, smoked, salted or dried seafood products. In international seafood trade regulations such as the United Nations GHS (Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals) are important. Uniform use of quality seals and eco labels is also an important topic in global trade, as was emphasized at the WTO conference in Doha in 2001. Some participants had feared that labelling might develop into a “technical barrier to trade”. They were not only concerned about what information should be included on a label but also about some very basic issues, for example the lack of agreement between Peru and the EU concerning which fish species could be called (and traded as) “sardines”.
But today labels do much more than simply inform consumers about the products they are buying, particularly when they have digital printing. For example, digital labels with integrated RFID chips or other security elements – usually multi-layer “sandwich” elements – allow continuous tracking and documentation of product movements, simplify traceability, and offer better protection against theft.
The days are gone in which labels were made solely of paper. Paper labels do still exist but there are now also labels made of many other materials, for example natural or synthetic polymers or other plastics. Colour printing is possible on PVC or PE film, which is also robust and resistant to moisture – an advantage particularly where fish products are concerned. Attractive, striking coloured labels create a brand image and support high-quality market presence. In today’s saturated markets a product’s appearance can have a decisive effect on its success. In the meantime there are even 12-colour printing machines that are capable of printing directly onto certain products, including canned fish. If this is for some reason or other not possible producers can achieve similar optical effects with “no-label-look labels where the information is printed on a highly transparent, flexible PE film that is then stuck onto the product.
Gains on both sides
Labels can strengthen advertising effect in the outside world and at the same time increase in-company efficiency. The range of labels is immense. They can be made of very different materials and for almost any application. They can be high gloss, matt or semi gloss, they can be in the form of stickers, endless paper from the roll, or in adhesive variations that can be removed easily from the product and leave no residue. Some labels are extremely robust, resistant to mechanical damage and abrasion, moisture, water and chemical resistant, i.e. resistant to substances such as salt and acids, a property that makes them particularly suited to applications within the fish industry. Even extremely high or low temperatures in the frozen range can hardly do them any harm. To produce such durable and user-friendly labels, however, printers have to be highly efficient and offer the required resolution and special adhesives that will stick reliably under the expected conditions. This is particularly important when the labels are to be used for in-company logistics processes, traceability systems, or for documenting complaints or guarantees and thus have to be firmly fixed on the product. Where seafood products are traded internationally the labels also have to meet the legal requirements of all the countries involved, and thus need to be approved by the relevant control bodies in the USA (UL) and Canada (CSA).
Marking products is however only one of numerous applications for which labels are used within industry and trade. Depending on the application concerned labels are differentiated between documentation labels, where after being attached parts of the basic label can be removed and stuck onto a different surface, and non-tear inventory labels that cannot be removed from the surface without damage to the label. There are labels with embossed braille, holograms or high-quality labels with metallic effects and spot varnishes where certain areas stand out due to gloss or matt paints for a particular optic or haptic effect. In this way, seals, logos or quality stamps can be made to stand out as eye-catchers.
Booklet labels are becoming increasingly popular in the food industry, i.e. small folded brochures that are stuck directly onto the product. They are particularly useful where the amount of information to be provided is in excess of the space normally available on a label. Booklet labels can be used to supply additional explanations (e.g. about MSC standards), recipe ideas, instructions for use, etc. Labels are also used for sales promotion, e.g. stickers (promotion labels) that draw attention to discounts or competitions, or personalised or numbered labels that address the final customer individually. These labels are a particularly good means of emphasizing a product’s value.
Packaging industry offers labels for every possible application
Anyone who wants to produce their own labels does not only have to design them themselves but also needs access to labelling systems for printing, embossing and sticking. These investments are only worthwhile, however, if a company is big and its product range changes frequently. Otherwise it usually makes more sense to use the services of the packaging industry which can produce and supply nearly any label in accordance with their customers’ requirements. Here, too, the spectrum of possible solutions is impressive. Labels can be supplied separately, on a roll, or on sheets. They can be pre-printed by the manufacturer or only partly printed for completion later on when used, for example by adding the batch number and the sell by date. But of course the company has to have the necessary hardware to do this, e.g. scanner, thermo transfer printer and ink ribbon. Anyone who wants labels with special embossing, coatings or other special effects is usually well advised to call in a packaging specialist to meet their requirements.
Although the demands made on design and appearance of labels are rising, a lot of companies can no longer get by without producing their own labels, for example for controlling in-company product movements or track & trace systems. Since the introduction of scanner checkouts retailers have been very familiar with this problem because any product purchased at their service counters has to be equipped with a label containing a customer and product specific barcode. Although these labels offer numerous benefits (among them cost reductions) they can be quite a challenge to their users. The software that generates the labels and barcodes has, for example, to be integrated into the existing materials and commodities flow. It has to be so fast that processes are not impeded or even brought to a halt. The printing of labels and barcodes also has to be in such a high resolution that scanners will be able to read them without difficulty or errors. This applies in particular to the 2D barcodes in postage stamp size (QR-codes) which are meanwhile appearing on more and more products. Anyone who scans this mark with a smart phone can access additional information on the product or instructions.
Professional software for designing labels is usually user-friendly so that even amateurs will soon master the essential features. Label design programmes enable the development of customer and product specific barcodes and their storage for later use, as well as the integration of texts in different fonts, photos, graphics and other objects into the label design ready for their output to a label printer. Depending on the model and the manufacturer printers designed for industry can be fitted with a keyboard for making direct entries or with a USB connection to a computer. The combination of printer and computer is particularly convenient because with the right printer software the label design can already be viewed on the monitor prior to printing. Some label printers can even be used for other tasks such as the printing of receipts or documents required within packaging lines.
Industrial label printers are particularly useful when labels have to be attached to large numbers of different products in a short time. These printers usually give a high-resolution image and reliable coding (i.e. bar and space widths of barcodes are reproduced precisely which guarantees good legibility). They are efficient, durable and can usually be fitted into in-company computer environments without any major problems, and they are mostly easy and convenient to use. The range of label printers is no smaller than the range of label designs. Printers are available in all price categories, types and with various extras. They include inkjet printers, single sheet and endless label laser printers, as well as matrix printers and line matrix printers. Thermo direct and thermo transfer printers are particularly frequent in industrial use. With thermo direct printers the image can be put directly onto the thermo label without an ink ribbon. This technique is relatively inexpensive but has the disadvantage that the label remains temperature-sensitive after printing so that the printing on the label can become illegible if exposed to direct intensive sunlight. For certain applications such as retail service counters where the label is generally scanned at the checkout and has thus fulfilled its purpose just a short time after printing, thermo direct printers are extremely interesting. Thermo transfer printers can also print directly onto thermo sensitive labels without an ink ribbon. As an alternative to direct printing these printers also offer the possibility of transfer printing with an ink ribbon to achieve permanent labels.
RFID smart labels, security labels and other special labels
Smart labels, i.e. labels into which Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chips are integrated have a promising future. The small mobile data storage devices have enormous rationalisation potential because they allow the linking of products to an abundance of information. Radio frequency technology makes it possible to track the location of product deliveries within the warehouse or the path of individual products within the logistics chain. This enables companies to optimise internal processes and make more efficient use of storage space and working hours. Capturing the data stored in a smart label requires neither direct contact nor eye contact. The data can be read through plastics, through glass, cardboard, and often even through metallic packaging. This differentiates electronic labels from traditional labelling systems such as barcodes that have to be visible for the scanner to pick them up. Modern RFID Read and Write tags are tiny data storage devices which allow the user to change, erase or add information at any time. This does not only save printing and labelling costs but also makes it easier to capture and add product related data, for example in the context of traceability systems. RFID smart labels are usually purchased ready to use since own production would be much too complex and is only worthwhile for very big companies. Anyone who uses this technology, however, will need some electronic devices to be able to read and write on these memory chips.
Security labels are a special type of label that, for example, as freshness seals, might make the opening of a pack externally visible or, by means of holograms, embossing or signatures, prevent brand fakes and product piracy. Security labels can have overt or covert features. This also applies to security labels that are intended to hinder theft at retail stores. They are often fitted with simple, inexpensive RFID chips that have to be deactivated at the checkout when the customer pays for the product because they would otherwise trigger an acoustic signal when the customer passes through the induction barrier on leaving the store.
The right adhesive
Of course, labels can only fulfil their purpose if they are attached securely and reliably to the products. To achieve this, there is a broad range of adhesives that can be divided into three groups. The first group is peelable or ultra peelable adhesives that allow the label to be removed from the surface again easily and without damage or residues. The second group is repositionable adhesives. Here a label that is already attached to a product can be easily removed from the surface and afterwards restuck in a different place. The third group is permanent adhesives which, as the name suggests, mean that labels that were attached using such adhesives can hardly be removed. Any attempt to do this will usually end with the destruction of the label or the surface to which it was attached. Today “dry” adhesives that are produced on acryl or silicon basis are often preferred for fixing labels. But traditional dextrine-based adhesives and adhesives that have to be moistened (with which we are all familiar from postage stamps) are still used.
Most adhesives only require slight pressure to fix a label firmly (pressure sensitive label adhesives, for short PSA). Heat activated adhesives develop their adhesion properties only when heat is applied. In the case of seafood products it is thus necessary to pay attention to the upper and lower temperature limits of the adhesives. Nearly all permanent and peelable adhesives maintain their adhesion down to at least -10°C. Freezer or frost-fix adhesives are particularly suited to applications in frozen environments since they can as a rule cope with temperatures as low as -40°C.