Balancing food safety and sustainability
Our groceries and daily essentials did not always come in the pretty-looking packets or cartons that we now take for granted. Almost a century ago in Europe, and most other parts of the world, groceries were sold loose over the counter or in paper wraps, while milk came in glass bottles or metal cans. As the story goes —Swedish inventor Ruben Rausing, while studying at Columbia University, became enthralled with the idea of food packaging in America. On returning to Sweden, he started manufacturing dry food cartons and began work on developing less cumbersome milk packages that could help transport food safely over long distances.
One day while watching his wife make sausages by tying off the ends, he wondered whether a system akin to that could be used for packing milk. That’s when Tetra Pak’s tetrahedron-shaped carton for milk was born. It was a ground-breaking idea—keeping milk germ-free and fresh without refrigeration. The idea remains revolutionary even today.
As the world deals with challenges of food safety and massive food wastage and spoilage, the need for safe and sustainable packaging solutions is bigger than ever. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations says that almost 1.3 billion tons, or one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted per year throughout the supply chain. In addition, the World Health Organisation says that about 600 million (almost 1 in 10 people in the world) fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years.
This is where the role of aseptic technology becomes relevant. Aseptic technology involves heating or boiling food to destroy microorganisms that can cause disease, spoilage or fermentation. Tetra Pak’s aseptic carton packages keep food fresh, safe and flavourful for at least six months without the need for preservatives. They also preserve the nutrition of food. In addition, the cartons are made primarily from paperboard, and require no refrigeration during storage or distribution.
Food safety — a fundamental right
Food safety has been a serious public health concern for India, which also faces the challenge of feeding a large population spread over a vast geography. As per the United Nations, India has about 195 million undernourished people, and it shares a quarter of the global hunger burden. Nearly 4 out of 10 children in India are not meeting their full human potential because of chronic under-nutrition or stunting, according to the UN. And added to all of this is the problem of food contamination. The struggle is to not just provide food to people, but to provide ‘safe food’.
“Food safety is not just for the rich but is a fundamental right for every individual in India,” says Ritika Samaddar, regional head, department of clinical nutrition & dietetics, Max HealthCare. She was speaking at a panel discussion titled The Circle of Trust — Strengthening India’s Food Safety network, during a Tetra Pak leadership seminar in Gurgaon to celebrate 30 years of Tetra Pak in India.
However, and in addition, the country is also grappling with problems of compliance to food standards. “In terms of implementation of law, compliance of food standards by the food businesses, understanding by the consumer, we are far behind. I think a lot of work is required to be done,” Pawan Kumar Agarwal, Chief Executive Officer, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a co-panelist in the same discussion added.
The supply chain infrastructure in India is also poor and causes the wastage of millions of tonnes of food every year. Take, for example—milk. India is the largest producer of milk in the world, but a huge percentage of the milk is wasted due to lack of adequate storage. For countries like India, with large populations, unsuitable weather conditions, or inadequate distribution chains, aseptic technology is a marvel. It is frugal, and ensures that food can safely reach areas where it wouldn’t reach otherwise. In India, Tetra Pak has helped some of the biggest brands like Amul, Nestle, Karnataka Milk Federation, etc take their products to the farthest corners of the country by eliminating the need for a refrigerated cold chain as well as at the point of consumption.
The big challenge in food safety is the lack of awareness among the masses about what they can call ‘safe food’ and how to ensure that their family only consumes safe food. Tetra Pak has invested significantly over the years in raising awareness about food safety, working with different stakeholders like FSSSAI, AIMA and more through. One such campaign has been—Right to keep food safe—which was aimed at educating women to make informed choices when it comes to food and nutrition. The company also runs a Safe For Sure campaign to create awareness about the benefits of Ultra-high temperature processing (UHT) milk, assuring the customers that the presence of the Tetra Pak logo on a carton is akin to a symbol of trust and means that the milk inside is safe to drink. More recently, Tetra Pak joined hands with FSSAI on their Safe and Nutritious Food campaign that aims to educate children and their families about the benefits of a healthy diet and consuming safe food.
Protecting people and futures
“Our promise is to protect food, to protect the communities that we work with and society at large, to protect the future of our customers and the environment. We realized long ago that there is a need to accord each of these commitments the highest priority; but conversely, we need to balance them as well – because no single commitment can be carried through at the expense of the other. We have also come to recognize that the only way to achieve this is through collaboration, innovation, determination and a strong sense of obligation across the entire company,” says Kandarp Singh, Managing Director Tetra Pak South Asia Markets.
Tetra Pak has over the past 30 years worked on creating sustainable solutions to the unique problems in India. The company remains committed to sustainability and has high-impact initiatives to minimize the impact of its operations on the environment. It’s ‘Go Green with Tetra Pak’ initiative is promoting recycling of Tetra Pak cartons at Sahakari Bhandar and Reliance Fresh retail chains in Mumbai. Since the inception of the initiative in 2010, it has resulted in the collection of over 2,000,000 used Tetra Pak cartons which have been recycled into more than 200 school desks for lesser-privileged schools, Tetra Pak says. Go Green with Tetra Pak has also been featured in the Limca Book of Records, 2013.
In 2017, the company has launched ‘Cartons Le Aao, Classroom Banao’ a campaign under the aegis of Go Green. Spread over six weeks, the aim was to collect and recycle over one lakh cartons into school benches for underprivileged schools through this campaign. The campaign includes a digital film, on-ground and in-store activity, social media, in-cinema, and radio. To take the campaign message to Mumbaikars across the city, Tetra Pak also tied up with the Dabbawalla association as part of the campaign.
At the launch of this campaign, Manisha Mhaisker, principal secretary, Urban Development Department, Maharashtra Government said, “I must congratulate Tetra Pak for taking this initiative. The initiative is so perfect that they have completed the whole cycle. I would like to assure you whatever support and coordination you would need. Government of Maharashtra is completely and totally committed to taking this recycling to every home in Maharashtra.”
Collaboration with Indian Army
One of the most interesting and inspiring sustainability initiatives of Tetra Pak is their collaboration with the Indian Army. Keeping sensitive ecosystem and biodiversity at the forefront, the Indian Army units together with Tetra Pak have undertaken the initiative of collecting used cartons for recycling. Army units across various locations in North and North East India have set up compacting plants specifically for used Tetra Pak cartons. The cartons are collected after consumption of milk by Army, compressed into bales in the compacting plant and transported easily to a recycling plant. At many locations, the compacting plant has been thoughtfully established at such places that the local government bodies, NGOs and ecologically concerned citizens can also send their used cartons, which can be responsibly disposed of by the Army.
Tetra Pak as part of its environmental initiative has so far donated these compacting machines to 10 contingents including at Rajauri (J&K), Rampur (Himachal), Gangktok (Sikkim), Dinjan (Assam), Kargil (J&K), Leh (J&K), Batote (Jammu), Hamre (Kupwara) and Leimakhong (Manipur).
As part of this, a compacting plant has been set up at Haiderbeg a central location, so that the local government bodies, NGOs and ecologically concerned populace can also send their empty Tetra Pak cartons, which can be responsibly disposed-of through this effort. Compacted bales will be sent from here to Khatima (Uttarakhand) for recycling into paper and other useful products.
“Milk in Tetra Pak cartons is authorized to troops as part of their entitled ration. Approximately 45 Lac cartons in one litre get utilized in 15 corps every year. So far, there is no mechanism to recycle these cartons and they are disposed-of locally. CIF Kilo, therefore, took upon itself the task to collect and recycle the cartons, with support from Tetra Pak who has helped set up the necessary recycling infrastructure,” said an Indian Army representative at the inauguration of a compacting plant set up by CIF Kilo at Haiderbeg in J&K.
Balancing food safety and sustainability is, in the end, a mission shared by all stakeholders from the farm to the table – including producers, government, the food industry, and the consumer. Over its 30 years in India, Tetra Pak has not just re-imagined its products and technologies to address these challenges, but also ensured, through frequent and informed dialogue with its extensive network of partners and consumers, that the conversation around quality and sustainability does not lose steam.