Counterfeiting in the luxury food and drinks industry has long been a multi-million pound industry. The pandemic added to these pressures, with high demand for premium products coupled with interrupted supply chains and fewer physical audits amplifying the risks of opportunists and illicit bootleggers taking advantage of the disruptions.

Packaging specialist at Sumitomo (SHI) Demag UK Ashlee Gough examines how specialist closure and thin wall moulders are applying the latest injection moulding precision and In Mould Labelling (IML) techniques to step up their fight against the creative food and drink fakers to mitigate risks and safeguard brand integrity.

In a recent survey of senior food and drink execs by assurance specialists The Lloyd’s Register, only a third admitted to vetting suppliers against a recognised GFSI standard. One in five declared that no checks were made as part of sourcing decisions. Yet, despite these prevalent risks – 97 percent stated that they’d been affected by food fraud in the last 12 months – few in the industry regard authenticating products as their highest priority.

Against this backdrop, the UK food and drink market remains one of the worst affected by counterfeiting. Deliberately packaged to deceive consumers, the Food Standard Agency’s National Food Crime Unit estimates that the combination of adulteration, substitution, theft, misrepresentation, illegal processing, waste diversion and document fraud costs £11.97bn per annum.

Seizures of counterfeit products provide a good indication of the scale of the problem. In 2020, Operation OPSON IX seized 12 000 tonnes of illegal and potentially harmful products, including 1.2m litres of alcohol.

In a converted effort to crackdown on groups profiting from illicit versions of branded spirits and premium foods, manufacturers are making labels more difficult to copy and bottles harder to refill. “One way to counteract counterfeiting and product tampering is through the innovative design of packaging that cannot be easily copied,” highlights Ashlee.

“Until recently, this may have involved putting shrink or foil sleeve around a luxury drink brand, for example. Closure moulders especially are stepping up their efforts and investing in dedicated cells to produce high quality and anti-refill closures made up of a number of complex parts.” Due to the intricacy of these closures, moulding precision is paramount.

Significant investment in high quality tooling, automation, machinery and expertise can be another major deterrent, highlights Ashlee. “Realistically, few counterfeit operators would make the level of investment required to replicate this level of technical precision.”

Other overt packaging methods to deter counterfeits include concealing unique identifiers, such as a QR code, holograms or tags within the IML.  While these can assist with track and tracing, Ashlee claims that they only really help to validate the origin of a container and tend to be more widely deployed by luxury food, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and wellbeing brands.

“To outsmart quick-witted counterfeiters, manufacturers may need to deploy several tactics simultaneously to prevent brand value being diluted, including tamper evident bands, secure closures, snap buttons, barcoded labels and batch codes, and even chemical markers.”

For packaging moulders producing thin walled containers, caps and closures by the millions, cost effectiveness remains vital. Sumitomo (SHI) Demag’s El-Exis SP range typically achieves between three and five percent more productivity when benchmarked against other packaging machines on the market. Now in its fourth generation and always aligned to evolving market trends, the EL-Exis SP series is designed to withstand the higher stresses and injection pressures that are so critical in achieving repeatability in closures and thin walled packaging products, while maintaining comparable mechanical properties. Centralised monitoring of real time machine performance and energy consumption is equally critical to reducing machine downtime.