Packaging Law and Legal Definition

There is a saying in the packaging industry to the effect that "everybody thinks he is an expert on the subject." The implication of this judgment is that, of course, "they don't know the half of it." The public is intensely exposed to packaging, and its members will of course have an opinion, indeed an informed opinion. At the same time packaging is a vast subject extending deep in one direction to very hidden and sophisticated areas of materials science, in another into the protection of public health and welfare; it is the pillar supporting at least three major industries (paper and board, plastics, and glass); it is fought over by people who want to use its labels for disclosure and those who want "truth in advertising"; it is a very important branch of marketing and also of design activities; it is in itself a large and expensive industrial activity sometimes separate from production, placed at its end, sometimes integrated into the manufacturing process; it has its major subdivision of portion packaging, packaging, and outer packaging or packing; everything rides on its pallets; it is an important aspect of transportation, warehousing, and distribution generally; the word is used symbolically to mean "the artful presentation" of something, such as the "packaging" of a celebrity; finally, spent packaging is the bulk of solid waste and carelessly discarded packaging that is the litter of the U.S.A.


Packaging is nothing new and predates modern times, but the form it takes is a direct reflection of settlement patterns, the reach of the economy, food preservation technology, and the nature of the transportation system. Before the modern era took serious hold after World War I, only a few products were packaged. Canning dates back to the days of Napoleon, some of whose formations, marching into Russia, received canned goods in newly invented tin-lined metal cans. Other long-lasting products (what today we call long shelf-life products), like hard biscuits and cookies, were packaged; chocolates and candies came in fancy boxes as well. Perfumes were an early and highly visible packaged product. All of these, and others, from the very beginning, bore brand identifications. Many small products like buttons and needles were prepackaged. Packaging initially served the needs and convenience of the seller; the package itself became a container in the consumer's home. Urban settlement was dense. Refrigeration was not yet wide-spread. Food shopping took place daily. People took milk or oil cans to the store to have them filled; preserves came in glass that could be recycled; paper packaging was used, often made on the spot from sheets by the merchant; the "shopping basket" itself was the generic carrier of groceries. Long distance packing used to be in crates fashioned of wood. Of that technology today only the wood pallet survives.

Packaging technology saw intense development immediately before and during World War II in efforts to supply the fighting forces—and not just those of the U.S. Mass distribution of packaged products began and then continued thereafter. Sturdy Kraft paper, two outer layers reinforced by a corrugated inner layer (the corrugated box) took over bulk packaging. Milk began to transit from recyclable glass bottles to paper containers initially coated with wax and then, after the war, by hot melt plastics, a combination of wax and plastics. Plastics saw an immense expansion in the 1950s and 60s; polyethylene became a staple of flexible packaging, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) became a standard form of transparent packaging, and polyurethane foam plastics came to dominate a field that had once belong to pressed paper pulp. Composite materials (laminates) became possible as a consequence of the emergence of high-performance adhesives. Packaging grew stronger, lighter, and easier to process by machine. Aluminum entered the beverage market as aluminum cans and also as easy-open closures for steel cans. As mass production developed in the underlying materials, and forming and packaging machinery became ever more affordable, many products not heretofore packaged were now "shrink-wrapped" onto sheets of cardboard, bagged, and boxed. In parallel with the physical development of packaging, companies exploited the surfaces of packaging to print their brand names and messages, a process aided by rapidly advancing printing technology and improved inks. The potential of using the package itself as a means of differentiation or a means of delivering convenience (the single-cup tea bag, the single-serving ketchup package) rapidly created a brand-new dimension in packaging. Packaging and marketing began to merge. Packaging grew in total volume to such an extent that by the 1970s it began to attract government attention as a new cost imposed on waste disposal systems. Discarded packaging—particularly after cans took over beer and soft drink distribution from recyclable bottles—produced deposit legislation aimed at curbing litter.

By the 1970s packaging had reached maturity and has since evolved less dramatically and visibly. However, the underlying materials sciences are still producing ever better and ever more specialized and differentiated packaging. As the early 2000s advance, the protective capacities of packaging are improving so that some heretofore refrigerated products are available on ordinary shelves and others will likely follow. New composites are announced every year. Competition between materials continues; costlier materials like metals, paper, and glass are everywhere pressed by plastics; this trend, however, may reverse if the price of oil (the source of plastics) keeps climbing. Strange and wonderful extensions of the packaging-marketing synthesis are being talked about, like imprinting fresh fruit with messages adhering to microscopically thin coatings….

The continuing evolution of packaging at a technical level serves as an indicator that, despite much hype about the package as a promotional vehicle, the predominant function of packaging in the economy is product protection first, convenience next. The consumer also values objective information. Functionally, the hype comes last.


Packaging divides into bulk, product, and portion packaging. Bulk packaging takes the form of cardboard boxes (much more rarely crates) and the pallets that carry these; it is intended to protect and is rarely ever used to advertise (except the maker of the box itself); even automobiles have bulk packaging in the form of protective sheets attached to windshields and other external features. Product packaging typically has two roles: protection and communication. The communication may be promotional, a service to the user (menus, preparation instructions), or a labeling requirement. The chief purpose of portion packaging is to deliver convenience—although such packaging also carries a message.

The producer needs to balance various aspects of a packaging system. In roughly the following order of importance, these are product protection, good production fit, low cost, and exploitability for marketing. To be sure, the package itself, first of all, must meet whatever regulations apply. Product protection includes basic product integrity and includes as long a shelf life as possible. The producer will prefer a system that permits rapid and efficient production with the lowest packaging equipment and packaging material costs. When given a choice, the surfaces should display the producer's messages as attractively as possible.

From the consumer's point of view, the ideal package will be easy to store, to open, and to close. It should be safe. It should carry warnings. If the product requires assembly or instructions to use, information should be present, and it should be clear. Consumers, of course, use brand identifications to choose products, but their strongest interest is in objective information carried on the labels, one reason why Congress has moved, in response, to require such labeling. People want to know what they are buying: Is it wool or polyester? How long will this half-and-half last? Can I use this as a diabetic? All else equal, the consumer also will prefer a package that can be reused in some way.


It is clear from the discussion thus far that packaging, for the business owner, touches all aspects of the business. All depending on the product, of course, it may involve significant engineering work to ensure fit with the production process, satisfy legal requirements regarding safety, yet incorporate the aesthetics chosen for product promotion. Packaging often involves aggregation of multiple units into one package. The optimal package cost for the right aggregate has to be priced properly to achieve desired volume while fitting vendors' shelf space. Product aesthetics must accommodate legal labeling requirements. Different modes of packaging will deliver higher and lower out-of-pocket costs but may produce harder-to-predict sales volumes.

These problems tend to sort out reasonably well because a great variety of analogous cases exist in the market to suggest which general model to follow—or which edge of which envelope to push. Packaging is a large and sophisticated industry, and the small business owner will be able to identify both package designers and suppliers of packaging equipment easily enough. Designers typically know the equipment available; conversely, packaging equipment suppliers can recommend designers they work with routinely.


The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 regulates packaging and labeling. The act requires that every product package specify on its "principal display label"—that part of the label most likely to be seen by consumers—the following information: 1) the product type; 2) the producer or processor's name and location; 3) the quantity (if applicable); and 4) the number and size of servings (if applicable). Furthermore, several restrictions apply to the way that the label is displayed. For example, mandatory copy required by the act must be in boldface type. Also, if the company is not listed in the telephone book, the manufacturer's or importer's street address must be displayed.

Foods, toys, drugs, cosmetics, furs, and textiles require special labeling. Under the act, the label for edible products, for example, must provide sodium content if other nutritional information is also shown. Labels must also show ingredients, in descending order from the one of highest quantity to the one of least quantity. Certain food items, such as beef, may also be required to display qualitative "grade labels" or inspection labels. Likewise, "informative labeling" may be required for products such as home appliances. Informative label requirements mandate information about use, care, performance capability, life expectancy, safety precautions, gas mileage, or other factors. Certain major home appliances, for example, must provide the estimated cost of running each make and model for one year at average utility rates.

Congress passed significant new labeling legislation, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990; the act became effective in the mid-1990s. This act is intended primarily to discourage misleading labeling related to health benefits of food items. Specifically, many package labels subjectively claimed that their contents were "low-fat," "high-fiber," or possessed some other health virtue when the facts indicated otherwise. Basically, the new laws require most food labels to specify values such as calorie and cholesterol content, fat and saturated fat percentages, and sodium levels.


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                             Darnay, ECDI