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Labels & Labeling

Lee LaChance, MRP Manager, Creative Labels of Vermont, Inc.
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) defines a “label” as “a display of written, printed, or graphic matter upon the immediate container of any article, and labeling as labels and other written, printed, or graphic matter (1) upon any article or any of its containers or wrappers, or (2) accompanying such article.”
Although the scope of the FFDCA definition of “label” includes packaging, this chapter focuses on pressure sensitive and non pressure sensitive labels, tags, and inserts typically applied or attached to packaging.
Quite often, labels, and the manner in which they will be applied to your container(s), are the last things you think about during the development of your product. As you grow, your needs change. Labels you used to print in your desktop printer with your name, address, phone number, and product name simply don't cut it anymore. You don't have the time to print them, they don't compete in the market place, and you find you have to print more information than you can fit on them.
There are basically three major considerations that apply to labels:
  • Performance
  • Compliance
  • Appearance
Performance technically involves the way a label is engineered while compliance and appearance involve the way a label is designed.
If labels (including tags and inserts) do not perform, they are not worth whatever was paid for them. They must:
  • Stick or fit on the surface on which they are applied;
  • Withstand the environmental conditions under which they are exposed; 
  • Feed, dispense, or print properly in automatic labeling equipment or printers; and
  • Facilitate the need to write or stamp upon, reposition or remove, seal or reseal, tear or not tear, address environmental concerns, etc.
Label printers (converters) are people whose job is to address all of the above simultaneously in order to produce labels they think will perform. Whether or not labels actually do perform under your specific conditions is a determination you or your co-packer will need to make.
The type of surface being labeled, whether or not the label is to be permanent, removable, or repositionable, and the environment under which the labeled product will be exposed, are all factors that will need to be evaluated to determine the type of adhesive required.
The shape of the container or area being labeled will impact the size and shape of the label necessary in order to assure a proper fit.  Labels that do not fit properly can wrinkle, bubble or lift, and pose problems during application.
Exposure to moisture, hot or cold temperatures, expansion or contraction of the surface labeled, whether or not the label needs to be written or printed on, or offer evidence of tampering, all contribute, to not only what type of adhesive is required, but whether or not the label itself should be paper or film, varnished or laminated.
Performance plays the largest role in determining the cost of labels.
Labels need to comply with various federal and state laws and regulations. These requirements range from basic federal food labeling laws and regulations to those that are specific to certain types of food, such as meat, poultry, or alcoholic beverages. If you are a member of certain organizations or associations, you may need to comply with their industry standards. Large retailers will require UPC barcodes.
There is a wide variety of information that must be provided to the consumer.  These include ingredient lists, nutritional information, allergen statements, state deposit requirements (for beverages), government warning statements, contact information, among other things. There is also information than cannot be included on labels, like unverified health claims, for example.
Compliance issues impact label cost because you often have no choice but to include information on the label along with what you really want on the label, such as your logo, address, phone number, story line, and graphics.. This often means that the label needs to be a certain size (if it fits the container), or a secondary label is required in order to ensure all the information is present. Occasionally, compliance requires that the label or label material be constructed in a certain way, such as when the label needs to provide evidence of tampering.
In general, all food products must be labeled. Reference is made to the Principal Display Panel, or PDP, and the Information Panel. The PDP is considered to be the part of the label most likely to be displayed or seen by the consumer. The Information Panel is immediately contiguous and to the right of the PDP.
The PDP must contain the type of product as well as the Net Weight of the packaged product. This information must in and of itself be in compliance with food labeling laws. The Information Panel contains nutritional information as well as ingredients and allergen statements, and may contain the UPC barcode as well as information about the manufacturer.
Most regulatory agencies will allow you to present a drawing or “proof” of what you want the label to look like before they are printed or applied to your product.
For detailed information concerning food labeling requirements, you may want do a Google search for “food labeling”.  Among the results will be:
When designing, or having your label designed, consider features of the label that are mandatory in order to be in compliance, and work around those features.
Combining what you want your label to look like with what you have to have on your label can be both challenging and rewarding.  It often involves the opinion of several individuals and/or professional designers. Too often, a great deal of work goes into designing the label before the label converter sees it. As you finalize the design, you (or your designer) should establish a level of expectation as to what the label will look like (hopefully on your product). Then, you will need to ask a label converter for prices!
Depending on the label converter, it may be more cost effective to print with PMS colors in addition to, or instead of, process colors. Six colors generally cost more than two. If you are designing labels for more than one product, or multiple sized containers of the same product, you should consider whether or not the same size label will work and whether any of the information is common or generic to all labels. If considering separate front and back labels, work with the label converter to determine whether or not they will run together, either on the same roll or separately. You may want to consider having labels pre-printed, and adding variable information yourself, on demand as needed.
The actual material and protective finish (e.g.,varnish or laminate, matte or glossy) selected in order for the labels to perform often alter the overall appearance. The use of a colored or exotic label material or the desire for metallic inks will also change the appearance of a label. These cannot be simulated during the proofing process, during which time personal expectations are developing. Different print technologies render different results. For example, offset and silkscreen technologies provide different results than flexographic, digital, or foilstamp technologies.
Regardless of color or technology, final appearance decisions are typically based on what is observed either on a computer monitor or printed out of a desktop inkjet or laser printer. Appearances can vary for a number of reasons Usually appearances change once an actual label is printed, when affixed to a filled product container, or viewed under different lighting conditions.
Appearance is important, but it is also subjective. The best way to successfully achieve what you are looking for is to establish a working relationship with the designer and the label converter very early in the process.
Working with a Label Converter
Here are some questions to consider to help you prepare to discuss your label needs with any label converter:
  • What surface will the label(s) be applied to (glass, plastic, corrugated)?
  • Is the surface to be labeled smooth, curved, tapered, moist, or dry?
  • At what temperature will the labels be applied (this is the application temperature)?
  • What range of temperatures will the labeled product be subjected to during its life (this is the service temperature)?
  • Do the labels need to be written on or imprinted after they are affixed to the surface?
  • Are the labels going to be permanent, or will they be removed or repositioned?
  • Will the labels be hand or machine applied?
  • What is the label size and shape?
  • What will be the number of print colors?
  • What is the quantity desired?
Label converters refer to label dimensions as the distance across the web by that along the web".  The web is the label carrier or liner. There is a difference between a 3 by 4 label and a 4 by 3 label. The placement of the label on the package or container, and whether the label will be applied by hand or by machine, determines which edge is the leading edge of the label as it comes off a roll.
Because information printed on the label can be orientated in a variety of ways, it is important to establish copy direction, or which way the information is positioned within the label as it relates to the position of the label on the web. There are eight possible copy (or unwind) directions. The four most common are those with the labels wound facing out on the roll:
  • Copy 1: Top of the label comes off first.
  • Copy 2: Bottom of the label comes off first.
  • Copy 3: Right side of the label comes off first.
  • Copy 4: Left side of the label comes off first.
Copy directions 5, 6, 7, and 8 are identical to 1-4, except that labels are wound facing in.
Label converters will provide copy/unwind charts upon request, and usually refer to copy/unwind direction during the proofing process.
Here are some things you should expect from a label converter:
  • Free consultation and if applicable, cooperation with designer and co-packer;
  • Material samples to test on your product and in your specific application;
  • Dielines of actual size/shape of proposed label(s);
  • Proofs for content and position (not for color); and
  • If warranted, the opportunity to participate in a press check or press proofs.
Here are some things the label converter should expect from you:
  • Open lines of communication between you, your designer, and your co-packer;
  • Proper testing (by you or your co-packer) and evaluation of material samples;
  • Careful review and approval of dielines and proofs;
  • If available, (as early in the process as possible) color targets or previously printed matter; and
  • If participating in a press check, promptness and a sample of the product(s) being labeled.
Just as you are competing in the marketplace, so are label converters. Most specialize in niche markets. By finding one who specializes in the specialty food industry, a great deal of time can be saved. There is already an understanding of what is required in order to produce labels that perform and are in compliance with applicable regulations. Those familiar with your industry are familiar with current trends.
For a more in depth guide to labels and labeling, read my book I Need Labels.Now What? [Email Lee LaChance at] The book also offers numerous tips and a glossary of terms used in the label industry.