March 24, 2022 

Printing With Food Safe Industrial Ink: Marking Basics and Best Practices

The use of food safe industrial ink is sometimes required to mark specific food items with codes such as expiration dates.

Of all industrial printing applications, perhaps the most visible form is found on food packaging. If you can find a food-containing box, bottle, or pouch on a store shelf, chances are that you will find at least one printed code on its packaging, whether it’s an expiration date, lot code, serial number, or a similar traceable marking. 

For most food products, these codes can be made with your average substrate-appropriate continuous inkjet (CIJ) or thermal inkjet (TIJ) ink. However, there are many instances in which food packaging companies are required to use formulas that are specifically deemed “food safe” when packaging their products. Most commonly, food safe industrial inks are required when a code is likely to make contact with the food product itself.

Given that both standard inks and food safe formulas are frequently used throughout the food packaging industry, those new to the field often have questions regarding which kind of ink to choose, including the following:

  • What makes an ink formula “food safe?”
  • How do I know if I should be using food safe industrial inks on my products?
  • How do I find ink that works for me?

If you’ve recently asked yourself these same questions, read below to find the answers.

What Exactly is Food Safe Industrial Ink?

Before addressing how to use food safe industrial ink, it’s important to understand the meaning of the term.

For those who are new to or unfamiliar with the food packaging industry, there’s a common misconception that “food safe industrial ink” is a legal designation. Although this assumption is incorrect, it does make sense. After all, government bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have published numerous acts dictating label standards for chemical products, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, and more. 

However, no governing body is responsible for verifying whether or not an ink formula is “food safe.” Instead, various governing bodies around the world maintain lists of chemicals that are considered safe and unsafe for food packaging. Therefore, it is up to ink manufacturers to make sure that their “food safe” inks do not contain any prohibited substances, and food companies/co-packers need to verify that the inks are in line with any regulations and industry standards. 

For instance, while the FDA does not specifically verify whether or not a formula is “food safe,” it does have regulations dictating what kind of substances can be applied to food products at large. Companies should certify that their ink formulas comply with at least one of the following guidelines:

  1. All ingredients are approved for use under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
  2. All ingredients are classified as “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS) under the purview of the FDA.
  3. All ingredients are permitted according to regulation 21 CFR 175, 176, 177, 178.
  4. The formula is permitted through a successful Food Contact Notification.

If goods are packaged and sold outside of the U.S., the package must comply with local regulations, such as the EU’s Good Manufacturing Practices or Switzerland’s Ordinance on Materials and Articles.

When is Food Safe Industrial Ink a Necessity?

Countless food products are produced every year, and most of them don’t require the use of food safe ink.


Food safe formulas only become necessary when the ink is liable to make direct contact with the food itself. Therefore, food packages like cereal boxes and pickle jars can be coded with standard formulas because the food isn’t going to make contact with the ink. Conversely, if a manufacturer is packaging fresh meat, eggs, or pre-made salads, the ink is likely to touch the food, making food safe formulas a necessity. 

Beyond instances of visible direct contact, food packaging companies need to be wary of the following issues:

  1. Ink migration, i.e. ink passing through the substrate and making contact with the product
  2. Gas-phase transfer, i.e. volatile airborne ink particles infiltrating the package
  3. Invisible set-off, i.e. ink particles moving from the printed side of the packaging to the food-facing side undetected during printing

If any of the above problems are liable to occur, it is essential to use food safe ink formulas or else risk the possibility of expensive recalls or possible legal action.

Food Safe Industrial Ink Options

Food safe ink formulas are required for any application in which packaging ink may make direct or indirect contact with a food item. In general, food safe inks will be water-based and void of UV-reactive elements. Although some ethanol-based and low-migration UV formulas are acceptable, MEK-based inks are not. 

Based on these parameters, many companies turn towards eco-friendly, water-based inks to meet their food safe formula needs. Eco-friendly inks don’t contain harmful substances prohibited by government regulations, and they are often compatible with a variety of materials. 

As always, when picking an ink for your application needs, you should pay special attention to:

To ensure your ink choices are viable for the application, we highly suggest speaking with an expert before buying.

Want to learn more about food safe industrial ink and other popular ink options? Stay connected to C&M Digest by subscribing to our newsletter. With information on hardware, formulas, and other important marking topics, our newsletter will keep you updated on the latest industry developments. To get in touch with us about possible collaborations or ideas for coverage, contact us today.

C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

Receive C&M Articles Directly to Your Inbox

Keep up with the latest coding and marking coverage by signing up for the C&M newsletter.

Search Our Blog

Contact Us Today

Have any thoughts on our coverage? Want to request an article? Looking to collaborate with our team? Fill out the form below to let us know!
Contact Us
C&M © 2021 Privacy Policy