The biggest-selling snack packagers seem to be standing still while store-brand snack packagers and packagers in other categories are leaping ahead.

The biggest-selling snack packagers seem to be standing still while store-brand snack packagers and packagers in other categories are leaping ahead.

In the snack category as a whole, in spite of being hard to open and impossible to reclose without a chip clip, flat-when-empty pouches have become ubiquitous. Like pigeons, they are everywhere that any seller can find a space for them. There are so many single-serve pouches pre-priced at 99 cents that some consumers wonder if there is a colossal price-fixing arrangement, even though there are almost as many large packages with large prices to match.

Large or small, pre-priced or not, the graphics, materials and colors that differentiate the brands and flavors run the gamut but lose their points of difference-blurring into a thousand multi-colored squares shouting, “See me! Try me! Buy me!”

They are so commonplace that they may be reaching a tipping point. Besides being propped up on grocery shelves and checkout counters, they are clipped to hanging fixtures in supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores, lunch counters, airports, train stations and big-box stores. They are sticking out of backpacks, squished into lunchboxes and lying around on desks and conference tables. They are filling vending machines. Once they are lying down, their brand identity is all but lost.

Snack chips are no longer just for snacking, either. They have come to play a role in American meals as well. Besides being used as the base for nachos, pita chips, corn chips and potato chips find extra life as ingredients and toppings in salads, casseroles, meat loaf and more.

In spite of the success of Sun Chips and a few veggie-based chips, chips have become the essence of junk food that is defined by heavy loads of salt and fat and few nutrients. The fact that their packaging is inconvenient and frequently annoying may actually be useful-consumers are so distracted by difficulties with the package that maybe they don’t think about the product inside.

Here and there, safety concerns are popping up about bagged snacks and other foods that are eaten with fingers instead of forks, spoons or chop sticks. At a time when many consumers are worried about things like salmonella in their food-and are sanitizing their hands, door handles, shopping carts, treadmills, turnstiles and anything else they touch that comes into contact with other hands and fingers-snacks eaten out-of-hand are raising a few red flags.

The single-serving pouches are bad enough-the same set of fingers reach into the bag time after time, making sure that the germs reach every last chip. What’s the big deal? The germs belong to the one user. But think about what happens when a larger pouch is shared by multiple users reaching in and out and in and out again. It’s at least as bad as, and possibly worse than, double dipping (which means dipping your chip or chicken finger into common sauce or dip, taking a bite, and then dipping again).

I don’t think that consumers are going to give up chips in droves because they aren’t sanitary to eat. In fact, some consumers think that worrying about such trivia is only giving fodder to crazies and members of the food police.

Other consumers feel differently. Many are washing their hands more often than ever because they have learned that their own hands are means for spreading many dangerous things. It’s something packagers of snacks should consider.

I don’t think it’s time for snacks to be sold with tweezers and clips built into their packages. I do think that the role of snacks in spreading germs is a concern that could grow into an issue anytime there is a breakout of something attributed to a few bags of chips.

An upcoming conference, theGlobal Pouch Forum, advertises that it is making safety concerns a highlight: “A special addition this year will be an extended session highlighting food safety. Among the topics to be discussed in this critical area will be greater consumer understanding and attitudes toward safety; how consumer goods producers approach safety concerns; and the role pouches and flexible packaging play in ensuring packages are safe.” I hope that packagers will consider the way consumers use their packages and not just the safety of the packages themselves.

It’s always interesting to see who is at the leading edge of change and innovation. I started out this column by saying that the biggest-selling snack packagers are standing still. That’s mostly true, but not completely. Nabisco is making packaging progress with a new package type for snack crackers that resembles an old-fashioned cookie bag: It has a strip of resealable tape with instructions on how it should be peeled off and reapplied to keep the product fresh. I haven’t heard enough from consumers to say that this package has hit a home run, but it’s a significant improvement and definitely a new look.

More exciting, and certainly more talked about by consumers, are the big plastic jugs that have become popular in club stores and now appear on the shelves of your neighborhood supermarkets, filled with private-label brands like America’s Choice.

These resealable see-through jugs are easy to open and reclose, and reusable for lots of things including toys, nuts, sewing supplies, batteries and nails. The downside is that they don’t fit on small shelves. And what do you do with a bunch of them? Remember Le Menu frozen dinners from Campbell Soup Co.? The package included a round, reusable and dishwasher-friendly plastic plate. Besides finding the meals expensive, consumers stopped buying them after they had accumulated two dozen plates, which were just too big, too nice and too reusable to throw away.

At a time when consumers are questioning brand values in their efforts to cut costs, packaging for more expensive national-brand snacks should perform better than packaging for lower priced, mostly store brand, alternatives. Controlled openings that let users shake out the portion size they expect to eat would be a step in the right direction, and would help to reduce waste and germ-spreading reach-ins.