Pharmaceutical Packaging Interpack 2011: Packaging Industry Fights Back Against Phony Pharmaceuticals

Editor: Dr. Jörg Kempf

Making pharmaceutical packaging as safe and secure as possible is the declared goal of the exhibitors at this year’s Interpack. There are a number of ways of doing that, e.g. through the use of high-speed cameras during the packaging process, innovative labels or very gentle filling techniques.

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Track and Trace: Syringes are placed into nests which are packaged in tubs. Optima Group Pharma can print codes on these plastic boxes. (Picture: Optima Packaging Group)
Track and Trace: Syringes are placed into nests which are packaged in tubs. Optima Group Pharma can print codes on these plastic boxes. (Picture: Optima Packaging Group)

A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that even in regions which had been considered safe such as Europe and the US, 10% of all pharmaceuticals are counterfeits. The mail order business has the greatest vulnerability to criminal activity, and this segment is booming.

Market research firm ACNielsen reported that sales of prescription drugs obtainable only from pharmacies increased by a quarter last year. However it is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to tell the difference between legitimate mail order pharmacies and the illegal trade. Test purchases by ZL (German national pharmaceuticals laboratory) confirm that 50% of pharmaceuticals sold for example by illegal online pharmacies are counterfeits.


A patient protection law recently approved by the European Parliament mandates that packaging must be clearly marked and that a defined recall system must be in place for medicinal products that have already been distributed to patients. According to the legislation, safety features on the packaging provide one possible method of accomplishing that, for example a serialization number.

Using a Data Matrix Code

Additional information such as batch number, expiration date or serial number could be encoded in a Data Matrix Code to augment the GTIN (Global Trade Item Number). The code can be applied by the manufacturer, read throughout the distribution chain and scanned at the pharmacy before the product is handed over to the patient. The pharmacist can then check a database to verify the authenticity of the medication.

In this way, every product can be traced at every stage in the distribution chain including logistics service providers and wholesalers. Counterfeits that have surreptitiously entered the supply chain will be detected at the pharmacy if not before. This was demonstrated last year during a field test carried out by EFPIA (European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations). Over a period of four months, 25 pharmacies in Stockholm, Sweden tested a system designed to protect patients from counterfeit drugs. GS1 DataMatrix marking on the packaging enabled the pharmacists to verify the authenticity of the drugs and identify products that were past the expiration date or were subject to recall.

Nearly 100,000 packaged pharmaceutical products made by 14 manufacturers were handled during the test period. Since the beginning of the year, pharmaceuticals marketed in France must be marked with the GS1 DataMatrix.