How can active food packaging help us avoid waste and improve food safety? | Article

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Packaging Europe frequently reports active packaging solutions that prevent food waste. However, it is fair to say that a large number of them never reach commercial scale. Andrew Manly, Communications Director of AIPIA, looks at the bottlenecks and offers his thoughts on what more could be done to help these innovations see the light of day.

We are constantly told that 30% of the food produced in the world is never consumed. This can be attributed to different things in different regions. But, of course, in Europe and North America, most food waste happens at the end of the supply chain – at the logistics/warehousing company, at the retailer or at home.

Yet several “active” packaging technologies are available to inhibit the growth of bacteria, delay ripening, or remove “bad actors” such as oxygen from packaging, in order to extend the shelf life of proteins and products. So, are these solutions adopted? And if they are, how come we don’t see more evidence of it?

There is certainly a lot of activity in the development of flexible packaging with properties to inhibit microbial or bacterial growth. The AIPIA Newsletter has regularly reported on numerous research and development projects in universities or technical institutes that show promising results.

In particular, the focus seems to be on nanotechnology combined with cellulose or fibers derived from anything from durian fruit skins to bamboo to produce a “naturally derived” material that not only inhibits insects, but is also compostable, degradable or even edible. But do any of them see the light of day as a commercially viable product?

Based on the experience of AIPIA’s involvement in the NanoPack project, there is a bumpy road to full commercial production. The three-year project successfully produced an antimicrobial film based on halloycite nanotubes and essential oils from herbs such as oregano. The final film has been shown to inhibit mold growth in bread by at least 3 weeks, increase the marketability of fresh cherries by 13%, and extend the shelf life of yellow cheese by at least an additional four days.

But to market this flexible film, as well as all the others in development, requires approval from EFSA, the European Food Standards Agency, and this process can take so long that almost all commercial cases go away. . Yet we need products like this to help save food and protect consumers from harmful contamination. So what does EFSA do? If it takes 2-3 years to get approved, and of course such things need to be checked, then you need to ask if the agency is fit for purpose.

Of course, there are well-established inhibitors on the market, the best known being silver. For example, silver nitrate is well known in medical circles as an antimicrobial agent. But the metal contained in a flexible packaging material makes its recycling very difficult, if not impossible.

And the effectiveness of silver as an antimicrobial agent is variable according to some reports. On a more positive note, graphene has been proven to contain good antimicrobial properties, as well as being recyclable. But, like silver, it is expensive. There are now more economical and environmentally friendly active packaging solutions.

As for gas sweeping/flushing, it has been around for years in one form or another. I remember a present BBC Breakfast Time presenter expressing his abhorrence that biscuits and cakes were gas-flushed with nitrogen to keep them fresh longer, leading one to wonder what planet she came from. MAP has been around for years, we now have other more nuanced products that can remove oxygen to slow spoilage and maintain condition, or inhibit ethylene production to slow ripening. They all seem to work very well and are apparently very profitable.

My questions are: Do food producers use these solutions? If so, how? and if not, why not? Consumers these days certainly don’t like things “added” to their food. But as we found out with NanoPack (who undertook extensive consumer consultation) once it was explained that it would save food and protect it from harm, they were all for it!

So why don’t food producers and distributors rush to adopt these solutions and shout about them? After all, you can’t see most of them because they are gases, masterbatch additives, or coatings. Answers please, on a postcard…

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