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Food packages: Safe, Efficient, Smart and Sustainable

Modern packages think for themselves, remind us, extend shelf life, can be heated at the press of a button and influence our senses with their appearance, odour and feel – and some of them can even speak and Which type of packages in the food sector are capable of today goes far beyond their original purpose of protecting foods.

Packages have to perform numerous feats simultaneously: meet the needs of marketing and sales, comply with safety and hygiene regulations, and satisfy such consumer requirements as sustainability and easier handling while keeping the cost of production, transport and storage low. Thanks to the very latest machines with highly automated sensor- and microprocessor-controlled drive technology, coupled with innovative materials that can be produced and disposed of sustainably, the packaging industry has succeeded in converting a 6,000-year-old idea into a modern high-tech product.
First and foremost: protection due to packaging
And yet the primary purpose of each package – that of protecting its contents during transport and storage – remains unchanged. Packages prevent contamination and damage and protect foods from harmful environmental influences such as light, oxygen and moisture. They provide protection from spoilage due to microorganisms and prevent the loss of flavour or vitamins.
Up to 1.3 billion tonnes of foods, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, are lost each year worldwide. In some cases, fresh goods spoil during transport, are not consumed in time or are deemed unsaleable because they fall short of the given standards. And often enough, still edible food is discarded by consumers because the sell-by date has expired.
For over six years now, this overall issue has been addressed by globally leading companies, organisations and research institutes. Their joint goal is to devise solutions to prevent food loss and wastage along the value chain. This involves making suitable infrastructure available, re-examining and modifying standards for packaging, raising awareness and, last but not least, working on the package itself.
For what is now the third time in succession, the initiative with the international SAVE FOOD, which marks the start is being given a suitable platform and bringing together various stakeholders from business, science, the political sphere and civil society in the fight against food wastage.
Hygiene’s not everything, but food is nothing without hygiene
When it comes to food packaging, hygiene is top priority, and sensitive meat and sausage products are subject to extreme standards of hygiene. Complete high-performance production lines inclusive of meat grinder, portioner and tray-sealing unit focus not only on performance, flexibility and product quality, but also on the interfaces – because these have a huge bearing on productivity.
The responsibility for food safety lies with the manufacturer itself. In-plant hygiene controls are strongly advised, but even more important is the exclusion of possible hygiene traps from the outset. Covering everything from comprehensive hygiene design and effortlessly cleanable components to sterilisation of the ambient air with short-wave UV radiation, highly advanced equipment delivers the highest standards of hygiene. In the SB sector particularly, the skin pack, a two-component SB package consisting of PP or CPET tray sealed with a skin film, has become increasingly prominent.
Intelligent packaging
The innovative powers of the packaging industry are remarkable. Anyone investigating the very latest packaging technologies cannot fail to encounter nanotechnology, and printed and organic electronics. Intelligent and smart wrappers that are capable of identifying and affecting the degree of food freshness in a controlled fashion are now anything but utopian.
Active packages control the moisture level, prevent the proliferation of germs and even kill them – by using absorbers, for instance. Iron keeps oxygen-sensitive beverages like beer or juice fresh for longer. Table salt in the package inhibits the formation of condensation and enables mushrooms, for example, that tend to discolour after a short while, to look good for longer.
Visibly fresh
Whether food is still edible can be rendered visible by the special sensors of modern packages. These react when certain substances or gases are released and indicate this with a change in colour and fluorescence. The state of the food is then evident at a glance. One of the most frequent causes of food spoilage is breaks in the cooling chain. Intelligent time-temperature indicators are capable of indicating such discontinuities, usually with a colour change.
Sustainability as a basic discipline
Consumers expect a great deal of their food packages. Their demands of the packaging industry cover not only safety and hygiene, but also sustainability. Consumers mainly associate sustainability with recycling and disposal. In the assessment of package sustainability, both the material used and its quantity are important as well as package size in relation to its contents. In the industry, there is a clear trend towards using renewable resources. Used instead of conventional materials with a view to diminishing the carbon footprint, these are often hailed as extra-sustainable. However, studies show that precisely these conventional materials, e.g. classical plastics, yield environmental benefits when a product’s entire life cycle is considered – as a result of efficient recycling systems, for example. Ultimately, what counts as the most sustainable solution calls for a comprehensive consideration of the case in question, taking account of the various factors at all stages in the value chain.
In addition to consumer expectations, the packaging industry is also exposed to the growing requirements of its customers. Responding to the desire for greater flexibility and efficiency, the sector reacts among other things with an intelligent and interlinked factory in which classical mechanical engineering efficiently networks with sensors, software and services.
Industry 4.0 has long become the standard in the food industry and is closely associated with the component industry, which can be seen as blazing the trail of technological progress. Modern lines are capable of not only autonomously supplying information on process and system states, but also communicating with each other and independently correcting processes where necessary. “Intelligent products then individually control their own production process. And this is not all: thanks to communication throughout the value chain, a product’s life cycle becomes continuously traceable. Totally new business models are possible,” explains Hartmut Rauen, Deputy Executive Director of Germany’s Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA).
A pioneer in the use of such progressive technologies is Bosch Packaging Technology which is planning to equip all new process and packaging machines with its next-generation Human Machine Interface HMI 4.0. One of the new features is guided intuitive operation with multi-touch technology – much like on smartphones and tablet computers. The system reports malfunctions immediately and, in addition, provides information on the possible cause and assistance with remedying the problem. Packaging is indispensable for modern society. And this applies especially to foods and becomes apparent above all where it is lacking – in developing countries. Food often spoils due to the lack or inadequacy of packaging for transport and storage before it reaches the consumer. In the industrialised nations, on the other hand, a package not only has to protect, but it has to look good as well. And it has to stand out on the overloaded supermarket shelves, because the majority of customers only decide while shopping which product actually lands in the basket.

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