by Elisabeth Ilie-Zudor, Marcell Szathmári, Zsolt Kemény
In numerous regions worldwide customers’ expectations and legislations requirements regarding food quality and safety are changing. Customers now turn more and more towards fresh food with little intervention in its raw materials, while legislation regarding tracking of perishable products along the entire supply chain becomes more rigorous. These changes pose an increasing challenge both for the food and packaging industries.
The usage of active and intelligent packaging (AIP) can help dealing with the new requirements for higher food quality and safety. Active packaging refers to solutions with a quality-preserving function for the contents without altering the composition of the product itself, while intelligent packaging covers the solutions with diagnostic and indicator functions for assessing an estimated shelf life or supply information on actual product freshness.
Nowadays, considerable development and application efforts are spent, especially in the USA, Japan and Australia, to integrate active and intelligent functions in high-end (consumer) packaging types for food and beverages. In Europe, the use of these innovative materials and technologies is limited to large and internationally operating food and packaging producers, and effective active and intelligent materials for food packaging applications are still rather rare on the market. Aside from less compatible legislative framework, the spreading of active and intelligent packaging solutions in Europe is hampered by a lack of knowledge, application results, or dedicated development of these new materials and technologies for food packaging applications. The research base is fragmented: information regarding effectiveness and the reliability of these types of active and intelligent systems to improve the food quality and safety in different food sectors is widespread, but not easy to detect and not always comparable. For a successful launch of active or intelligent packaging, the choice of food product in combination with the choice of the type of active and intelligent concept is important.
Information exchange regarding knowledge and promising technologies on active and intelligent packaging is especially needed for SMEs who are not in the position to do this analysis on their own.
Starting its development in September 2009, the “Development of tools to communicate advanced technologies on active and intelligent packaging to meet the needs and trends in food processing and retailing and to improve the knowledge transfer especially for SMEs” project has been initiated by 12 SME associations and academic institutes from seven European countries (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain). The project bears the acronym AIP-Competence Platform and will have a development period of two years. It is funded under the framework of CORNET 6th Joint Call for Transnational Collective Research (http://www.cornet-era.net).
Due to the fact that the oxygen absorbers, the antimicrobial packaging materials, the time-temperature indicators, intelligent expiry date labels, supply chain monitoring via printable indicators and tracking information databases gathering all types of expiry and handling-related information along the supply chain are the most substantial market segments in active and intelligent packaging, the project will focus the work on these techniques.
Figure 1: Problems addressed and goals pursued by the AIP-Competence Platform project.
The project will:
- collect technical knowledge and available data on commercialized techniques of active and intelligent packaging for food applications (technical data on working principles, active substances, functional properties, processing requirements, recommended application areas, suppliers of the active substances),
- review the available knowledge of active and intelligent packaging technologies and their application in the food supply-chain,
- report on the significance, accuracy of measurement and repeatability of existing test methods for characterizing oxygen scavenger systems, antimicrobial packaging materials, time-temperature-indicator systems, and freshness indicators
- provide a software solution to monitor the stock levels of perishable goods on a batch level, providing also quality and stock-level alerts, in order to help companies prevent spoilage and better adjust their forecasts
- elaborate barcode symbology design guidelines for automated optical recognition of predicted remaining shelf life
- demonstrate and disseminate best practice reference samples on successful applications to extend shelf life and to monitor food quality and safety,
- deliver targeted information about impacts and minimum requirements of highly perishable foods to prolong the shelf life and to ensure the right quality and safety of the packed products, respectively up-to-date information on regulatory aspects
- set up a group of key institutes and food and packaging specialists in Europe skilled in developing and testing of active and intelligent packaging as contact points for the food and packaging industry, especially SMEs, at national and EU level
- provide a Knowledge and Communication Platform that can be leveraged to efficiently communicate the knowledge and data collected.
With all of the focal activities apparently centered around food chemistry and packaging technologies, the project still encompasses a number of IT-related developments as well, especially as far as the knowledge sharing platform and development of tailored trackable solutions are concerned.
As already addressed earlier, the technology transfer efforts of the project are to be supported by an online knowledge sharing platform, envisaged to serve both experts (large-scale producers, technology stakeholders, etc.) and newcomers (SMEs, small-scale producers, etc.) in the AIP knowledge domain. In order to serve the large diversity of needs represented by prospective visitors, the topic map paradigm is used as an organizing principle for a coherent corpus of resources, while different interfaces will support the wide range of search and browsing criteria of visitors.
Tracking and easy inclusion in tracking networks are another major challenge where information technology takes a notable share of the challenges. While the project consortium already has experience in SME-accessible tracking services at hand, specific solutions have to be elaborated for food supply chains. This also includes the development of uniquely identifiable intelligent packaging labels that present a low-cost alternative to, e.g., sensor-equipped RFID while remaining machine-readable. The elaboration of such lean solutions is expected to bridge gaps that, to date, deprive ‘low-tech’ participants of the benefits of transparent supply chains.
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