Safe, efficient, smart and sustainable food packaging

Packaging walks the talk

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Safe
A product’s shelf life can be extended significantly by vacuum skin packaging. Photo: Sealpac

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, odor and feel—and some of them can even speak. What 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

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 flavor or vitamins.

Up to 1.3 billion tons 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.

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If excess moisture is taken up by special
absorber films, for example, the mould
and germ risk falls. Photo: Fraunhofer IVV

For over six years now, this overall issue has been addressed by the SAVE FOOD initiative of the FAO, the environmental program of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Messe Düsseldorf in cooperation with globally leading companies, organizations 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 congress, which marks the start of interpack in Düsseldorf from 4 to 10 May 2017, 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. Within the fair, the special SAVE FOOD exhibition will be held for the second time in the innovationparc, which has been energetically taking up a selected issue from the sector at each interpack since 2008.

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.

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Intuitive machine operation with the
HMI 4.0 from Bosch. Photo: Bosch

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 sterilization 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. “It’s possible to extend product shelf life considerably with vacuum skin packaging,” explains Stefan Dangel, sales and marketing manager at Sealpac.

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 discolor after a short while, to look good for longer. “The idea was to develop a package that can take up and regulate moisture,” says Dr Cornelia Stramm of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Freising, explaining the aim of the research project.

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 color 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 color change.

Sustainability as a basic discipline

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Industry 4.0 is has long become the standard in the food industry. Intelligent systems ensure greater
flexibility and efficiency in the packaging process. Photo: Gerhard Schubert GmbH

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. The development of deposit and recycling systems and, no less importantly, clear targets have led to a strong increase in package recycling in the last few years. Recycling is on the advance, particularly in Europe, and all EU states are to recycle half of their domestic waste by 2020.

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.

Packaged 4.0

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. In the special show “components—special trade fair by interpack”, highly advanced drive, control and sensor equipment will be exhibited alongside products for industrial image processing, handling technology, industrial software and communication, and complete automation systems for packaging machines.

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Bakery goods are gently packaged with special grippers. Photo: Gerhard Schubert GmbH

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 as of interpack in May 2017. 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. “This is a revolutionary innovation,” says Stefan König, member of executive management at Bosch Packaging Technology.

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 industrialized 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.

 

The impact, resilience, and growth of responsible packaging in a wide region are daily chronicled by Packaging South Asia.

A multi-channel B2B publication and digital platform such as Packaging South Asia.is always aware of the prospect of new beginnings and renewal. Its 16-year-old print monthly, based in New Delhi, India has demonstrated its commitment to progress and growth. The Indian and Asian packaging industries have shown resilience in the face of ongoing challenges over the past three years.

As we present our publishing plan for 2023, India’s real GDP growth for the financial year ending 31 March 2023 will reach 6.3%. Packaging industry growth has exceeded GDP growth even when allowing for inflation in the past three years.

The capacity for flexible film manufacturing in India increased by 33% over the past three years. With orders in place, we expect another 33% capacity addition from 2023 to 2025. Capacities in monocartons, corrugation, aseptic liquid packaging, and labels have grown similarly. The numbers are positive for most of the economies in the region – our platform increasingly reaches and influences these.

Even given the disruptions of supply chains, raw material prices, and the challenge of responsible and sustainable packaging, packaging in all its creative forms and purposes has significant headroom to grow in India and Asia. Our context and coverage engulf the entire packaging supply chain – from concept to shelf and further – to waste collection and recycling. We target brand owners, product managers, raw material suppliers, packaging designers and converters, and recyclers.

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– Naresh Khanna

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