The future of food packaging is shifting rapidly. This is a pivotal time during which much change is needed. The problem is that, until now, food packaging was designed with the grocery store shelf in mind. The surging prevalence of e-commerce means a paradigm shift in food packaging is due.
It is important to revolutionize food packaging to ensure that it survives its trip to the warehouse. From the warehouse, it must travel in the delivery van to the customer’s home. At all stages of the journey or supply chain, protecting the integrity of the food is critical. This is an area of weakness with packaging as it currently stands. A Rutgers University study found that meal kits in insulated packages cannot keep the meat at safe temperatures in 47% of cases.
Experts are now beginning to explore smart technology not only in the production of food but its packaging as well. The two main categories of packaging they are proposing are ‘active’ packaging and ‘intelligent’ packaging. Active packaging will combat contaminants. Intelligent packaging can indicate spoilage with color-changing symbols.
These proposed packaging solutions aim to keep food safe and preventing illness. In addition, the aim is to improve the levels of value-adds and deliver a positive consumer experience to customers.
Supply chain safety
Active packaging aims to reduce the spoiling and contamination of food. This could go a long way toward eliminating food waste. This is a sustainability issue that preoccupies more and more consumers. Consumers are ever more aware of their contribution to the 150,000 tons of food Americans discard daily.
Technically speaking, the idea of active packaging is not new. It has been used in the context of food packaging for the supermarket shelf. Its design aims to improve and increase the shelf life of perishable food items. For example, systems inside most packaging are designed to decrease the amount of oxygen that gets to the food. This is because oxygen stimulates the contamination and destruction process that causes food to spoil.
The problem with the active packaging is that it gives no indication of the current status of the contents. A consumer would have no way of knowing that the food was spoiled. In addition, chemicals used to coat the inside of the packaging to prevent contamination do not appeal to consumers who want all-natural food. The perceived dangers of chemicals which are unfamiliar to them can put consumers off.
With the advent of intelligent packaging, active packaging may become more difficult to market to consumers as a safe alternative. Intelligent packaging takes the concept of active packaging and adds a new element to is. Sensor-indicated freshness detection using advanced technology is what characterizes this new idea. No more guessing if it’s still okay to eat. No more food wastage throwing things out that are still good. The most common example is buying a carton of milk.
If it must be used within 5 days of opening, a sticker on the carton will activate as soon as it’s opened. When the 5 days have passed, the sticker will indicate that it’s time to discard it. It’s a good reminder to use the milk before you have to throw it away. No more sniff tests to see if the milk is okay if manufacturers use intelligent packaging.
This technology has been in use for some time but on a very limited basis. It’s possible to have stickers on food packaging to show customers that acceptable temperatures have been exceeded and food integrity may be affected. The degree to which the food has been affected might be indicated. Store owners would know they should place the items on sale, so they are sold before they spoil, or get rid of them completely.
In future, it’s contemplated that customers may be able to do something as simple as pressing a button on the packaging to add extra preservatives to their food. This will stop the food from being contaminated. This will be helpful when you buy products that last only a few days when you need them in a week’s time.
What to expect in future
The biggest question we have now is why this technology is not in use if it already exists. Millions of tons of food waste could be avoided. Consumers’ need for guaranteed freshness and non-contamination could be satisfied.
One of the first reasons manufacturers are not fully exploring the technology is the cost. In some cases, it’s so new that it’s still prohibitively expensive. If manufacturers were to start using it, they’d have to pass the additional cost on to consumers. This could cause consumers to switch to brands that are less expensive because they haven’t converted to intelligent packaging.
Another reason is the infallibility of intelligent packaging. For many manufacturers, the jury is still out on that one. There is a fear of a spike of lawsuits if it fails. Then if a customer eats contaminated food and becomes ill or dies, the manufacturer is going to have a lot of explaining to do. What if the sticker didn’t change color and indicate that the product was no longer safe to consume? The burden of proof and liability alone will be a deterrent for many manufacturers.
We also know that some grocery stores sail a bit close to the wind when it comes to potential contamination due to age. They don’t want to mark products down until it’s absolutely necessary. But if the products on the shelf are indicating that contamination has begun, a chain reaction will begin. Some customers will refuse to buy products where contamination has already commenced. They would rather leave and go to another store with fresh items.
If this happens on a large scale, the store’s bottom line can be severely affected. Other customers will still buy the product but at a discount. If there’s no discount, the store will find itself sitting with shelves full of products that no one will buy.