Smart packaging to protect food and reduce waste

25. 2. 2021

Have you ever found a package of sausages expired by a day or two in your fridge and wondered whether you could still eat them? In the future, this will probably be answered by intelligent packaging co-developed by Czech scientists. For example, smart labels with sensors will be able to detects whether the food has been stored correctly or not. The information will then be simply passed on to the retailer’s or customer’s smartphone via the commonly used NFC technology.

“These labels are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. In terms of intelligent packaging, a greater role will be played by simple sensors the purpose of which is to protect the consumers’ health and inform them whether the product is still edible. In the future, this will significantly help reduce the amount of food that is not consumed after the date of expiry as a preventive measure. We are working on these sensors, especially in the area of detection of the freshness of meat products and the quality of the protective atmosphere,” says Tomáš Syrový from the Department of Graphic Arts and Photophysics, Faculty of Chemical‑Technology, University of Pardubice.

The sensors can monitor a number of parameters. In the case of foodstuffs, this for example includes the concentration of gases in the product atmosphere—ethylene in fruit (indicates spoilage), carbon dioxide or oxygen. “Any changes in gas concentration may be indicated by a special sensor, which causes a distinctive colour change if a critical limit is exceeded and thus warns that something is wrong with the packaging, or better to say, with the atmosphere,” adds Tomáš Syrový.

“In addition to these gases, these sensors can also detect for example biogenic amines in meat products, which indicate an undesirable process. The group of sensors in the food sector also includes Time Temperature Indicator (TTI) sensors, which are used to track the inappropriate storage of foods that require low temperatures,” adds the associate professor from the University of Pardubice.

Monitoring not only for consumers

Food is not the only sector where smart packaging can be used. Jan Bourek, research and development manager of Colognia Press, which is a company involved in the printing of labels, presents a number of other possibilities.

“Intelligent packaging can be used for any products that are sensitive to different external influences and have a higher added value in order to make this type of packaging or systems economical. This includes temperature monitoring in the transport of expensive wines from South America to Europe, temperature and humidity monitoring in the transport of detonators from the Czech Republic to Malaysia or temperature monitoring in the transport of meat intended for the production of pet food. I give these examples because we have recently worked on them. Intelligent packaging systems are used in areas such as pharmacy, logistics or the beverage industry,” calculates Bourek.

“In addition to food, there are also different packaging sensors—for example shock sensors that inform the customers whether their television has been treated well. There are also sensors that check intact or unopened packaging, ingress or leakage, correct transport position, etc. In essence, there are no limits to imagination and the main purpose is to get the goods from the manufacturer to the customer in perfect condition,” adds Syrový.

Unparalleled in the Czech Republic

However, according to Bourek, intelligent packaging is not very popular among Czech manufacturers and the customers have virtually no experience with them.

“Many years ago, there was a temperature indicator packed with frozen chicken, the purpose of which was to indicate excessive temperature increase by means of an irreversible colour change. But this was probably not convenient for big supermarket chains and their logistics of that time, so it quickly disappeared from the market,” explains Bourek.

Tomáš Syrový adds that the use of smart sensors in food packaging is affected by the price customers are willing to pay for having their goods protected in this type of packaging. Jan Bourek believes that the higher price can be absorbed by the manufacturers once they understand that the packaging is of benefit to them as well.

“Naturally, intelligent packaging will always be more expensive. However, the whole issue must be viewed in a comprehensive manner, including the analysis of economic data. What if the use of intelligent packaging results in a more efficient production process, no defective products and fresh products delivered to the customer? This will improve our reputation and customer reference. Active and intelligent packaging will also extend the shelf life of the products,” he says.

Both experts agree that although intelligent packaging is currently not used on a large scale, it will be in the future. This will also respond to the global pressure on decreasing emissions and food waste. The University of Pardubice is already working with several companies on the use of the sensors in various products. Unfortunately, we cannot provide any more details.

Intelligent packaging abroad
In the pharmacy sector, smart drug packaging informs the customer about the period and amount of dosing; there are also vintage wine bottles with integrated printed temperature sensors. Smart labels are used to verify the authenticity of alcoholic beverages using a mobile phone; cheese packaging have pressure sensors that monitor the degree of ripening, which can again be checked by your mobile phone. QR codes on packaging combined with a suitable mobile phone application allows you to track the history of the product. Very active countries in the area of intelligent packaging are Japan and the USA.

Published by courtesy of Hospodářské noviny, 3rd February 2021

Author: Jan Markovič; Photo: UPa Archive