While many have heard of intelligent packaging, there are probably fewer who can define it. But these are technologies with potentially huge implications for fresh and higher-value food and drink. Paul Gander reports.
Active and intelligent packaging is often treated as an inseparable duo; the sector’s own Laurel and Hardy, if you like, without the slapstick. Arguably, it is the active component which has attracted more attention (and research funding) over the years, with the intelligent elements getting noticed, if at all, for the wrong reasons.
Dr Kay Cooksey, professor of Packaging Science at Clemson University, South Carolina, has been working with these twin categories for many years. The term ‘intelligent packaging’ refers to any sort of sensing system linked to an indicator, which could be covert (for the supply chain) or overt (for consumers). With food and drink, this will typically give information about the current state of a fresh or perishable product (often, its freshness) or the conditions the product has experienced in transit, most often temperature against time.
Active packaging, on the other hand, incorporates mechanisms which intervene in, or pre-empt, some of the processes of deterioration in the food. For example, there is widespread interest in the use of natural antimicrobials inside sealed packaging to inhibit the growth of specific pathogens.
This ‘active’ set of technologies is typically about extending shelf-life, rather than providing information about it. That fact alone may explain the generally higher levels of interest in this area.
Cooksey is intrigued to have seen some distinctly encouraging forecasts regarding intelligent packaging in a report from Meticulous Market Research last November. “This is the first time I’ve seen an estimate of market size in billions – rather than millions – of dollars,” she tells F&FT. “The report says it will reach $43.6 billion by 2027.”
She adds that recent growth of up to 20% year-on-year outlined in the report seems to be borne out by her own experience. “In the last six month or so, in particular, I’ve had a lot of meetings with companies wanting a research contract in this area, or wanting to develop a specific technology,” Cooksey states.
Over the last few years, the activities of the Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA) have helped to spread knowledge and awareness of these technologies, she suggests.
But if these forecasts are going to reflect reality, it seems that for intelligent packaging, more than for many other categories of food-related technology, a number of balances will need to be struck and pitfalls avoided.
A few brands, for instance, have taken the line of least resistance in developing seasonal or limited-edition promotions based on intelligent systems. These may be eye-catching and offer novelty value, but typically do little to address real needs either among consumers or through the supply chain.
The fine line to be trodden with intelligent packaging R&D is not always between novelty and practicality. New York State’s Cornell University, associate professor in the Department of Food Science Julie Goddard channels most of her energies into active packaging. But she says: “I do think, as the food system increasingly digitises, there will be more opportunity for intelligent packaging.”
She goes on: “I think the biggest advances come when researchers consider both the ‘whizz-bang crazy’ ideas and pragmatism. When we only consider pragmatism, only incremental changes are possible. If we only consider whizz-bang crazy ideas, we lose interest in our very low-margin field.”
Item level or unit level?
Headquartered in Brazil but with customers worldwide, petrochemicals company Braskem has been exploring ways in which additives can be combined with plastics to create intelligent packaging. Materials science researcher Murilo Sanson tells F&FT that he, like Cooksey, has seen “some impressive numbers” about the size of the intelligent packaging market. “But few tangible, clear examples are available in retail, for example.”
He speculates that current figures and forecasts may include anti-counterfeit or tracking technologies, which confer a different sort of ‘intelligent’ benefit.
Braskem carried out some preliminary work with Clemson on prototype colour-change pH indicators in the polymer wall of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles containing fresh cow’s milk. This was the first documented example of tests being carried out at refrigerated rather than room temperatures, according to the researchers.
These types of innovation, when followed through, are important because they function at item level and are overt, potentially delivering as many benefits to the consumer as to supply-chain operators.
Questions of cost versus effectiveness and overall benefit remain at the forefront of debates about intelligent packaging. At UK time and temperature indicator company Timestrip, commercial director Nora Murphy is quite upfront about pricing.
The cost of one indicator is around $0.50 (£0.36) for a simple single-use liquid-based system, she says, or at least $3 (£2.20) for the latest electronic indicator, with much greater functionality.
“We might be at box or pallet level, but not item level,” Murphy explains. “Seafood shipments, for instance, are highly-regulated in many countries, since bacteria can grow above a certain temperature.”
Timestrip indicators are positioned somewhere between costlier multi-trip dataloggers – where data will need to be accessed remotely – and less costly time-temperature indicators, which (unlike Timestrip) are available as labels. Such labels tend to be based on a chemical-induced colour change, says Murphy.
Cooksey at Clemson feels these types of colour-based indicators are, themselves, rather past their sell-by date. “The sensitivity of these systems is often a problem,” she says. “By the time they change colour, you can usually smell that the product has gone off.”
Murphy adds: “The biggest challenge people face with these indicators is the colour change. It comes down to the eye and how you read it.”
This element of subjectivity is not the only variable feature of colour-change indicators standing in the way of more concerted product development. “If you’re making a generic label for different foods, is it always going to be applicable?” she asks. A freshness indicator will always need to be tailored to the particular chemical signatures of the product it is monitoring, but even when simply measuring time and temperature profiles, one product will always be more tolerant of divergence than another.
Braskem’s Sanson spells out some of these specificity challenges in meat and dairy. “There are risks regarding variability between, say, different cuts from different animals from different countries, or even milk with different fat or bacteria content,” he says. “This in particular would require a high degree of tailoring the formulation. It’s a barrier that can be overcome, but it is challenging.”
The investment required in tailoring systems for meat and poultry is more likely to pay off, according to Braskem, because of the high retail value of many products.
Other barriers, especially when sensing technologies are in direct food contact, include the need for approval by regulatory bodies, notably the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). “These are very strict, and the work or cost required to achieve approval may not be feasible,” Sanson points out.
Of late, Murphy at Timestrip has fielded more questions about safeguarding vaccine shipments than any other subject, for understandable reasons. But she says the company has also seen a significant increase in the number of international enquiries about food and drink applications in recent months, particularly in the online area.
“Changes in the way food is consumed over the last 12 months have seen home delivery and take-away occupying a larger slice of the food sector,” she points out. “This has in turn impacted on the need for intelligent packaging to provide a safeguard to the consumer that goods have been properly transported and stored.”
If indicators are being used with home deliveries to provide reassurance to consumers, integrating the same type of system into retail products might be the next step. Often, though, it seems that retailers rather than brand-owners are the most reluctant to give away supply-chain data to shoppers.
Like the whole question of provenance and product traceability, could intelligent packaging (whether at traded-unit or item level) take its place as a viable route to differentiation for premium ranges? Whether the audience is at retail or consumer level, it can send a strong message of brand-owner responsibility – while also playing a genuine food-safety role.