Much of development in active packaging remains blue sky thinking, but will increasing demand for added value and convenience in the chilled foods sector be enough to bring it down from the clouds? Louise Hunt explores its challenges and potential

Driven by insatiable demand for convenience, the chilled cabinet should be a haven for active packaging. After all, retailers have flung open their arms to embrace modified atmosphere packaging with all its benefits of longer shelf life and improved product quality that has become, not just a desire, but a downright demand. Active packaging, on the other hand, has been described as a technology without an application.

It has received a lukewarm reception in comparison to other developments in this sector. Prospective users are asking why they should invest more money into technology whose main benefit is to extend shelf life when MAP and alternative high barrier materials are already doing this job? And, if extended shelf life is what it is good for, then what place does active packaging have in the fast moving chilled foods category?

Part of the reason why active packaging technology is still being viewed with some suspicion is due to its current lack of formal recognition with regards to European food contact legislation. Some manufacturers have erred on the side of caution by placing technologies, such as dessicants, in sachets. But these, too, cause controversy over consumer fears of accidental consumption.

New legislation is expected that will take active packaging into consideration and potentially relax rules on migration levels in packaging. This follows the results of the Actipak project; a European Commission sponsored exercise involving a number of European research bodies and manufacturers into the effects of active packaging in food contact, which ended in 2001. It is widely hoped that the new legislation will provide the confidence boost needed to push active packaging into mainstream applications. But the final results may still be two years away.

Then there is the question of which active packaging technology is going to become a supply chain saviour, and which will fizzle into obscurity.

Currently there is a plethora of technologies available to do weird and wonderful things within packs. These include oxygen scavengers/emitters; moisture absorbers, such as dessicants, carbon dioxide scavengers/emitters; ethylene scavengers/emitters; preservative releasers such as anti-bacterial films; flavour absorbers and flavour releasing film; lactose and cholesterol removers; microwave susceptor technology and temperature control packaging, including self-heating and self-cooling cans.

Despite the hurdles that active packaging technology has yet to overcome there are some good reasons why it hasn’t been wholly dismissed.

If it does what it is supposed to, then, apart from improving shelf life and product quality, it has the potential to yield considerable cost savings in production, storage and distribution.

Ask most companies involved in chilled food packaging and the somewhat guarded response is that they are ‘looking into it’. Although many product developments are still in the test market stage, the growing number managing to fall to earth could be viewed as a sign that active packaging will play a bigger role in the chilled cabinet in the near future.

A recent report, ‘The future of Active Packaging’ {available from Pira International, priced £2500, tel: +44 (0)1372 802271}, goes some way towards shedding light on the direction that the technology may take.

Based on its own industry surveys, Pira valued the 2001 market for active packaging technologies in Japan, the US and Europe at $1.18bn. Japan, unsurprisingly, has the lion’s share of the market, with the US and Europe gathering pace.

Pira predicts that the active packaging market as a whole will grow by 14% per year between 2001-2004, reaching $1.73bn by 2004. Growth is then expected to accelerate to reach $2.6bn by 2007, spurred on by continuing acceptance of oxygen scavengers and anti-bacterial films. Preservative releasers are set to represent the fastest growing area of the market beyond 2004, as the use of antioxidants to prevent microbial activity is accepted into legislation.

Of all active packaging technologies, oxygen scavengers appear to hold the greatest promise at present. Across active packaging technology areas the market for oxygen scavengers is forecast to grow by over 20% per year between 2002 and 2005, with volumes rising from around 14bn units world-wide to nearly 25bn units. Similar growth rates are anticipated for moisture absorbers, while adoption of less developed technologies will lag behind in the short to medium term.

The advancement of the UK chilled cabinet makes this a key area of growth opportunity for active packaging suppliers. The UK accounts for 75% of sales in oxygen scavengers, boosted by the popularity of premium, deli-style meats that are expensive enough to justify the added cost. Here, the scavengers prevent discolouration and degradation of meats such as salami, which is sensitive to oxygen.

With the Western European ready meals market now accounting for 9% of all chilled foods sales, this too is an application area that holds plenty of potential for oxygen scavengers. According to Pira, usage of active packaging in ready meals is forecast to grow by 31.5% between 2001-2004.

Huhtamaki UK was one of the first packaging manufacturers to develop a microwaveable pack complete with Barrier Plus oxygen scavenger when Heinz launched its classic range of soups in 300g pots. Also in 2001, Huhtamaki launched Heinz Baked Beans using the same technology which has opened the market for a number of applications, such as baby foods and dairy deserts, to oxygen scavenger technology.

Barrier Plus is a plastics packaging that incorporates active and passive barriers within the container walls to prevent permeation of oxygen. It has the potential to replace metal cans or glass jars.

Now RPC Bebo Plastik is getting in on the act with a new sheet for ready meal trays and dishes incorporating oxygen scavengers, launched this July.

In its first venture into active packaging the German based company teamed up with Ciba Speciality Films to develop a new generation of barrier films designed to improve and maintain the quality of ready meal ingredients.

The seven-layer film incorporates an EVOH barrier layer and a layer where PP is mixed with an oxygen scavenger. The film can then be thermoformed into conventional ready meal dishes.

Tests with two customers are said to have shown that ready meal ingredients in the new packaging offer clear flavour and colour advantages over those in conventional barrier packaging without oxygen scavengers. Consumers are said to have noticed that overall freshness improved even after a six month shelf life.

Commenting on the decision to move into active packaging Roland Schultz of RPC Bebo Plastik said: “Investment into active packaging is still reasonable and the advantage was obvious from tests made by materials suppliers and RPC.”

The fresh meat sector represents a further area of potential growth, as the European trend in central packaging places more emphasis on food safety. Pira estimates active packaging usage for meat and poultry to grow 41% between 2001-2004.

MAP currently has the monopoly on shelf life extension technology in this area and this is set to continue. It is generally thought that active packaging technologies will be used in conjunction with MAP rather than as an alternative to established barrier technologies. In MAP applications oxygen scavengers are able to gobble up oxygen that can build up over time. Pira notes that it is unlikely that new players will emerge offering combined MAP/oxygen scavenger systems, rather that converters will continue to develop ties with active packaging technology suppliers.

&#8220There is a certain amount of blue sky thinking involved in active packaging. You have to remember it is as much about market demands as it is about the technology”

Trevor Komaromy, business development manager Linpac Plastics

Dario Dainelli of Sealed Air Cryovac Italy believes that oxygen scavenger systems and MAP will have a mutually beneficial relationship.

“Oxygen scavenger technology will be a big help to MAP. It will save a lot of money because it will no longer be necessary to have a precise dosage of gasses and, therefore, removes the need to check concentrations, which slows down the production line.”

Sealed Air Cryovac produces two oxygen scavenging systems – OS films and Cryovac FL Labels. The second generation OS films, OS 2000, are commercially available in the US, but are being held back in Europe as they await compliance with European food contact legislation. Cryovac is working on a European formulation to get round the problem.

Oxygen scavenging FL Labels, however, have been recently introduced into the European markets, with applications including chilled meats and pizzas.

A UK packaging company that is working on active packaging developments is Linpac Plastics.

Its growing family of active packaging developments includes the LinDry tray – a super-absorbent expandable polystyrene tray for use in MAP applications. It has a PE/PVC barrier and five-layer barrier film construction for water absorption, which means unpopular tray inserts can be eliminated.

Last year it brought to market the Cool to Touch microwaveable foam tray that stays cool even when food is piping hot.

Most recently, Linpac modified its LinDry tray to include an acousto-magnetic chip to prevent theft of high value meat products such as steaks. The trays are being sold into German and Danish retail outlets, but not in the UK due to the use of aluminium that sets off metal detectors in central packaging operations.

The move marks the beginning of a bigger leap into intelligent packaging. Linpac is currently involved in trials with RFID chips.

Although business development manager Trevor Komaromy concedes that the these developments will only become commercially viable when it is possible to digitally print RFID and the cost of the technology has been brought down.

“There is a certain amount of blue sky thinking involved in active packaging. You have to remember it is as much about market demands as it is about the technology,” says Mr Komaromy.

“A lot of developments are going nowhere. It’s a case of picking the right one. If a solution isn’t going to succeed in the long term, then there is probably a better one around the corner.”

There are plenty of developments that are still some way up in that blue sky – at least where the UK market is concerned.

Among them is Fresh Plus breathable film produced by Maag in Germany, sold by agents Fresh Flex in the Netherlands.

Based on equilibrium modified atmosphere packaging technology, Fresh Plus uses laser perforated holes to control the respiration rate for fresh foods including primarily fresh cut produce such as salads. As the products’ natural ageing process is slowed down, shelf-life is extended.

Stefan Honke of Maag explained that the company’s strength is having a database of optimum respiratory rates across fresh cut produce.

Fresh Plus has been used in applications in Germany, Switzerland and Holland. No applications currently exist in the UK despite some attempts. Mr Honke says the popularity of prepared salads in the chilled cabinet makes this a particularly attractive market for Maag.

Even further out in the stratosphere is a plastics packaging material that for the first time incorporates the herb basil as an anti-microbial agent, developed by scientists in Israel.

Basil was found to be effective in preserv-ing food by slowing growth of eight types of bacteria when extracts of the herb methyl chavicol and linalool are incorporated into plastics wrapping. Experiments have been made on cheese, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, with shelf life extended by a week.

The research was lead by Professor Joseph Miltz of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, faculty of Food Engineering and Biotechnology based in Haifa, and by the Victoria University of Melbourne, Australia.

According to Mr Miltz, the advantage of basil over existing anti-microbial agents is that it doesn’t suffer from the negative perceptions associated with artificial agents. And, as only tiny amounts of extract are used, there is no tainting of the food.

Tests are underway into the development of a multi-layered plastic that prevents the basil from escaping into the atmosphere. Mr Miltz said: “We hope that it will be possible to obtain the right product in the near future, only then will we consider licensing it to a packaging company.”