Trimming waste

The amount of uneaten food consumers throw in the bin is a huge and growing problem. The economic climate is harsh, but despite this, each household in Europe chucks out on average 179kg of food each year, which ends up rotting in landfill sites.

According to Alan Davey, director of innovation at Linpac Packaging, the EU study that came up with this figure also found that households are responsible for 42% of all food waste. It is predicted the 179kg currently thrown out by each family could rise to 40% by 2020 if no further action is taken to minimise the amount we throw away.

Why are consumers so wasteful? Clearly there are many reasons, but the packaging industry believes it has a role to play in providing better products that last longer and help consumers waste less food.
The primary means of helping consumers reduce waste at home is by extending shelf-life. Meat has a large carbon footprint compared to most other foodstuffs, so the environmental load of the packaging used to protect it is proportionally less than for, say, a lettuce. According to Incpen, the industry council for packaging and the environment, the energy used to rear and process meat is 63% of the supply chain energy, while the energy used to make the packaging that prevents it going to waste is just 3%.

Protecting meat and extending the shelf-life means less is thrown away. Linpac has just launched a range of split packs for fresh and cooked meat, which mean consumers need only use what they require at the time. The packs, which divide the product into compartments, in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), mean the seal is only broken on the portion of meat they want to use.

The split pack for fresh meat is being rolled out across Europe in the coming months. Meanwhile, a multi-pack for cooked meats is also being launched in time for the European summer barbecue season in 2012. “Well-designed packaging can help consumers buy the right amount of food and then keep it in the best condition for longer,” says Davey.

Lengthened shelf-life

Using MAP, the shelf-life of fresh poultry is typically between 16 and 21 days when refrigerated, compared to just four to seven days in air, while that of red meat can increase from two to four days in air to between five and eight days in MAP, depending on pack design. Where cooked or processed meats are packed in MAP, shelf-life increases from two to four days to between two to five weeks. 

“We are confident these packs will prove popular with both consumers and retailers,” says Davey. “The benefits they offer to both parties are clear. Awareness of the food waste issue is low, particularly by householders, and these packs will help consumers become more aware and subtly help to change their behaviour to reduce the amount of food they throw away.”

Luc Sauban, European development manager of Sealed Air, agrees that extending shelf-life is the most significant way packaging companies can help consumers waste less in the home. While MAP is the most widely used meat packaging, Sealed Air’s Darfresh packaging, which vacuum-seals the meat to a base tray, is now being used across nearly all of Marks & Spencer’s fresh meat lines, with lamb and pork currently going through the transition, says Sauban.

In addition, some of M&S’ Darfresh packaging also divides the meat into portions, again reducing spoilage in the home. This skin packaging has the advantage of not only extending shelf-life by an extra few days compared to MAP, but the meat continues to mature in the packet. In addition, the pack size is smaller and lighter than MAP, meaning more can be transported in each lorry, cutting down on transportation costs and vehicle emissions.

Darfresh is not new, but it has seen a big boost in sales over the past year as more retailers adopt skin packaging, says Sauban. 
Skin packaging has been used on selected fresh meat products for several years. In 2003, Sainsbury’s chose skin packaging for its range of Jamie Oliver steaks, supplied by ABP, but the packaging method failed to gain ground until recently, because of concerns that the dark brown colour caused by lack of oxygen in the pack was offputting to consumers. 

Sauban, however, says this is all changing. Consumers are also becoming more aware that a dark colour is the natural state for meat, says Sauban, and labels can inform consumers about the benefits of vacuum packaging, such as increased shelf-life and continued maturation in the packet. “You can keep the product for three weeks and it is very convenient,” he says.

“The UK is one step ahead of the rest of Europe,” adds Sauban. “This last year we have seen a strong demand from retailers for Darfresh. We are also seeing an increase in the packaging of joints with shrink packs. The advantages are longer shelf-life, minimised pack size and there is a real interest in the UK.”

Tony Burgess, control systems manager at Proseal, agrees skin packaging is becoming ever more popular. “Because there is no air whatsoever inside, there is no chance of bacteria. The trend we are seeing in meat packaging is towards skin packaging. 
“We are talking to all the major retailers and they are all talking about skin packaging.”

He adds: “One of the effects is that it looks more like it has come from a butcher, so it is becoming more accepted. If you buy a piece of meat from the butcher, then it hasn’t been flushed with oxygen and the perception is that the quality is better and it is a little duller.”

Tesco currently uses skin packaging on its sirloin ‘fresh for freezing’ steak range and its gammon steaks, but it is not widely used for fresh meat. 
While MAP is the preferred packaging for most meat in the UK, there is one significant problem with it. If the meat comes into contact with the film lid for a prolonged period — for example in transportation or if stored at an angle in the consumer’s fridge — the meat discolours because it is oxygen-starved. “You get a green or bronze colour on the meat, which makes it unappealing, and a large amount is thrown away,” says Sauban. 
To combat this, Sealed Air has developed a new EVOH film, DL200, which, says Sauban, allows contact between the film and the meat without discolouration. It is a double-layer barrier film and it enables the part of the meat in contact with the film to retain enough oxygen to keep its bright colour.

Normally, manufacturers try to avoid contact between the meat and film by allowing extra headspace in the packaging. “The major benefit of the new film is we can reduce the height of the pack between 20% and 50%,” says Sauban. “So far, we have developed it successfully in countries where trays are preferred — in Italy, France and Belgium — and we have just released it in the UK for rigid trays. It has been so successful in the rest of Europe, we want it to be successful in the UK.” 

Tray disposal

One big trend in the UK over the past year has been dispensing with trays altogether, and simply wrapping meat in barrier film. Last September, Waitrose announced it was to start flow-wrapping its meat and would dispense with trays, with mince and diced meat the first products to be launched in the new packaging. So far, these are the only products to be put in the new packaging. The retailer said the move would save 9,000t of packaging a year. 
Tesco also decided to ditch trays for its whole fresh chickens, instead protecting the product by flow wrapping with film.

“We were the first to market with this packaging solution, which has now been widely adopted by other retailers,” says a Tesco spokeswoman. “This has drastically reduced the amount of packaging we use — by 70% versus standard chicken packaging using film base trays. The packaging has other benefits, too: the barrier film eliminates the risk of cross-contamination and keeps the product fresher for longer, thereby reducing in-store and consumer waste.”

The new film adds three to four days of shelf-life, says Sauban, and, because there is less packaging, Tesco “can now fit more birds in the transportation crates, so there are many advantages. It is huge saving in refrigeration, warehousing and logistics all through packaging.”

Inadequate packaging danger

Tesco points out the importance of packaging that is suitable for the job in hand. Inadequate packaging causes more food to be wasted than is necessary, says a spokeswoman. “In developing countries, the lack of packaging or inadequate packaging causes up to half of all food to decay before it reaches the consumer, leading to more waste. In the UK, with more efficient packaging, the figure is only 3%. Nevertheless, we are committed to reducing packaging where we can do so, without compromising its role in protecting and preserving the product. Our policy is based on five key principles. Packaging should be fit-for-purpose; use the lightest weight materials; use materials from the most sustainable sources; maximise opportunities for recycling and recovery; and be designed to have the lowest carbon impact, keeping in mind the product and value chain.”

Tesco says it has reduced packaging on its own-label products in the UK by more than 15% since 2007. As a signatory to WRAP’s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) Courtauld 2, the industry-wide commitment to reduce packaging, increase recycling, and reduce household food and drink waste, the retailer is also introducing packaging that helps meet these targets. For example, it has recently launched, in resealable packaging, bacon and egg bites in its snack range. “The resealable packs will provide customer convenience and freshness for the product, which we would hope then contribute to a reduction in food waste,” says a spokeswoman.

The bites are packaged in Esterpeel Reseal-It system, which combines FFP Packaging Solutions’ Esterpeel lidding film with MacFarlane Label’s reclosable label system. Together they form a reclosable, tamper-evident heat-seal lidding, which the companies claim “simplifies and reduces packaging while being easy to use and attractive”.

Steve Hinchly, managing director of Krehalon UK, says the supermarkets have done a lot recently to replace deep PVC trays for fresh roasting joints with shrink bags. “These large trays generate a lot of plastic and landfill waste for the household,” he says. “The main benefits of high-presentation shrink bags include: an 80%-plus weight reduction; a longer shelf-life with vacuum packing versus MAP gas packing — so a reduction in wastage; and reduced transport costs, because more products can be held in trays.”

Large pork joints sold in Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s are now packed with Krehalon Flo21 VC shrink barrier films, instead of over-wrapped trays, says Hinchly. The Flovac system uses flow-wrapper equipment to wrap meats automatically before evacuation. “The benefit is high packing speeds averaging 32 joints per minute. The packed products are then passed through a heat-shrink device to give high-shrink skin-tight presentation.”

Form-shrink development

Form-shrink is another alternative to the traditional over-wrapped tray that is gaining in popularity. Meats joints in Sainsbury’s, Asda and M&S are packed using Krehalon form-shrink films, says Hinchly. “This system uses thermoforming equipment, where meat products are placed into a formed pocket or flexible tray and then a lidding film is automatically placed and the air is evacuated, before passing through a heat-shrink device, to ensure ‘skin-tight’ presentation. The benefit is high packing speeds with minimal labour cost equivalents.”

Other ways to preserve shelf-life — and thereby reduce food wastage — are appearing all the time. Developments such as antimicrobial active packaging have opened the door to the possibility of maintaining product quality and safety over a longer period of time. This kind of packaging has already been introduced in Japan, where silver, wasabi and ethanol are among the active ingredients used.

Carolin Hauser, a food chemist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Freising, Germany, has developed and tested a new, lacquer-based antimicrobial active film. “That means that, on direct contact, an antimicrobial agent is released on to the product surface,” she explains. “The surface is the primary point of attack for germs. Using only the smallest quantities of active agent, the packaging thus provides effective protection for food.” Hauser used sorbic acid, which she dissolved in a lacquer and deposited on a base film.

Hauser says that, since she developed the product in late 2010, there has been a lot of interest from meat producers and other food producers for this antimicrobial film. “Currently we are in talks with film manufacturers in order to produce this film in large scale, but it is not on the market yet,” she says.

Last year, the Institute also developed a sensor film that tells the consumer whether the meat in the pack is fresh or off. The film can be placed under the product and changes colour to indicate if the food is spoiled. The sensor film is integrated into the inside of the packaging, where it reacts to biogenic amines. These are molecules that arise when food, particularly fish and meat, starts to decay. The Institute is seeking industrial partners to help bring the product to market.

The Institute has also raised the tantalising prospect of protective films made from whey, which would be biodegradable, allowing the consumer to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill still further. Researchers working on the EU’s ‘Wheylayer’ project have been using whey protein instead of petrochemical-based polymers in developing a new packaging film. The natural ingredients in the whey extend the shelf-life of food products, and the whey protein layer is biodegradable. The results of the research are promising. “We’ve managed to develop a whey protein formulation that can be used as the raw material for a film barrier layer,” says Markus Schmid from the Fraunhofer Institute. “And we have also developed an economically viable process which can be used to produce the multifunctional films on an industrial scale.” The researchers and their project partners have already applied for a patent on the technology.

Temperature control

Another crucial element of increased shelf-life is ensuring appropriate temperature controls when meat is being transported. PakSense has developed a new temperature monitoring label, which can help processors and retailers monitor the temperature of meat in transit. The XpressPDF Label has a temperature sensor, which takes a reading of the temperature of the object to which it is attached.

PakSense says the labels are simple to use and easy to interpret, eliminating the need for reading devices and proprietary download software.
It is clear the industry is committed to helping consumers reduce food waste through innovative new packaging. However, it remains to be seen to what extent improved packaging will help reduce the amount of food consumers throw into their bins each year.


Robotic action

Packaging is not the only factor that affects the shelf-life of meat. The use of preservatives in cooked and cured meats is being phased out in response to the demands of retailers and consumers and, at the same time, manufacturers are under pressure to increase shelf-life to reduce waste.

The University of Lincoln has studied the effects on shelf-life of the manual handling of meat compared to robotic handing of meat during processing. 
Typically, meat is sliced in an automated slicing machine and placed into packs by workers. The study found that while potential sources of contamination on machinery are relatively easy to control, the bacteria carried in workers’ skin, hair, noses and mouths is less easy to control.

While hand-washing and PPE are standard procedures to reduce the risk of contamination, the study found the use of automated pick-and-place robots, instead of human operators, reduces the risk of contamination, which can reduce shelf-life. The gripper that comes in contact with the meat can be kept at a lower temperature than body temperature, which reduces the rate of bacterial growth; and the gripper can more effectively be cleaned.

The temperature in hand-packing operations tends to be between 10˚C and 12˚C; factories using robotic slicing can operate at between 5˚C and 8˚C, the study found.
The study also highlighted that the biggest cause of seal failure on packs is food trapped in the seal, a factor that greatly diminishes shelf-life. Accurate placing of the product in the pack is easier to control with the robotic handling of meat, it concluded.

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