Packaging technologies boosting shelf life of essentials

Making food last longer on the shelf has taken on an even more important role due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. As we abide to self-distancing measures, it means a lot of people – especially the elderly and those more vulnerable to the virus – don’t want to go out as much, including going shopping for food.

At the cutting edge of making longer shelf life possible – especially of meat products – is Sealed Air. The company has a range of packaging such as the Cryovac brand Darfresh vacuum skin packaging, which is designed to protect and make products last longer on the shelf, all while keeping food waste to a minimum.

Kevin Taylor, Sealed Air’s portfolio manager – trays, films APAC has more than 25 years’ experience in the packaging industry and said that Sealed Air is working with food processors and retailers to make the shelf life longer for these products.

“Processing, packing and distribution can consume three days of the available shelf life, even more for nationwide distribution,” he said. “For retailers, maximising shelf life means a greater merchandising period, less food waste and profit erosion. The likes of our Cryovac brand Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) formats have the capability of extending shelf life by up to 13 days, but this can be doubled via formats such as Cryovac brand Darfresh vacuum skin packaging.”

Extended shelf life also means greater product access and reduced waste, while hermetic seals and tamper evidence ensures food safety. The tray design ensures robustness throughout the supply and distribution chain. It is these qualities that make plastic a good option when it comes to packaging food. Plastic packaging sometimes gets on the wrong side of environmentalists, but it is one of the best products to use when packing foodstuffs, according to Coles’ senior structural packaging technologist Graeme Hawkes. Not only that, said the Adelaide-based Hawkes, plastic offers other properties that other packaging just doesn’t have.

“Plastic is the only product that you can recycle back to their original content base and recycle in a never ending loop. Nothing else in the world will do that – not glass, not metals. They lose integrity every time you recycle,” he said. “Another thing is, I’ve studied all sorts of different packaging for meat over the years, and the barrier properties of plastics can’t be beaten. The only way you could beat it is if you buy an animal that day and slaughter it, take it home, and use it within two or three days. That is the only way plastic can be beaten.

“The supply chain and packaging requirements we use now, are 10 times more important than they were 40 years ago. But we want it to be the same as it was 40 years. Consumers don’t see it that way. They go, ‘I want this, and I want that, and I don’t want plastic’. Realistically, without plastic, you haven’t got a product.”

Beyond shelf life, temperature control across the cold chain is critical for food safety. One such technology is Sealed Air’s TempGuard.

“While packaging plays its role in product protection and shelf life, this can come undone if temperature control across cold chain distribution channels are compromised,” said Taylor. “As we see a rise in more meal home deliveries, temperature assurance is essential to ensure product safety and solutions like TempGuard ensure temperature control for up to 48 hours.”

As well as shelf life and being a barrier to unwanted germs and other nasties entering the food chain, manufacturers like Sealed Air are well aware of the peripheral concerns surrounding packaging.

“Our 2025 Plastics Pledge is really driving our research and development efforts,” said Alan Adams, Sealed Air’s sustainability director, APAC.

“Beyond shelf life and product safety attributes of Cryovac packaging solutions, the sustainable packaging guidelines underpin all packaging solutions. This means they’re designed for efficiency across the supply chain. But it starts with being resource savvy, such as ensuring they are light weight and space efficient. It’s about design that enables processors to maximise throughput all while yielding less processing packaging waste and food waste.

“End of life is a key design consideration. For example, Cryovac MAP polypropylene trays are fully curbside recyclable and comprise 8 per cent post-industrial recycled content. TempGuard comprises 80 per cent recycled content and is fully curbside recyclable.”

“Solutions like HydroLoQ go beyond ‘reduce’ because the tray cell design has product purge elements, eliminating the need for the 750 million absorbent pads used across ANZ’s fresh protein space each year,” said Adams.

Plastics also have other areas where research is making headway. Hawkes said in the 30 plus years he has been involved with plastics, the biggest change he has seen is in the lightweighting, which is due to consumers wanting less plastic and manufacturers wanting to reduce costs. But is a plastic still doing its job if there is less of it covering a product?

“It depends on the polymers,” said Hawkes. “You have polymers that are good at being an oxygen barrier and you have some that are really good – manufacturers put an active barrier inside the polymers themselves that absorb residual oxygen to keep the freshness.

“There are some really fantastic technologies around some of the barrier properties around plastics. Thicker doesn’t always mean better. Thicker just means heavier which makes it better for a MRF. It doesn’t mean that it is going to be better for the product inside it.”

In the current climate surrounding COVID-19, these plastic barriers are important. Taylor is also aware of issues around getting food to market quickly, and also that Sealed Air is learning lessons as supply chain issues unfold.

“Supply chain reliability is crucial especially when we need to respond quickly to unprecedented supply volumes. A rapid response means a local response,” he said. “Think about the mince beef situation. When consumers hit the panic button, it affects the entire supply chain and without packaging, our food supply chain is compromised. Our Cryovac trays are locally produced in Tullamarine, Victoria so we’ve been able to react quickly and ramp up supply to our customers and interstate warehouses for next day delivery.

“While local supply chains are crucial, so is collaboration. We’ve worked closely with our customers and retail partners to ensure we are putting packaging resources into the appropriate areas to ensure we fulfil product demand.

“It’s a real example of the industry working in collaboration – all while keeping employees and communities safe.

“Mince trays have been our single biggest growth area. Minced beef is a high turner over product anyhow but panic buying saw tray volumes increase four-fold. We need to ensure we are prepared for the next thing and there will be lessons learned for the entire food industry, in particular, local supply. Kudos to front line workers and to all involved in Australia’s food supply chain. The provision of safe food and continued nutrition during this time is paramount and through strong collaboration and in a true Aussie spirit, we are ‘getting on with it’.”

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