Sealed Air packaging technology
When it comes to packaging, consumers are looking for functional performance and technical features including enhanced shelf life and convenience.

When it comes to meat packaging, consumers are looking for functional performance and technical features including enhanced shelf life and convenience.

During the Product Improvement Workshop at the 2016 International Production & Processing Expo in Atlanta packaging experts and meat scientists provided an overview of how technology is being used to address meat color, shelf life and packaging. The packaging panel also looked at how packaging technology of the future might influence what is the next big thing in the meat case.

Henry Ruiz, product specialist with Sealed Air Corp., Charlotte, North Carolina, provided an overview of some of the latest packaging technology trends and drivers. Consumers’ priorities with regard to packaging, according to Ruiz, include emotional engagement, functional performance and technical features. Concerns surrounding emotional engagement tend to focus on the material used in the packaging, including whether or not it is biodegradable or recyclable. Functional features include enhanced shelf life or convenience. Technical features, Ruiz said, are somewhat of a moving target. For example, easy-open has evolved from a value-added feature to a universal expectation for most of today’s consumers.

Globally, Ruiz referenced research that affirms other consumer expectations that have become part of the cost of doing business for packaged meat and poultry companies. Sustainability, for example, used to be a distinguishing feature among packaging options, but is now part of the growing list of expectations among retailers and their customers.

Ruiz also discussed advances made in active packaging, a trend that is designed to deliver added shelf life or enhance convenience. Oxygen-scavenging technology is an example of evolving packaging technology that shows promise, he said. While sachets used in products such as jerky have become widely accepted, oxygen scavenging packaging material, in the form of polymers, is showing promise. Still somewhat early in development, the challenge for the new technology is in the capacity of the material to scavenge.

Cryovac Darfresh on Tray for pork products
Cryovac Darfresh on Tray features a vacuum-skin package that helps extend shelf life of case-ready fresh meat.

“When it comes to O2-scavenging polymers, the question of capacity; how much can you actually scavenge, has to be addressed, Ruiz said.” NanoBioMatters, based in Valencia, Spain, is a leading supplier of this technology, a promising prospect for many processors in the United States.

Confinement odor scavenging in vacuum-packaged products is another issue scavenging technology can address, Ruiz said. “This should be used to mask confined odor and not spoilage,” which could have food safety implications. To address this, odor scavenging technology used in combination with spoilage-sensing smart labels can be used effectively as a means of addressing both issues.

Ruiz also mentioned several other promising technologies that can be used to extend shelf life and convenience, all of which can be incorporated into packaging material. However, some of these technologies are still evolving and have not yet been approved for commercial use.

For example, incorporating ethylene scavenging into packaging material is making headway, especially when used to package fruits and vegetables. Direct contact antimicrobial technology applications have also been of interest to the food industry, historically based on the early use of heavy metals including silver derivatives to control pathogens. More recent developments include the use of natural extracts, including rosemary and oregano. While these technologies are promising, regulatory hurdles associated with the use of heavy metals in packaging material and managing the effect of extracts on the product quality when used in packaging material, have yet to be perfected.

The Gogol Mogol can cook an egg in five minutes without an outside heat source.
The Gogol Mogol can cook an egg in two minutes without an outside heat source.

Self-heating packages, which are based on technology utilized for the military in the form of meals ready-to-eat (MRE) are being used in a growing variety of food and beverage packages. Ruiz pointed out an example of advances in this technology, including one made by Austin, Texas-based HeatGenie, which heats a 12-oz. liquid container to 160° F in two minutes using a small self-contained heating pod attached to the base of a metal container. Another company, based in Russia, has developed the Gogol Mogol, which is used to cook an egg in two minutes with no outside heat source.

Sniffing out spoilage

During a panel discussion with Ruiz, other Sealed Air officials and meat scientists from two universities the topic of the viability of using portable, aroma-based sensors to detect spoilage or pathogens in meats was raised. Also known as “electronic noses,” advances in this technology have some researchers looking at the potential of how the technology can be used commercially in addition to being used by consumers at the retail level. 

Chance Brooks, Texas Tech Univ.
Prof. Chance Brooks, Texas Tech Univ.

Chance Brooks, Ph.D., professor and associate chair at Texas Tech Univ.’s Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences, says the technology holds plenty of promise but is also limited in many ways.

“It’s very difficult to take a single volatile as an indicator of overall freshness,” Brooks said, comparing the numerous and varied odors created in a meat package to the complexity of many wines. Having served on sensory panels himself, Brooks said the aromas are far different than the bouquet of a red wine, but just as telling.

“Sometimes it smells like package, sometimes it smells musty and sometimes it smells like perfume,” he said. “You get all these odors that individually you’d never associate with a meat product, but collectively they create these characteristic odors that we find either offensive or desirable.”

He adds that the technology is promising but it is limited because it requires a product with headspace in the package and a sampling of that headspace around the product. Therefore it is restricted because it doesn’t apply to many packaging applications. In most cases, however, what you see is what you get when it comes to product safety.

“There are only a handful of times when a product smells bad before it looks bad,” Brooks said.

Dale Woerner, Ph.D., associate professor in the Center for Meat Safety and Quality at Colorado State Univ. added: “As the portable units advance and grow beyond the ability to detect more than just one compound, it has real promise.” He said the limitation of a portable device is its inability to identify multiple indicators of spoilage.

And when the time comes that technology is able to instantly quantify pathogens on a meat product, it opens up the discussion about whether or not a single number universally denotes spoilage. Woerner pointed out that a raw number of bacteria isn’t always a telltale indicator.

“It depends on what the bacteria are, and what it’s doing in the food or meat item. We can have 7 logs of bacteria and still have a very acceptable product,” Woerner said. He further explained that using a one-size-fits-all prediction model based on an algorithm is not always the answer. “It all comes back to color and oxidation management. If you’re managing color and you’re managing lipid oxidation, then you’re really managing what most would perceive as spoilage.”