Antimicrobial packaging propels food waste prevention to new heights
The disease-fighting technology also enhances food safety amid COVID-19 hygiene concerns
04 Aug 2020 --- Antimicrobial packaging solutions have demonstrated impressive shelf life-extending capabilities, which are vital in the battle against global food waste. Prevalent here is the EU-funded NanoPack project’s essential oils film, which expands the shelf life of yellow cheese by 50 percent, for example. Yet barriers to mainstream adoption, notably consumer acceptance, cost and regulatory hurdles, pose significant but not impossible challenges to the promising technology.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has filled many consumers with a new sense of appreciation for packaging and its vital role in preserving the hygiene and safety of food and beverage products. Antimicrobial packaging – a subset of active packaging that integrates antimicrobials to kill pathogenic microorganisms like foodborne diseases – is a promising technology pushing the boundaries of food safety and preservation. In some cases, antimicrobial packaging has also shown the potential to fight off strains of coronavirus.
Harnessing nature in food waste fight
If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the US, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It is an environmental, economic, and moral issue of global proportions and one that the UN singled out for special attention in 2015 in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN’s target is to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 2030 (SDG 12.3). Evidence suggests that antimicrobial packaging can be a big part of the food waste solution.
The core objective of the EU-funded NanoPack Project is to achieve better quality and longer-lasting fresh produce, bakery products and proteins through shelf life-enhancing packaging. NanoPack’s state-of-the-art antimicrobial technology, based on the combination of natural nanomaterials and essential oils extracted from plants like oregano and thyme, has delivered remarkable results. For example, the antimicrobial polymer films have shown to inhibit mold growth in bread by at least three weeks and the saleability of fresh cherries by 40 percent.
“NanoPack antimicrobial packaging minimizes the number of preservatives required to maintain freshness and enhances food safety for consumers by inhibiting the growth of microbes in food products, which will prevent early spoilage and foodborne illness outbreaks,” Dr. Nina McGrath, Senior Manager of Food & Health Science and the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), tells PackagingInsights.
“Assessment activities include migration studies, investigation of the toxicological and ecotoxicological profiles of halloysite nanotube (HNT)-infused packaging, exposure assessment during production and product application,” adds McGrath. Already on the market, UK-based innovator Sirane’s AB technology contains a blend of natural bioflavonoids and organic acids, which work together to extend shelf life. The technology can be supplied in absorbent meat pads, compostable pads, soft fruit absorbent cushioned pads and absorbent ovenable dividers.
“The combination of flavonoids, which are antioxidants and antimicrobial, with organic acids including citric acid and ascorbic acids, are harmless as all elements are naturally within fruit. It is clean, simple, and effective. Nature itself often has the answers,” remarks Mark Lingard, Marketing Manager at Sirane.
Combating viral contaminations
Although antimicrobial packaging is primarily developed to fend off foodborne diseases, including Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry and Listeria in seafood, some technologies have shown to decrease viral contamination, including strains of coronavirus.
In a notable example, UK-based BioCote’s antimicrobial additives are proven to reduce microbes such as bacteria by up to 99.99 percent, deactivate influenza A H1N1 and reduce a strain of the coronavirus family by 90 percent in two hours on protected surfaces. BioCote contains active substances, such as silver, that are added during the manufacturing of rigid and flexible plastics packaging, meat processing equipment, poultry transportation crates, temperature measurement devices and single-use gloves.
“As people and businesses feel the pandemic’s impact, one of the universal outcomes has been heightened hygiene-consciousness. Introducing antimicrobial technology into food packaging can provide people with more confidence to handle packaged foods, knowing the in-built technology is constantly working to reduce microbes such as bacteria and some viruses on protected surfaces,” notes Megan Vaughan, Technical Manager at BioCote.
Similarly, Norwegian company ZincIn recently launched an ocean plastic food tray that leverages integrated antimicrobial technology by Dutch company Parx Materials to protect against bacteria and viruses without needing to wipe the trays clean. According to third-party testing, the innovation boasts approximately 99.9 percent fewer germs than those found on conventional food trays and “makes very good sense” in preventing the COVID-19 spread, the companies indicate. ZincIn’s food trays are made from recycled fishing industry equipment like ropes and cages – significant contributors to the global plastic pollution crisis.
Further, Hong Kong-based Main Choice’s PAPEL antimicrobial technology is also proven to be bacteria-repellent by accredited labs. “Although viruses were not our main focus when developing this technology, we also found that oil-based PAPEL has over 80 percent antiviral effectiveness against OC43 (a beta-coronavirus) based on ISO 21702,” shares Terry W. J. Meng, Project Lead for PAPEL.
The recyclability reach
Meng illustrates that most conventional antimicrobial solutions might not be suitable for paper packaging due to the concerns over leachable biocides, while the recyclability of the packaging materials remains a concern.
“PAPEL offers, for the first time, a germ-repellent solution to minimize the risk of contamination. Food-contact safe modifiers integrated with existing varnish form a hydration layer to repel bacteria to prevent them from adsorbing and forming biofilms. Germ-repellent food packaging materials coated with PAPEL are leach-free and comply with the food-contact safety requirements from both the US and EU,” Meng highlights.
On the environmental sustainability front, Sirane’s reusable insulated bags are made entirely from polyethylene, rather than the standard mixture of plastic components, to enable recyclability, including when integrated with UK-based Addmaster’s Biomaster antibacterial technology. Biomaster boasts a 99.9 percent defense rate against microbes found in chilled and frozen products, including on outer packaging, which can cause diseases like E.coli 0157 and deteriorate and discolor foods. A proportion of the bag’s plastic content can be replaced with an alternative derived from waste seashells. Furthermore, the protective solution is marketed as affordable.
“As with most things in the food supply chain, it comes down to the pennies. Anything which is ‘extra’ comes at an extra cost. Margins are often very tight. To see the benefit of shelf life, fewer returns and less waste, you need a packaging buyer who can see the bigger picture and realize that, although the costs have increased slightly, the gains are there further down the chain,” Lingard at Sirane tells PackagingInsights.
Convincing consumers and regulators
Two potential barriers to the full-scale adoption of nanotechnology applied to food packaging are consumer acceptance and regulatory compliance, according to McGrath at EUFIC. “For nanotechnology-based food packaging to be successfully introduced on the market, consumers must be willing to purchase products that make use of this technology. NanoPack has conducted consumer studies that showed that in the case of the NanoPack solution, consumers were not concerned with the ‘nanotechnology’ aspect, provided that new technologies meet product safety criteria.”
Any new technology brought to the market must comply with specific EU legislation on food contact materials. “In the context of NanoPack, full health (including occupational) and environmental safety assessment of NanoPack products and processes are prioritized to ensure that NanoPack products meet EU and global quality and safety standards.”
“Consumers have a concern, quite rightly, over what goes into their food and what comes into contact with it, for example, BPA in plastic bottles [has raised concerns over consumer health]. At a time when people move increasingly towards organic foods and chemical-free products, this extends to some people raising concerns over food and in-built antimicrobials,” continues Vaughan at BioCote.
BioCote works closely with manufacturers to ensure they only use antimicrobial additives suitable for their material type and application. “This means that any antimicrobials we recommend for food contact have been shown to not migrate from the surface above the levels dictated by the European Food Standards Agency. This ensures a functional and safe product, which has been properly considered for the end-user,” explains Vaughan.
A scalable future
Set against the backdrop of the UN’s endeavors to halve per capita global food waste by 2030, the shelf life-extending powers of antimicrobial packaging will inevitably attract significant food industry players. Moreover, heightened public concern for health and hygiene as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic increases the potential for consumer acceptance of antimicrobial technologies as a barrier to foodborne and viral contaminations. As global demand increases and innovations such as the EU NanoPack’s novel film hit the market, the cost-effectiveness and scalability of antimicrobial packaging are likely to improve, paving the way for mainstream adoptions.
By Joshua Poole
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