The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about one third of all food produced in the world for human consumption every year is lost or wasted.
That adds up to about 1.3 billion tonnes annually. If you are a consumer living in the U.S. or Europe, you will likely throw away 95 – 115 kg of food every year. 1
In today’s truly global food marketplace consumers expect to have a wide variety of wholesome, fresh produce available on their local store shelves every day. Producers and manufacturers are striving to offer an ever-increasing range of minimally processed fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy and baked goods that have a long shelf life, and look and taste great. The latest packaging processes can help to keep food fresh and extend its shelf life, and play a key role in reducing the ever-growing issue of global food waste.
MAP for all types of fresh and perishable foods
Refrigeration and freezing technologies can help to keep a wide range of food types safe for extended periods. A more recent innovation for retaining freshness is to package perishable food in modified atmosphere packaging, or MAP, which extends the product’s shelf life without changing its visual appearance, taste or texture. MAP is used to package meat, poultry, fish, salads, whole and cut vegetables and fruits, as well as processed and convenience foods, bakery products and dairy.
MAP involves replacing air in the package using a gas mixture that slows the natural processes of food deterioration. MAP gases are the same as those in the air that we breathe – primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2) and sometimes oxygen (O2) – just in different proportions. Generally all, or nearly all, of the O2 is removed. Modified atmosphere packaging is produced by flushing the air out of the inside of the package using the desired gas mixture, and then sealing in the product. The exact ratios of each gas in the modified atmosphere package are finely controlled, and will depend upon on the food type it contains.
The majority of packaged retail fresh food that we find today on our supermarket shelves is presented in modified atmosphere packaging. The MAP market was estimated to be worth $11.5 billion in 2015, and is projected to reach $13.8 billion by 2020. 2 The figure below shows the breakdown and expected growth for the six main application areas. 3
As with any method of food packaging, safety is a primary concern. The MAP process is subject to stringent quality control checks that assess the integrity of packaging and gas composition by measuring the residual O2 concentration in the package. Traditionally this has been done by taking sealed packages at random from a production line, and piercing them with a sensor needle to measure the oxygen content. Spot checking doesn’t assess every item, so there’s always a chance that a damaged pack may reach the consumer. This traditional needle sensor testing is also hugely wasteful of both packaging materials and food because it puts a hole in the package, which then has to be discarded. And if a random check finds just one package that has either leaked or shows incorrect gas composition, every package that has already been produced in the same batch, up to the last checkpoint, is rejected.
Introducing 100% quality control with OxyCheck
To improve quality control and reduce waste GEA has developed OxyCheck as a unique, non-invasive system that checks the oxygen content and seal integrity of every single MAP product on the packaging line. And unlike existing sample measurement techniques, GEA OxyCheck doesn’t damage the packaging or the product inside.
GEA OxyCheck comprises an optical sensor that is used to detect fluorescence emitted by a spot of polystyrene-based fluorescent dye that is printed on the inner side of the packaging film. The wavelengths of light given off by the harmless dye change according to the oxygen content inside the packaging. The optical sensor shines a pulsed LED light onto this spot from the outside of the packaging to measure the light and calculate the concentration of oxygen inside the packaging
The system makes two separate checks of each MAP package, the first just after sealing, and the second a little bit further down the line to see if there has been any leakage of gas. Temperature also influences the dye’s fluorescence, so the sensors incorporate non-contact thermometers so that temperature can be taken into account in the calculation. Any packages that don’t meet the specifications are automatically rejected from the line without having to stop production, so productivity isn’t affected.
A winning solution for manufacturers and consumers
The ability to non-invasively carry out checks on 100% of MAP products helps to ensure that food quality is preserved for the consumer, and also reduces packaging and food waste. Because every package is checked there shouldn’t be any need to reject whole batches ‘just in case’, when a single randomly checked package fails. The system is also automated, which frees operators to attend to other tasks.
Commitment to environmental sustainability and reducing waste
Since 2013 GEA has been a member of the global ‘SAVE FOOD’ initiative, which is working to eliminate food waste along the whole value chain. One focus of the initiative is the development and use of packaging that is both safe and conserves resources.
The OxyCheck technology has been developed for use on GEA’s PowerPak line of horizontal thermoformers. The system has been validated by specialists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, using alternative oxygen measuring equipment to confirm the precision and sensitivity of the GEA OxyCheck technology integrated into a packing machine. 4 The tests confirmed that the GEA system demonstrated high sensitivity in detecting residual oxygen in gas-flushed packaging trays, there was a high readout rate of oxygen measurement spots, without any misinterpretation, and temperature measurements were also precise.
“The technology of using light for reading oxygen or other gases inside a closed compartment is not new, but introducing it on an industrial level is unique” commented Volker Sassmannshausen, Senior Product Manager Thermoforming at GEA. “It’s beneficial for the environment because there is less waste, and requires less human intervention.”
1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Key Findings. 2017
2. MarketsandMarkets. Modified Atmosphere Packaging Market: Global Trends & Forecast to 2020. 2015
3. Persistence Market Research. Global Market Study on Active and Modified Atmospheric Packaging: Over 13 Times Increase in Shelf Life of Fresh Food Products due to the Use of Active and Modified Atmospheric is Likely to Affirm the Impressive Market Growth. August 2016.
4. Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV. Validation of GEA OxyCheck – non-invasive residual oxygen measurement system integrated into a thermoformer. December 2017.