Diagnostic packaging potential expands

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One third of total wastage in the supply chain is caused by
temperature abuse, according to a Swedish survey in 2002. As a
result, diagnostic packaging has become increasingly popular, and
the concept was on display at Total 2004.

The report claims that in Sweden alone, €80 million is lost as a result of temperature abuse. Extrapolate this figure across Europe, and total wastage amounts to nearly €3 billion.

As a result, diagnostic packaging has become increasingly popular. The concept refers to the presence of an indicator or sensor, either within the package or an attached label, which can give information about direct quality of product, the package itself, headspace gases or storage conditions.

There are four broad types of diagnostic packaging, the first being time-temperature indicators. This sector can be divided into two base technologies - chemical and electronic.

An example of a chemical-based product is Cox Technologies' Vitsab, an enzyme reaction tag. This can be activated at a chosen time in the supply chain and turns green when activated. As the product reaches the end of its life, it turns yellow.

The company is currently working on developing a product that can be incorporated directly into the packaging. However, Vitsab is positioned as a product that measures the effects of low-level temperature abuse - it does not work as well if subjected to extreme temperatures. As a result, Cox is currently developing a system that can operate at under these more extreme conditions.

Swedish-based Bioett is developing a tag that combines Vitsab-style enzyme-based technology with RFID electronics. This raises the possibility of electronically sensing which products are reaching the end of their shelf life, and their exact location in the supply chain.

While Bioett's product is a kind of hybrid between electronics and chemistry, other companies are developing basic electronic sensors for potential use in packaging. The advent of cheap, disposable flat elecronics means that the technology could soon become cheap enough to be incorporated into every day food packaging.

The advantage of electronically-based devices is the quality of data produced. For example, KSW-Microtec's Tempsense label can provide unique identification for each product and a complete audit trail of temperature abuse. It documents exceptions in the storage temperature and tells when and for how long the product was exposed.

The use of RFID is starting to become integrated into these electronic temperature monitors. Alien Technology, an out-and-out RFID producer, is marketing its 2450Mhz long-range Backscatter system as a possible low-cost temperature monitor that could be applied as a tag at product level.

Leak indicators are also being developed for food packaging. A major problem facing food manufacturers is how to inhibit oxygen levels within the package in order to delay spoilage.

A leak indicator, composed of oxygen sensitive dye, will change colour as oxygen enters the package as the result of leakage. Finnish-based VTT Biotechnology has patented leakage indicator technologies for modified atmosphere (MAP) packaging systems.

The market for diagnostic packaging in the food sector is expanding. Issues such as food safety, reducing shrinking in the supply chain and lengthening shelf life, are driving manufacturers to improve the packaging performance of their products.

This report was based on a Pira International​ survey.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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