Food for thought - active and intelligent packaging

Packaging Professional magazine
13 Nov 2009
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The EU adopted a regulation this year governing active and intelligent materials and products that come into contact with food. Dr Alistair Irvine, Principal Consultant in Food Packaging Safety at Pira International, in Leatherhead, UK, welcomes the move.

Modified atmosphere packaging and active and intelligent (A&I) packaging materials are made for each other. Packing under a modified atmosphere into a suitable barrier pack and incorporating an oxygen absorber can significantly extend food shelf-life, while intelligent items such as temperature-time indicators can monitor the condition of these foods. Examples that have been on our shelves for some years include the use of oxygen absorbers with premium sliced meats, which are packed under reduced oxygen atmospheres. 

The European market for active food packaging grew at an annual rate of 23.8% between 2004-09 (The Future of Active and Modified Atmosphere Packaging; Market Forecasts to 2014). It is forecast to continue growing at a rate close to 10% through to 2014 when it will be worth more than US$700m annually, while the global market will be worth US$3.5bln by the same year.

However, several factors have restrained market growth – the technology’s relatively high cost, consumer resistance to what they might perceive as a foreign body or excessive packaging, and restrictions imposed by food safety legislation, particularly in the EU. With no harmonised EU legislation on A&I materials, different countries have varying interpretations of what is required to demonstrate safety. Since June this year, when the EU adopted Regulation 450/2009, this legislative question mark seems to have been removed.

Receipe for success

The new A&I Food Packaging regulation distinguishes between active or intelligent elements of a packaging material and the inert parts of the product, such as the sachets, labels or films, which contain the A&I materials. These inert elements have to comply with existing regulations such as on food contact plastics.

Meanwhile, A&I packaging manufacturers must submit dossiers to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for approval of their ingredients. The assessment process involves two important tests:

The petitioner must demonstrate that the level of material migration is safe and will not cause the food to become harmful to the consumer. 

They must also show that the A&I packaging materials are effective, for instance, temperature-time indicators must change colour reliably. Introducing this test of efficacy, rather than sticking purely to safety concerns, is designed to ensure that A&I packaging is not used as a marketing gimmick.

The EFSA has published guidelines on how to apply for approval under this regulation and has now entered an 18-month period during which it will accept applications for A&I products that are already on the market. This window is due to close on 21 January 2011.

After EFSA has assessed the submissions, it will publish a register of approved A&I products, and the use of non-listed materials will be banned in food contact applications. The approval process will remain in place for any new A&I food contact materials that are developed, but these must be approved before they are put on the market.

The regulation also requires that where an A&I packaging material can be mistaken for food, for example if it is in the form of a sachet that resembles a seasoning pack, it should be labelled ‘do not eat’ and, wherever possible, carry a special symbol. There is a template for a declaration of compliance to communicate the safety and scope to packer fillers who might use the materials.

Positive progress

With the regulatory hurdle now removed, A&I packaging can at last have a fair run at achieving its full potential in the European food packaging market. Only time will tell whether actual growth will meet expectations, or whether cost pressure from cash-strapped consumers will pass back to retailers to constrain growth, as well as perceptions that these components add to extra packaging. There are now some clear rules of how to demonstrate safety for A&I packaging materials, and that brings some welcome clarity.

Further information:
Pira International