It can be very challenging for the agri-food sector to determine the optimal time for harvesting, storage, and transport of their products. However, new technologies arise that could help diminish substantial degradation and waste. In the food packaging field, intelligent packaging is one of these newest technologies.
The European Commission defines intelligent packaging as “materials and articles that monitor the condition of packaged food or the environment surrounding the food”. Intelligent packaging uses the packaging system’s communication function to facilitate decision making by monitoring changes in the internal and external environment of the packaged foods. It communicates those changing conditions to all stakeholders of the food supply chain.
Sensors are the most innovative and promising technology for future intelligent packaging systems. There are several existing sensor technologies which can be incorporated in the packaging of foodstuffs. This helps optimizing the shelf-life from the time of harvest, through storage and transportation, and when the product is ultimately on the shelf. Most of the sensors that can be used in intelligent packaging are either biosensors or gas sensors.
For example, a nanotechnology sensor can monitor the emergence of the plant hormone ethylene in products. Ethylene plays a main role in the ripening of fruits and vegetables. Measuring the internal ethylene concentrations of crops indicates the ideal harvesting time. This monitoring can also be done during storage and transportation to avoid overripening. Another use is to scavenge ethylene when high concentrations are detected, providing a means for the optimal shelf-life. Such a technology can be incorporated as an intelligent packaging concept.
Another example are biosensors used to detect toxins that may contaminate food such as pathogens or other micro-organisms. These smart devices change color when pathogenic bacteria are present, as the bacterial toxin is bound to the antibodies and immobilized on a thin layer of flexible polymer film. The pathogens it works for are, for instance, Escherichia coli O157, Listeria spp., Salmonella spp., and Campylobacter spp. This biosensor thus works as an indicator for food safety and freshness, giving a clear indication for the consumer if the food is still edible or not.
These innovations belong to the many developed techniques to make the packaging of food intelligent, increase food safety and decrease food waste by increasing shelf-life. The possibilities for the entire agri-food chain are infinite. Interested to read more about intelligent packaging? Then have a look at this article.