For decades, food and beverage manufacturers have developed product packaging with only the grocery shelf in mind. But the rise of e-commerce has yielded increasingly complex supply chain models, pushing companies to look for solutions that will keep products fresh and protected all the way from the warehouse to the delivery van to the customer’s doorstep.
It’s an undertaking that’s easier said than done. A study from Rutgers University found that 47% of refrigerated meats in meal kits are too warm for safe consumption by the time they’re delivered, despite being packed in insulated boxes.
"When we're think about the future of intelligent packaging the next big thing is really responsive packaging. ...That's where we need to focus, because that's what our consumers want."
CEO, Packaging Technology Research
But solutions may not be far off. At the Institute of Food Technologists conference this week, food packaging experts discussed the potential smart applications — such as “active” packaging that fights contamination and “intelligent” packaging that can indicate spoilage with color-changing symbols — that could be better equipped for the digital age.
Smart packaging’s benefits aren’t limited to product integrity, either. Claire Sand, founder and CEO of Packaging Technology Research, said at the panel that by integrating technologies like sensors determining pH and temperature, manufacturers can gain profitable value-adds and deliver an enhanced consumer experience.
"Intelligent packaging can really improve sustainability," Sand told the audience. "When we're think about the future of intelligent packaging, the next big thing is really responsive packaging. ...That's where we need to focus because that's what our consumers want."
Safety throughout the supply chain
While not technically “smart” packaging, active packaging can create a meaningful impact across the food industry by reducing food spoilage and contamination rates — which could improve the segment's growing food waste problem. Though this issue has become top of mind for consumers in the past few years, Americans still throw away approximately 150,000 tons of food a day.
The packaging format isn’t a pipe dream, either. It’s been on the market for some time and could continue to scale as mainstream consumers begin to hold food and beverage brands as accountable for the sustainability of their product packaging as they do for their food and ingredients.
Active packaging elongates shelf life. This can be achieved through intentional packaging design, such as creating wings inside of a plastic package of meat that diverts juices away from the main cut of protein, or a modified atmosphere system within packaging that keeps oxygen levels low to discourage growth of harmful bacteria, said Sunil Mangalassary, associate professor and coordinator of the Food Science and Technology program at California State University, Los Angeles.
Whether the average shopper would be willing to pay more for a food product sealed inside active packaging is another question. Active packaging doesn't signal when a product has gone bad to consumers and manufacturers, like intelligent packaging does, which could make it difficult to market and contextualize its value to consumers.
Active packaging can also protect against post-processing contamination, which Mangalassary said is the cause of most foodborne illness outbreaks.
"The key to this whole concept of clean label is not based on scientific evidence, but our perceptions. So if I see a chemical compound I can't pronounce, I'm going to look at that and say, 'That's not clean,' even though it may be.”
Director of global innovation and design, Graphic Packaging International
This is achieved by coating food packaging's interior in chemical compounds like antimicrobial agents and antioxidants that act as preservatives for the fresh item inside. But while this kind of active packaging can better guarantee safe food and reduce food waste, the process of synthetic chemicals directly interacting with food products also goes against growing consumer demand for clean labels and all-natural products.
This creates an interesting tension, Dan Ahern, director of global innovation and design at Graphic Packaging International said, as consumer understanding of clean label is entirely dependent upon their own interpretation and values — and those values can change.
"The key to this whole concept of clean label is not based on scientific evidence but our perceptions," Ahern said. "So if I see a chemical compound I can't pronounce, I'm going to look at that and say, 'That's not clean,' even though it may be. So we have to be careful with how we position these [products and packaging]."
It’s unclear if fear of artificial ingredients is strong enough to overshadow the benefits of elongated shelf life in the consumer's mind. Still, food brands looking to spin the packaging as a consumer-facing value-add could highlight the fact that — for beef in particular — this packaging can protect protein from microbials that cause browning and can alter product flavor.
Communicating with consumers at home
While active packaging is designed to keep food safe throughout the supply chain and also preserve freshness on the supermarket shelf, intelligent packaging could take this concept one step further — by communicating product freshness to consumers through on-pack sensor technology.
Sand said that this technology could also reduce chances of food waste by eliminating guesswork and “sniff tests.”
“Let’s say a product is labeled with ‘consume within seven days of opening.’ I don’t remember when I opened this big, Costco container of yogurt, so how do I know if it’s still good?" Sand asked. "With [intelligent packaging,] a sticker on the container would be activated after I opened it, so I could check and know."
The technology needed to create responsive labels like this has been available for about 10 years, though Sand believes it’s being underutilized. Things that could be used now include temperature indicators, which can signal to the consumer when safe temperatures have been exceeded.
Sand also said that in the future, consumers may have the option to add preservatives to products that are beginning to go bad at home by pressing a button on their food's packaging.
"So if you're having people over for dinner on Saturday but its Wednesday and the product you bought isn't looking good, you can push a button, release some compounds, and the product will last longer," she said.
“Let’s say a product is labeled with ‘consume within seven days of opening.’ I don’t remember when I opened this big, Costco container of yogurt, so how do I know if it’s still good? With [intelligent packaging] a sticker on the container would be activated after I opened it, so I could check and know."
CEO, Packaging Technology Research
Manufacturers can also add digital temperature data logs to predict product degradation based on how many times temperatures have spiked along the supply chain — which can inform grocers if the product is suitable for normal sale, or needs to be discounted or tossed. Sensors tracking pH can also signal to consumers if a product has spoiled by changing the color of on-pack labels when an item should be thrown away.
But if the technology is out there, why aren't these technologies more prevalent? Sand said its likely because of risk aversion. Manufacturers want to avoid potential lawsuits if an application such as color-changing technology fails and leads a consumer to eat spoiled food. And grocery retailers don’t want the shelves to be full of products whose labels indicate the products have spoiled — a display that could deal a potentially major blow to brand loyalty.