Is Intelligent Food Packaging Approaching?
By Aaron L. Brody
So much has been written and overstated about intelligent packaging that the concept has become unintelligible to many. Presently, intelligent packaging seems to be synonymous with radio frequency identification (likely because of Wal-Mart’s RFID program), but intelligent packaging encompasses much, much more than a single retailer’s highly publicized RFID initiative.
Intelligent packaging formats vary, but they all share the ability to sense and signal change in a product or package. Once a variable can be measured—be it location, temperature or product quality—that variable can ultimately be controlled to the benefit of manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
RFID tags, for example, are used as location sensors and signalers for inventory tracking. It was Wal-Mart’s 2004 mandate that suppliers place RFID tags on shipping crates that brought the technology into the spotlight. In the coming years, as industry adoption increases, RFID technology will likely be applied directly to packaging (and more often than bar codes or two dimensional PDF codes) with far greater capacity to accelerate information exchange.
Time Temperature Integrators
Current applications of intelligent packaging technology are also able to track physical variables of a product or package, providing a history of temperature exposure on packages during shipment and storage. Such time temperature integrators (TTI) serve to alert manufacturers and retailers to the potential of microbiological and/or biochemical deterioration of packaged foods.
Packaging that Interacts with Appliances
Soon, food service and/or domestic appliances will likely be equipped with devices that read encoded information from food packages and adjust their operation as a result. Today’s ovens often make use of microwaves, halogen lamp infrared radiation and forced air convection, making manual control often beyond the operator’s understanding. Trial and error to cook a casserole can be wasteful and costly. However, with intelligent packaging, the process can be automated by having the oven read “cooking instructions” from the intelligent component and adjust its time-temperature cycling to deliver a quality boeuf bourguignonne every time.
Refrigerators will be developed to read information from lettuce wrap and inform the consumer that the lettuce is wilting. Or, nutritional data from the packaging inside the appliance can be displayed to alert the consumer that he might be exceeding his daily allotment of calories. And, yes, the physician can be informed electronically of the patient’s indiscretion as well.
Biosensors to Signal Food Safety/Quality Changes
Some of the most dramatic potential applications of intelligent packaging are those that could detect and signal the presence of microbiological growth in packaged foods. Such formats have been widely publicized as being able to detect the presence of specific pathogenic microorganisms or microbial toxins and transmit the information to the package surface to inform members of the distribution channel and consumers that the product was hazardous to human health. But, since the best rapid microbiological test methods are relatively complex and require hours to complete, the notion of instant recognition has left many of us wondering whether the claims are accurate?
One rational voice has emerged in the cacophony. Auburn University’s professor James Barbaree heads a multidisciplinary research team that has been probing the potential of biosensors to signal microbiological growth. Dr. Barbaree’s Detection and Food Safety team is marrying the latest in microbiological detection with electronic sensing, recording and signaling technologies to suggest that a valid packaging technology might be commercialized in the near future.
It’s complicated—but such technology often is. Interestingly, professor Barbaree says RFID, which is chiefly touted for location and identification purposes, might be the vehicle for achieving the desired result. A twist on the activity surrounding RFID—that beyond its cost-savings attributes, the technology might be used to actually save lives. BP
The author, Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D., is President/CEO of Packaging/Brody Inc., a consultancy in food, packaging technology and marketing. Contact Dr. Brody at 770.613.0991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.