In three articles I like to highlight the recent developments in packaging of fresh produce. Fresh produce can be seen as one of the most important commodities of the food market. And only growing in importance, as more and more consumers opt for fresh and minimally processed food.
As an example we take the Scots. Scots are purchasing more fresh fruits and vegetables than other Britons. A study shows that Scots are more likely to cook fresh foods at home, buy fresh foods and choose food because of its healthiness than those south of the border.
According to the research Scots appear to be happy to spend more of their cash on organic food, being 9% more likely to do so than those in Britain as a whole. Fruit is particularly popular with Scottish kids, with 23% of fruit being eaten because it is “a favourite,” up from 15% in 2010. Children also consumed 11 million more servings of fruit last year than they did in 2010.
But the popularity of fresh produce also has its seamy side. It has been estimated that up to 25% of food is thrown away within the supply chain from grower to retailer to in-home. Vegetables and then fruit are the main contenders. In Germany, for example, where fresh produce is very popular, the consumers throw out nearly 82 kilos of food every year, including fruits and vegetables that they deem as unattractive in appearance.
This translates in almost 11 million tonnes of wasted food nationally each year. 60% of this, according to a study, comes from private households, 17% from restaurants, schools, cafes and the like and another 17% from industry. The remainder can be accounted for by retail wastage.
Everybody who claims that packaging is a waste of resources, has to take a look at the waste figures of fresh produce and multiply that, in case packaging should be eliminated. Many packaging companies, universities and research institute are concentrating their efforts on packaging material that will improve and extend the shelf-life and freshness of fresh produce. It is the only way to reduce the exorbitant quantity of fruits and vegetables thrown away.
But it isn’t only waste. While fresh fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to a plethora of health benefits, it can also be a source of foodborne illness. Globally, there has been an increase in the number of outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with fresh foodstuffs, and in particular ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables.
The fresh-cut industry is heavily dependent on chlorine as one of the most effective sanitizers to assure the safety of their produce.
However, in light of concerns about the environmental and health risks associated with the formation of carcinogenic disinfection by-products, there is increasing pressure on the industry to eliminate chlorine from the disinfection process. The use of chlorine for the disinfection of fresh produce is currently banned in some countries, such as Germany and Switzerland. In any case recontamination of the washed produce by pathogens poses a risk even after washing with chlorine, as they grow faster on cleaned produce.
Let me start with mentioning a new research project to extend shelf-life of fruit and vegetables.
The Safe-Bag Project
Building upon existing research into the use of non-thermal plasma technology for the in-pack decontamination of food products undertaken by Purdue University and project partner Dublin Institute of Technology, the Safe-Bag project will develop an alternative technology.
The €2.4 million EU-funded project aims to reduce microbes on fresh produce ensuring that technology does not affect the nutritional properties, texture or taste of the packaged fruit and vegetables.
It’s obvious that treating fresh produce is more difficult in comparison to foods such as milk where you can use heat. The Safe-Bag approach is to package fresh produce inside any type of plastic packaging and then pass that package through a dielectric plasma discharge. The system uses plasma within the bag for a very short period of time, and make active species within the bag, which inactivate the bacteria. Plasma (an energetic ionized gas) is widely used for industrial materials processing, and has shown promise as a decontamination tool for food contact surfaces.
The Safe-Bag project aims at developing a novel continuous in-pack decontamination system for fresh-cut produce. A prototype of the system will be built and tested at fresh fruit and vegetable processing facilities to validate its performance under industrial conditions. Extensive laboratory trials will be carried out to validate the anti-microbial efficacy of the system at industrial scale, to confirm there are no changes in the nutritional and quality parameters of treated produce and to determine its shelf-life.
As for the time being we are faced with fruits washed in chlorine and might have residues of pesticides, we have to find a way to securely wash the apple before we take a bite.
Dissolvable Fruitwash Labels
Scott Amron, a US engineer has “always been discontent with fruit labels and felt they could do more than just display product info and be difficult to peel off”. His statement: “We buy, wash and eat fruit. So, the wash step was the next thing the label should help with”, let to the development of the “soap-label”, officially coined by him as the “Fruitwash Label”
It’s based on the oval or circular peel-off labels fixed to the skins of fruits, however the labels essentially dissolve into an organic soap mixture which can then be used as a cleaning product, partly aiding in the removal of substances from the fruit or vegetable’s surface.
While the labels resist water, they dissolve when rubbed. Prior to the fruits or vegetables passing into consumers’ hands, though, they can function in the same way as a traditional label, displaying barcode information for retail stock-check purposes alongside the retail price.
The Fruitwash Labels haven’t yet reached the production stage, but Scott Amron is presently seeking an investor to purchase a stake in the Fruitwash Label Intellectual Property.
It’sFresh! Extends the shelf life of fruit
British retail group Marks & Spencer introduced an advanced new packaging design for its fruit products. The system is similar to that introduced last year by British supermarket chain Tesco. It’sFresh! was commercially adopted last year after extensive trialling on berries. Tesco will be the first retailer to confirm that the apparent benefits from a successful series of simulation tests will be transferred to the store and home environments.
It has been developed and brought to market in the UK by It’sFresh Ltd, the UK subsidiary of Food Freshness Technology, claiming that it is 100 times more effective than any similar existing materials.
The technology is a food grade non-woven strip (8 cm by 4.5cm) coated with a high tech mixture of minerals and clays that allows for removal of endogenous ethylene in fruit and vegetables to below physiologically active levels, thus reducing spoilage.
Laura Howes wrote in the Chemistry World an explanation: “The packaging apparently uses an 8cm x 4.5cm strip that contains ‘a patented mixture of clay and other minerals that absorb ethylene. Ethylene, or as we chemists tend to refer to it, ethene, is the smallest possible alkene and a well-known plant hormone involved in the ripening of fruit. It’s why the trick of putting a ripe banana in a bag with unripe fruit will ripen it. I haven’t found the patent from the firm involved, but we can make some educated guesses about how this works. Clay is an aluminosilicate with a large volume, so perhaps what we’re talking about something akin to a zeolite, with a large surface area for the gaseous ethene to adsorb onto. And as for the other minerals, perhaps the pores are impregnated with some antibacterial agent, like silver, to keep the fruit extra fresh. That’d be my guess”.
From now on, the inside of strawberry packaging sold in Marks & Spencer will boast the legend ‘It’s Fresh’. The writing will actually be on the rectangular strip that allows the fruit’s lives to be extended.
The incorporation of this freshening strip doesn’t affect the punnets’ recyclability one bit and it is Marks & Spencer’s intention to make it a standard feature across its entire packaged fruit range. The firm’s also commented that there’ll be no increase in price made to account for this new fresher fruit packaging’s introduction.
Trials carried out in M&S stores showed a minimum wastage saving of 4% – during the peak strawberry season this would equate to 40,000 packs, or about 800,000 strawberries.
In the meantime Tesco has estimated that the new It’sFresh! ethylene remover introduced after extensive testing last year could eventually save the fresh produce industry “millions of pounds” through its ability to enhance shelf life quality and reduce waste.