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EFSA conference examines “active” packaging’s pros and cons

Favourable consumer reaction is critical to the acceptability of the “new generation” of packaging that benefits from deliberate interaction between the pack itself and food, an expert from France’s Montpellier University said in a paper delivered to the recent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conference in Brussels.

Speaking at an event held to mark EFSA’s first five years in operation, Nathalie Gontard said the public was so far still “cautious” about packaging designed to eliminate unwanted compounds from food or to intentionally release in a controlled fashion substances such as preservatives, ethanols and

antioxidants. Gontard believed there was “widespread unease” about how active packaging “deliberately modifies food composition” and its characteristics with or without intentional migration. Such concerns persisted despite such packaging being designed to eliminate unwanted compounds like oxygen and ethylene from food or packaging headspace, she told the 500 scientists and other experts attending the meeting.

This was a shame, stressed Esther Zondervan, an official of the Dutch Nutrition and Food Research Institute, who emphasised that the development o fthese new active packaging technologies had been driven principally by increasing demands for improved quality and extended shelf life for packaged foods. Zondervan listed several “examples” of active packaging technologies currently in use, including water absorbers, oxygen scavengers, preservative releasers and ethylene scavengers, while also citing examples of systems designed to monitor the condition of foodstuffs, including temperature indicators, freshness and oxygen indicators and carbon dioxide indicators. Another example discussed was a babyfood which changed from red to yellow if it was too hot.

EFSA has already issued guidelines on products benefiting from intelligen tpackaging where the active constituents are incorporated to meet the need for fresh, tasty food with a long shelf life. These prohibit the food being given a flavour which disguises the characteristics of the product, and Ms Zondervan stressed that adequate labelling is required to advise buyers about the type of packaging being used. Furthermore, active materials and intelligent packaging should not “mislead the consumer” by masking the spoilage of food or by giving incorrect information.

Zondervan said there remained a potential problem with interaction between the weather in some countries, and during different seasons, and the “life’ of foodstuffs, as well as with the method of travel via which packaged goods reach their destination. She foresaw a packaging future in which in which the information most sought after by consumers would relate to the temperature products had been subjected to rather than their the sell-by date. Meanwhile delegates discussed how the use of active or intelligent packaging is controlled throughout the EU by a regulation (EC/1935/2004) which stipulates that active materials may bring about changes in the composition or organoleptic characteristics of food – providing the application complies with applicable EU health standards.

The non-active part of the packaging must also comply with the sameregulation. But those components not regulated by the EU – paper, for instance – should comply with national laws, delegates stressed. They also heard claims that the number of commercial applications of active and intelligent packaging is limited when compared to the number of existingp atents. The clear message was that packaging specifiers have generally only been willing to pay extra for “active” packaging to date if presented with special distribution problems – such as an interruption of the cold chain – to overcome.

Safety evaluation of active packaging is costly due to the complexity of thesystems used. Focus needs to be placed also on the potential chemical and microbiological risks of some active packaging systems, while equally vital, conference speakers stressed, is arduous examination of claims made on behalf of the packaging by food producers.