Extending shelf-life improves sustainability

Consideration of sustainability in packaging for meat companies involves finding bio-degradable alternatives, extending shelf-life, reducing waste and saving energy.

Darfresh Flex/Flex packaged steakA Rabobank report, ‘Meat packaging to extend shelf-life’ released in late June and written by Clara van der Elst, looked at meat packaging technologies for the European meat sector.

Noting that new packaging and processing technologies extend the shelf-life of meat, she also makes the point in the report that it also improves sustainability.

“Shelf-life extension through new packaging options not only benefits the producer by widening the geographical sales coverage, but investing in extending the shelf-life also outweighs the costs, whether environmental (greenhouse gas emissions) or commercial (money saved).

“However, consumers often perceive packaging as harmful to the environment, so there is a need to convince them, perhaps through an information campaign, that both the environmental and commercial costs of food waste, particularly for meat, are in fact far greater than the environmental costs of packaging,” she notes in the report.

According to van der Elst: “The winners will be those that adopt early investment into new packaging and processing technologies, while driving consumer premiumisation in mature retail markets.”

Key new packaging technologies for fresh meat identified in the report include vacuum skin packaging (VSP) – an improvement on vacuum packaging – variations on modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), such as CO-MAP where part of the atmosphere is replaced by carbon monoxide (currently not allowed in the EU), or batch MAP and High Pressure Processing (HPP).

One example of a VSP product is Sealed Air’s Darfresh Flex/Flex used for retail meat cuts around the world. It’s use is growly strongly, according to its director of product management bags for Australia and New Zealand, Rob Mackintosh.

Darfresh Flex/Flex uses flexible plastic films rather than heavy trays, he explains.

“It is an oxygen barrier, vacuum system so provides long shelf-life. It also offers better portion control, reducing in-home food waste by making portions the right size for any meal and freezer ready.”

He explains that the company’s thinking behind the product is its drive to increase sustainability in a number of ways. Food waste has been pinpointed as one of the biggest issues for sustainability, with 23 percent of meat going to waste globally each year.

“Not only is this a massive waste of resources but when this food decays it most likely creates methane gas which is more than 20 times worse GHG than CO2,” says Mackintosh.

“Increasing the shelf-life gives a longer selling period to retailers, leading to reducing shelf-losses at retail, as well as a better eating experience for the consumer, meaning less wastage of product at home.”

Another part of sustainability is source reduction, which involves using better design and technology to make packaging that uses fewer resources, he says.

We’re onto it ...

New Zealand scientists are looking at ways to help industry through smart packaging innovation.

Participants at the AgResearch Meat Industry Workshop in March heard about Scion’s latest packaging research to reduce waste in the value chain. The Crown Research Institute conducts research into wood-derived materials, as well as other bio-based chemicals, polymers and composites.

Scion’s packaging team leader Lou Sherman describes four projects that are showing great promise.

Closest to commercialisation is a product called Zealafoam™, a technology owned by the Biopolymer network Ltd (BPN). The research and product development of ZealaFoam™ was undertaken by a team of Scion scientists working within BPN, a joint venture between three of New Zealand’s CRI’s, Scion, AgResearch and Plant & Food Research. The work has focused on the issue that polystyrene is difficult to recycle or reuse once contaminated. The team has developed a novel process to manufacture and mould low density expanded polylactic acid (PLA) foam articles using carbon dioxide as a blowing agent.

“The expanded PLA can be used as a replacement for polystyrene,” says Sherman.
The new substance is able to be used in all sorts of products – including chilled boxes, trays and filler beads – and is compostable which improves the end of life options.

A range of barrier coatings that can be printed onto paper-based packaging, protecting it from moisture, is the output of work by the Scion packaging team, together with researchers from Victoria and Massey Universities and is also close to commercialisation.

“One has recently been trialled on a commercial flexible packaging line,” says Sherman, adding that the same team is also looking at trialling on corrugated boxes to improve their lifetime, by reducing the effect of humidity on the boxes.

In addition, Scion, AgResearch and Massey University are working together to see how much energy can be saved with a redesign of the cardboard corrugations to reduce the time needed in the flash freezer to save energy used in freezing, explains Sherman.

The final project, with Plant & Food Research, seeks to increase shelf-life by reducing the growth of meat spoilage bacteria. Several anti-bacterial bio-extracts, from a number screened, showed promise and are moving towards commercialisation in the next couple of years.

This article has appeared in Food NZ magazine (December/January 2014) and is reproduced here with permission.

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