Who has not done this before? Rummage through the basket of apples in the supermarket to find the freshest one or stick your head deep inside the freezer to find the pizza with the latest best before date? When it comes to food, freshness comes first with quality-conscious eaters. We are quick to skip food items that do not appear fresh enough for us or whose best before date is (almost) reached. But this consumer behaviour and especially the difficulty to understand the difference between the “best before” and the “use by” dates, the best-before date only indicates until when the manufacturers guarantee the product quality under optimal storage conditions – ensure that every year many food items end up in the bin. According to the federal government, that equals about 11 million tonnes. Much of this could be avoided if there was valid information about the actual shelf life of the product, the date it can be safely consumed. The lack of this information is resulting in unnecessary waste and associated additional costs as well as unnecessary energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Packaging to reduce waste
To change that, the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food is heavily supporting the research on ‘intelligent packaging’ solutions. In October 2018, a EUR 1.8 million cooperation project was launched between the Universities of Bonn, Bayreuth, the Universities of Applied Sciences Brühl and Münster, as well as the food industry experts Wolf Wurstspezialitäten, Genusshandwerker and METRO AG. By 2021, they plan to develop an intelligent packaging system (Intelli-Pack) that will display the remaining shelf life of a product at every point in the supply chain based on temperature information. “The shelf life and quality of temperature sensitive products is heavily influenced by temperature changes that may occur after the production, for this reason ensuring the appropriate temperature during all steps of the supply chain is a very critical factor”, says Nikolaos Bessas, Head of Global Supply Chain Quality Assurance of METRO AG. Food can sometimes spoil before the expiry date, for example if it has been stored in an environment which is too warm.
Invisible measuring “guard”
“Smart packaging” solutions can measure such deviations. To do this, they use either freshness indicators that correspond to metabolic changes during food spoilage or time-temperature indicators that detect the ‘heat exposure’ obtained over time in cases of temperature fluctuations. The time-temperature indicators can be colour labels then change colour depending on the time/temperature combination.
Such labels for example can change colour from dark blue to light blue and ultimately to no colour at all, showing in this way to the intermediate handlers or final customer/consumer the food safety status of the products. Bessas summarizes that: “Such a solution will further optimise Logistical processes and improve the Quality and Safety of food, through the more efficient management and visibility of the cold chain.”
METRO has a similar partnership for developing another solution (called Fresh Index) with similar objectives:
- reducing food waste
- improving quality/safety
- introducing a dynamic shelf life system.
That pilot is trying to tackle the above mentioned issues by utilizing a different technology – temperature data loggers.
This highlights the focus of METRO to contribute in the solution of important global issues such as food waste, by trying to utilize different existing technologies today.
United for more freshness
While smart labels are already being used in the US and Sweden, the food industry in Germany has so far been reluctant. The fear: Consumers might not pick up goods with discoloured freshness indicators or lose confidence in a brand, if they frequently encounter differently coloured labels. Intelli-Pack is therefore pioneering work; creating a marketable product requires close cooperation between the scientific institutions and industry partners.
While the scientists use the know-how of companies to gain important insights into the requirements of different supply chains, companies gain a competitive edge from the research work. METRO, for example, hopes to strengthen even more its quality and transparency through this cooperation. ‘Complete traceability of products is top priority at METRO,’ says Bessas. ‘We check compliance with our quality requirements as well as environmental and social standards and work closely together with our suppliers. Intelli-Pack can in addition help us to simplify and make more efficient the way of controlling the cold chain of our products’. With the new packaging solution, METRO is also reinforcing its fight against food waste but also tries to develop a packaging solution which will be also friendly for the environment [The Good Rest - Our strategy for better handling of the resource food]. That is certainly an additional incentive.
What's next in store for Intelli-Pack?
Intelli-Pack should be ready in September 2021. The prototype will also include a smartphone app, which will not only provide the current shelf life but also information on ingredients and traceability. It will also feature an online platform that will help with the implementation of intelligent packaging. Requirement specifications for intelligent packaging for various foods and supply chains were developed over the past 6 months during the concept phase. Now, models that will support the intelligent packaging system by predicting the remaining shelf life in real time are in a development stage. This will be followed by the integration with the existing traceability system of METRO as well as the development of sustainable sensor-based packaging for online retail.
The project is supported by funds of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) based on a decision of the Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany via the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food (BLE) under the innovation support programme.