Packaging to help fight global food loss

Monday, 23 April, 2012

The packaging industry wants to fight food loss more effectively. Simple, decentralised packaging machines for emerging markets can improve food security, while the ‘throwaway’ mentality in western industrialised nations can be combated with smart packages.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, there will be nine billion people living on our planet by 2050 - two billion more than today. At the same time, there should be no need to fear hunger. “One third of food produced around the world, amounting to about 1.3 billion tonnes, is lost on its way from the farm to the fork, or is wasted,” says Jenny Gustavsson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK). If these losses were reduced by more efficient handling of food, famines could be curbed. Gustavsson is one of the authors of two studies commissioned by the FAO and serving as the basis for the Save Food campaign that the FAO and Messe Düsseldorf initiated last year at the interpack packaging trade fair.

The findings of these studies could fundamentally change global food policy. Until now, it has always been considered necessary to boost food production by 70% by 2050 in order to feed everyone. New goals now apply: “With limited natural resources, it is more effective to reduce food losses than to increase production,” says Robert von Otterdijk, FAO Officer for Save Food.

The wasteful West

Food is wasted right across the supply chain, starting with agricultural production through to consumption in the home. In the low income countries of Africa and Asia, the problem lies at the start of the value chain. According to SIK, six to eleven kilograms of food are lost per capita per year owing to shortcomings in harvesting techniques or because food doesn’t make it from the producer to the consumer in time. In the sometimes extreme climatic conditions, fruit and milk spoil and meat becomes inedible due to contamination with dangerous germs. However, far more food is wasted per head of population in the developed world. In the industrialised nations, 95 to 115 kg of food still fit for consumption is simply thrown away per person per year.

What consumers fail to consider on their way to the bin is that unnecessary wastage fosters hunger in the poorer regions of the world. “Food is traded internationally. People in wealthy countries who waste food have an impact on prices in other parts of the world, ultimately making some products unaffordable to people in low income countries,” Gustavsson explains. If edible food ends up in the bin, this also pushes up the consumption of energy and resources. The equation is simple: when a third of the food produced spoils, a third of the resources consumed in production are wasted and a third more climate damaging emissions than necessary are pumped into the atmosphere.

Demands for an immediate rethink can therefore be heard from the highest quarters. “In the fight against the throwaway mentality and energy wastage, the developed countries have to set clear targets,” says Klaus Töpfer, former Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme and head of the German Federal Government's Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply. In addition to policy-makers and consumers, he considers that the packaging industry, in particular, has a major obligation to collaborate with other sectors in developing solutions along the food value chain.

The packaging industry wants to do its bit and is working on new strategies for the production and distribution of packaging machines and smart packaging ideas. “For instance, packages that themselves measure the contents’ freshness could help to reduce the quantities of still consumable food being discarded,” said Christian Traumann, Managing Director of German packaging machine manufacturer Multivac. In emerging markets, on the other hand, small, decentralised solutions could improve food security and fight poverty.

Germ alarm

The industry has to strike a difficult balance, as it is acting in two worlds. While it first has to convince farmers in Nigeria of the need to package their produce at source instead of sending it on its way unprotected, it can only combat Western carelessness with high tech. “Many consumers regard the ‘best before’ date as a licence to waste food, although many foods are still fresh after that date,” explains Stephan Grünewald of the Cologne-based rheingold market and media analysis institute. To remedy the problem, the industry is reaching deep into its box of tricks. For instance, it is developing time/temperature indicators that report continuously on the product’s state of freshness. BASF is already offering OnVu labels printed on the package. These come with a special pigment colour that changes when the contents are no longer fit to eat.

Such innovations will only make their mark if food corporations cooperate. Occupying a key position in the chain from the farm to the discount retailer, they control demand among local producers and the supply of foods from which the consumer chooses. The good news is that a number of the big players, like the Swiss food manufacturer Nestlé, have already joined the Save Food campaign. Nestlé wants to cut its emissions by 20% by 2015 by improving efficiency in packaging and production and making greater use of renewable energy. “We want to do business more sustainably and thus alleviate hunger in the world," said Philippe Roulet, head of Global Packaging Materials & Training at Nestlé. To this end, the group aims to use, among other things, more bioplastics from non-food sources such as wood or algae as packaging materials.

Packaging manufacturers and suppliers of packaging machines are supporting food suppliers in the realisation of their sustainability strategies. “Smart packaging” is one of the buzzwords. These are intelligent and active systems that indicate the product’s state of quality and, armed with oxygen absorbers or special acids, are even capable of helping foods to stay fresh for longer. Such packages can help anywhere around the globe, because - and this is true the world over - the longer food stays fit to eat, the less food is lost.

The US-based Sonoco company is one of the innovation powerhouses in developing packages with integrated microchips that, via sensors, constantly gather information on the state of a product, such as moisture and temperature. An alarm is set off when values move outside programmed upper or lower limits. These chips can also improve distribution security and uncover gaps in the supply chain by enabling huge quantities of data on goods to be uploaded or downloaded at lightning speed with radio frequency technology.

A trend towards asepsis

There are plans for Sonoco packages to do even more - by interacting with the contents, removing oxygen and harmful germs and thus improving product quality and prolonging its freshness. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV) is already offering such preservation solutions: “We integrate oxygen absorbers such as iron in the polymer matrix of the packaging material,” says IVV researcher Sven Sängerlaub. In PET bottles prepared in this way, oxygen-sensitive beverages like beer and fruit juices stay drinkable for longer. In addition, the IVV has developed an antimicrobial film that releases sorbic acid onto the surface of the food, the point of attack for contamination, and thus preserves it.

Aseptically packaged foods also stay fresh longer. In the aseptic process, the product and packaging are sterilised independently. The package is then filled with the product in a closed, sterile system and sealed. This way, all bacteria are killed and cannot recontaminate the goods. The advantage of this technology is that the food no longer has to be heated in the package at high temperatures. “This means that much less packaging material can be used and the energy input for packaging is about 70% lower than for conventional systems,” explains Friedbert Klefenz, Group President of Bosch Packaging Technology. What’s more, aseptically packaged foods don’t need a chill chain. “With this form of packaging, we can also supply people who don’t have fridges.” Bosch already has a variety of machines to offer for the aseptic processing of liquid and pasty foods.

In emerging markets, there’s unlikely to be much demand for such technologies for the time being. For who’s going to pay for them and operate them? Instead, the demand for small, decentralised packaging machines is on the rise. “In India, we have truck-mounted packaging machines specially adapted to local conditions in order to demonstrate the benefits of packaged food to farmers as well as local authorities. Farmers soon realise it makes sense to package their harvest,” says Klefenz. Bosch therefore wants to export more machines to these emerging markets. “The goal is nationwide distribution as far as possible so that produce can be protected from spoilage at source.” The German machine manufacturer Multivac also sees huge potential in up-and-coming nations for its vacuum packaging machines. “They’re easy to handle,” says marketing boss Valeska Haux.

Absorbers and asepsis for the West and new machines and self-help for Africa and similar regions - industry has made big plans and announced numerous innovations. Whether they’ll actually make their breakthrough remains to be seen. Ultimately, it will be the consumer who decides that over the next few years.

The next Interpack conference will be held in Germany in May 2014,

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