Several product recalls have been announced recently due to consumer complaints about moldy or musty odors that have been associated with nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. Microanalytics™, a subsidiary of MOCON, has developed improved approaches identifying the source of industrial odors and can help guide strategies for neutralizing them.

“For example, imported wood pallets have come under fire for allegedly imparting odors to the products being stacked and distributed on them. Fingers are being pointed toward a chemical called tribromophenol (TBP), which continues to be used as a wood preservative in certain countries to control fungi, pests, etc. A by-product of microbial metabolism, 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA), is responsible for the odor,” explained Fred Kuhrt, operations manager, Microanalytics.

Although TBP has been banned in the US, Europe and Canada, it is still being used in South America. During times of domestic wood supply shortages, TBP-treated pallets can end up in the distribution channel. This can have significant impact on odor absorption.

“Because contamination can be instantaneous and can quickly spread to other pallets, truckloads and even physical plants, it is key that the problem be identified as quickly as possible to minimize financial impact and damage to brand equity,” Kuhrt said. “Warehouses should be particularly sensitive to any odd odors emanating from pallet loads.”

As a respected leader in sensory analysis, Microanalytics has been actively working with brand owners to address TBP/TBA issues. The AromaTrax® GCMS-olfactometry system combines state-of-the-art technology with the human nose to identify specific chemical odorants —down to parts per trillion or quadrillion.

To isolate and measure the odorant, first collection needs to take place. In this case, a small piece of wood can be taken from the pallet and/or air samples can be collected from the problem area.

The AromaTrax system has the capability of separating each chemical compound and delivering it to an odor ‘sniff port’. A human analyst or ‘nose’ then evaluates each compound by grading its intensity and identifying its odor characteristic. The end result is an accurate and efficient way to characterize and identify critical odors.

“This is relatively complex technology,” says Kuhrt. “In addition to the technology that has gone into the instrumentation, we also have developed ‘bookkeeping’ software which allows the analyst to react quickly to the compound presented by giving them a way to log their findings directly on to a computer screen. Speed is critical since analysts often only have a second or two to respond to one compound before the next one presents itself via the sniff port.”

Although the AromaTrax unit is capable of identifying thousands of compounds, typically only a small number are responsible for causing most odor problems. Furthermore, the technology has wide-reaching application, suitable for researching odor issues in any solid, liquid or gas sample.

In addition to providing test and consulting services, Microanalytics AromaTrax units can also be purchased by companies who prefer to do their own on-site odor testing analysis.