Intelligent packaging is key to solving the pivotal issue of food waste, according to Senoptica Technologies co-founder and CEO Brendan Rice.

Senoptica Technologies is a deep-tech packaging company that uses oxygen sensor technology inside food packaging to generate scientifically verifiable results in real time. The sensors aim to improve the probability of finding failed packs by a factor of 11,000.

Packaging Gateway’s conversation with Rice comes at a period of crisis in global food production. The UN states that 13% of global food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17% of global food production is wasted in households and the foodservice and retail sectors.

One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to halve per capita global food waste by 2030 at both retail and consumer levels. There have been significant developments in packaging research to further this endeavour.

The role of packaging in food safety and waste is protection from contamination or damage, the preservation of contents and the promotion of brands, provenance or beneficial characteristics.

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Rice asserts that packaging research and technology can serve as a bridge connecting the gap between widespread food waste and supply chain innovations.

The promise of Modified Atmosphere Packaging

Advances to Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) could be the packaging industry’s answer to the question of food waste reduction.

MAP is specifically designed to extend fresh food shelf life and freshness, adjusting the atmosphere within food packaging to create an environment that prevents spoilage and sustains product quality.

Rice explains that MAP “operates on the fundamental principle of replacing the air within packaging with a specific mixture of gases (or modified atmosphere). The standard composition typically includes carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, allowing precise control over the conditions surrounding a product.”

MAP is used to significantly lengthen the shelf life of food items by slowing down the natural degradation process.

While physical packaging can protect products from falls, punctures and dents, the chemical protection afforded by MAP can prevent compositional changes induced by exposure to gases or moisture fluctuations.

MAP also offers biological protection and can defend against micro-organisms including pathogens and spoilage agents. These barriers function through mechanisms such as preventing access to the product, blocking odour transmission and preserving the internal environment of the food packaging.

Industry analysis finds that Covid-19 led to the growth of the MAP market. Initially prompted by panic buying, consumers subsequently adopted a trend of fewer but more significant shopping visits, which led to an increased demand for food products with longer shelf lives.

Senoptica’s research has found that “use-by” dates on MAP-packed foods are causing food waste because they are overly conservative. The company’s research has also quantified the incidence of failed packs in the supply chain, which increases the probability of food safety issues.

The state of the intelligent packaging market

Rice highlights the promise of intelligent packaging materials such as Senoptica’s which “allow real-time monitoring of factors such as maturity, ripeness, respiration rate and spoilage of foods. Data can be captured on parameters including temperature, gas composition and pH.”

The information from the sensors is then transmitted to the user, helping stakeholders along the supply chain to make informed decisions about the food’s condition and packaging to minimise food waste.

According to Rice, processes such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points and Quality Analysis and Critical Control Points can be enhanced with intelligent packaging.

Such food packaging technologies require support and investment for innovation, but Rice identifies several barriers to this.

“The main barriers include operational challenges, environmental concerns, regulatory standards and consumer acceptance. These can be almost insurmountable for a start-up company. The paradox is that it will be start-up companies who have the greatest likelihood to deliver the groundbreaking innovation the industry and the world requires to solve the major sustainability challenges it is facing today.”

Senoptica spent more than €500k on regulatory approval to get its product to market before a single unit could be sold, on top of proving that there is a market for the technology, says Rice.

In Rice’s view, overcoming such barriers will require extensive communication, education and a strategic approach to building trust.

Rice concludes that the “adoption of combinations of technology improvements such as MAP alongside intelligent packaging will be critical in responding to not only commercial trends that require specialised packaging solutions but the future of a sustainable food system.”