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What's next in active and intelligent food packaging?

Among the types of active and intelligent packaging most commonly researched is antimicrobial food packaging. But when will we see commercialization and true marketplace impact?

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The applications that are commercialized seem to have small and narrow markets. Films or sachets are available containing nisin, chitosan, grape seed extract, allyl isothiocyanate (AIT), rosemary oil, and ethanol, but not all of these are meant for food applications. Of course the main obstacle is cost, but what affects cost is not only the raw material cost but also the cost for production. Researchers all over the world have created successful bench top versions of antimicrobial films in petri dishes, glass plates or even lab scale extruders, but scaling up to production not only affects the formulation, it also introduces factors such as blocking or blooming of the additives in rollstock. Storage in the warehouse and the ability to maintain effectiveness after storage also become issues. Other factors include heat sealing, coefficient of friction, corona treatment (if the application is a coating), drying time, or pressure buildup in the extruder. However, the good news is that some of these question marks are being addressed. Consequently, innovative process and formulation modifications are taking place that may help make antimicrobial coatings a more feasible option for larger production runs in the future.

Legal concerns regarding proof of material safety under intended use conditions is also important. Methods are being developed to measure and track migration of antimicrobial components that could help such materials demonstrate their safety for food applications. In my opinion, the biggest barrier might be liability. If we design a material that says it can prevent outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 and suddenly deaths occur, now we are not only dealing with costs, we are dealing with lives.

In Europe and Asia, more success has been achieved in the commercialization of antimicrobial packaging. Although there are many reasons for this, among them are well funded Research Institutes that partner with Industry and their respective governments. I’m always impressed by the work they are able to achieve when I attend meetings and conferences where their work is presented.

There is much work to do if the commercial use of antimicrobial packaging is to grow as predicted. I believe making progress will rely upon partnerships not only with research institutes worldwide but also with industry. Since researchers in the packaging field (not just food packaging) have no targeted funding source, it is important to partner with industry. Those of us in universities need industry to provide a reality check to those doing research, and those in industry do not have time to do the applied research performed at universities. Partnerships will be essential for the future success of all kinds of active and intelligent packaging, including antimicrobials.

Kay Cooksey (, PhD, is a Professor and the Cryovac Chair at Clemson University’s School of Packaging.

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