Several recent health scares at major restaurant chains in the United States have opened up a new debate on food safety. An increasingly complex global supply chain allows consumers to buy fresh produce, dairy and meat products from virtually anywhere. However, these sensitive products are often subject to variations in temperature during shipment and non-standardized, non-continuous methods of control throughout the chill-chain. Emerging intelligent packaging technology can help distributors and retailers easily recognize potentially spoiled products before these products ever hit store shelves. This allows the sellers to stand by their commitment to their customers to deliver fresh, safe food.
A major cause of food spoilage is a rise in ambient temperature during storage and transport. This, of course, is not a new problem. Issues surrounding food preservation have been around for thousands of years. Despite modern day refrigeration techniques, however, control of products in the farm-to-table continuum is non-standardized and non-continuous at best. And, even when refrigeration is available, perishable products can still suffer from the damaging effects of time.
Each sector along the farm-to-table continuum plays an important role in ensuring that America’s food supply is fresh, of high quality, and safe from hazards. If a link in this chain is broken—by lack of refrigeration or an unexpected delay in transport—the safety and integrity of the nation's food supply can be threatened.
The current situation in the consumable goods industry has called for innovative technology to create a climate of confidence for consumers purchasing chilled goods. There is a definite need for a reliable, versatile, cost-effective and easy to handle solution.
One such solution is a revolutionary type of technology known as time-temperature indicators (TTI). This technology was developed to provide a quick, easy, reliable way of determining whether or not food has undergone changes in temperature or passed its pre-set time limit during transport and/or storage, and therefore is no longer safe to sell. Time-temperature indicator technology gives a visual summary of a product's accumulated chill-chain history, recording the effects of both time and temperature. By providing essential information on chillchain history, TTIs also help optimize shelf life, since suppliers and retailers will no longer need to discard products prematurely to cover for potential spoilage, caused, for example, by incorrect storage.
How it works
Supplied either as printing inks or labels, TTIs can be used for any product that is sensitive to temperature, especially meat, dairy and produce. Every indicator can be tailored to the shelf life and optimum storage conditions of the specific product it is designed to monitor. Time-temperature indicators allow producers, retailers and consumers to check at a glance whether perishable products have been correctly stored and supplied.
TTI technology relies on the properties of organic pigments that change color over time and when temperatures fluctuate. The display consists of a reference color and an active indicator color printed onto a self-adhesive label with water-based ink. A special UV filter is then placed on top to protect the integrity and efficacy of the ink.
Once activated by a suitable UV light source, the indicator becomes dark and then grows progressively lighter as time passes and/or the ambient temperature rises. By changing the dose of UV charging light, and by adjusting the reference color, the indicator can be “fine tuned” to suit the shelf life and deterioration of the specific chilled product. For example, it can be specifically suited to a package of ground beef that has a shelf life of eight days at 39°F. When the activated color attains the same shade as the reference, the product has reached the end of its shelf life.
TTI’s are ideal for retail chains that wish to differentiate their private label offerings from those of the national brand, and against their competition. Since the retailer earns a higher margin on private label products, and given that their fresh offering is a major point of potential strategic differentiation over their competitors, the TTI can be applied on the chain’s entire chilled private label range.
Time-temperature indicators are reliable, accurate and easily reproducible. They are easy to apply, easy to activate and storable at room temperature. Above all, they are cost-effective enough to be included on each individual package without materially affecting the retail price of the product.
Time-temperature indicators should also be versatile in their application. Printable labels are most common, however indicators can also be incorporated into product packaging by being printed directly onto the packaging substrate, for example onto a milk carton or salad bag.
With more new health scares presenting themselves on a seemingly weekly basis, the margin for error in food packaging and transport is slim. Processors, packagers, wholesale distributors and retailers must all take precautions to ensure that the meat, produce and dairy products that they handle are safe for consumers.
Time-temperature indicator technology provides that safeguard. It is extremely accurate and can be activated at the point of packaging—a plus for retailers that do not want to disrupt short lead times. The labels can be easily understood by consumers and are significantly better than current, inadequate “sell-by” date system. Above all, this technology increases consumer safety and convenience while simultaneously enhancing brand loyalty and reputation.