Among a flood of conferences, reports and research, the recent BARD (United States/Israeli Binational Research and Development Fund) sponsored workshop on "Active" and "Intelligent" Packaging for Fruits and Vegetables held special interest for bringing the world of intelligent packaging to light.
Currently, there is an array of intelligent packaging technology, which senses measurable variables such as time, temperature or location.
Maximum Temperature Indicators
Consider, for example, maximum temperature indicators. Such devices can signal that the temperature of a frozen food package has exceeded its thawing point. If the package temperature correlates to the temperature of the contents, then maximum temperature indicators can be useful tools.
Time Temperature Integrators (TTI)
TTIs reflect the temperature history of packaged contents and, ideally, correlate to the product’s shelf life. But despite supplier claims, the relationships of the readings to actual product experience do not necessarily coincide. More research is required before TTIs can offer true value.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
The benefit of RFID is its ability to remotely read identity, location and other inventory control data. Information being communicated now mostly deals with identity, location and other inventory control data. In the future, when sensors for other variables such as temperature and quality measures are developed, a richer information mine will be available.
Bar Codes and Beyond
Intelligent packaging also is a powerful tool to reach beyond the current UPC bar codes printed on packages. The next generation for capturing primary package information (product and price) includes two-dimensional codes that contain more machine-readable data than the linear bar code. Product description, ingredients, nutritional value and cooking or heating instructions may all be recorded for scanning by a PDF type reader.
What's in Store?
So what are the practical applications of such technologies? In food service operations, intelligent packaging can track product inventory, alerting the operator when an item is out of stock. The signal might be generated from scanning empty packages as they are discarded.
In the grocery store, consumers can be identified by their loyalty card, which tracks past buying behavior to suggest purchases, flag sale items or direct consumers to products that their home inventory control systems have indicated as out of stock.
On the retail shelf, RFID or SAL tags can receive messages from chain headquarters to reflect prices changes. The same technology will also expedite the checkout process. As shoppers leave the store, their cart contents will be identified by RFID/SAL readers and their bank accounts directly debited for the purchase.
In consumer households, intelligent packaging can issue product nutritional and shelf life attributes in a user-friendly format. Refrigerators will be able to offer an audio-visual display of their contents and the ages, nutritional values and spoilage or safety status of the products inside.
The array of possibilities presented by the marriage of packaging with information technology is exploding. But intelligent packaging will not fully mature until we are more certain of how to apply the technology and how we might better use the quality of information being generated.
Sooner rather than later, food packagers will be incorporating these technologies into their structures as routinely as closures and easy-open features. And when they do, consumers will see it all as matter-of-fact, wondering occasionally, “What took them so long?” BP
The author, Aaron L. Brody, Ph.D., is President/CEO of Packaging/Brody Inc., a consultancy in food, packaging technology and marketing. Contact Dr. Brody at 770.613.0991 or email@example.com
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