Modified Atmosphere Packaging Oxygen Sensors at IFFA Show

IFFA Trade show floor

by Ray Hicks, President, Gaslab

The IFFA is the leading international trade fair for the meat industry. It dates back to 1949 when it was originally hosted by the German Butcher’s Association.

Irene and I visited the show in Frankfurt, Germany this spring to learn more about gas sensors used in meat packaging as well as visit some of the best in class sensor manufacturers in this market.

About the IFFA Show

Global meat production has grown 5-fold in the last 60 years. The resulting increase in industrial meat processing has forced producers to deliver safe, consistent product that can travel long distances from the field to the table.

If you’ve never been to an industrial trade show, here’s a tip: you can tell the growth of the market by the trade show's size.

I was amazed at the scale of this show. GEA Group, one of the biggest food packagers in the world, had modified the ceilings in their trade show booth to accommodate the 3 sit-down restaurants and full-scale production lines. This was one of the biggest booths I had ever seen - on par with Microsoft or Apple at Comdex. Meat packaging is big business.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging

modified atmosphere meat packaging

Messe Frankfurt GmbH / Petra Welzel

One of the technologies that has made long-distance packaged meat transport and storage possible is Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). Before sealing a meat package, the air inside is replaced with different gases that extend the life of the meat inside. By adjusting the balance between oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (in the US) meat stays fresher longer during shipment and more attractive to consumers. This is where gas sensors are used, and was the part of the IFFA Trade show we were most interested in.

While MAP is not new, what is new is continuous validation and 100% inspection. The food safety requirements have become more stringent, and the cost of recall and remedy has become greater.

Food contamination is not generally an insurable risk, so it is a bottom-line risk. If one pound of bad hamburger goes out to a customer, the packer has to pay to recall thousands of pounds of hamburger.

Because of the importance of the meat industry in Germany, many German institutions have large-scale, long-term initiatives cooperating with the food industry to discover and implement new methods of preventing and detecting contamination. As a result, some of the best new tech is coming out of their country.

How Modified Atmosphere Packaging is Used

Common sense would tell you that to maximize meat shelf-life, it should be sealed in a vacuum package. This isn’t true. While processed meat can be vacuum packed, fresh meat is sealed in a MAP container. Changing the gas inside the package is called “flushing” as opposed to vacuum packaging.

Most packaging machine companies offer either flush or vacuum systems. However, the new trend I saw was a combined flush and vacuum system. First the package is flush with gas (nitrogen + CO2 mix) to remove oxygen, then vacuum packed. This removes the last traces of oxygen in the small areas between the product and the package.

An interesting thing I learned while looking at MAP is that German sausage makers don’t bother with it. Not only can sausage be vacuum packed, but apparently the spices in the sausage are an anti-bacterial agent on their own.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging Sensors

On the trade show floor we saw MAP gas sensing solutions from a variety of manufacturers including AMETEK Mocon, Witt, HACH, Anton Parr, TecSense and Mettler-Toledo to name a few.

Traditional MAP packaging requires that every Nth package is removed from the production line and destructively penetrated with a needle to sample the gases inside. A septum (adhesive disk) is placed on the package to be tested that seals around the hypodermic needle so there is no contamination from the outside air.

For example, this common MAP technology is available from TecSense in a product called the TecPen. The TecPen requires a very small sample (less than 2cc of gas) and is sample size adaptive, so it is capable of testing vacuum packed or very low air volume packaging. This is huge, since it allows testing of packages with virtually no MAP gases inside.

While there are competitors to the TecPen, its low sample size and fast sample time makes it a technological leader in the market. In fact, we are so impressed with the TecPen’s performance we now carry it on the GasLab website.

The AMETEK Mocon DanSensor Check 3 and Witt’s Oxybaby CO2 + oxygen destructive penetration test sensors filled the need for packagers who need to test for two gases with a single instrument. Measuring both oxygen and carbon dioxide in MAP is common (what's left is nitrogen) so a single tool reduces sampling losses. Both units offered WiFi, Bluetooth and data logging for improving automation and documenting test results immediately from the factory floor.

The Future of Modified Atmosphere Packaging

TecPac MAP oxygen sensor system

Before attending the IFFA trade show, we visited TecSense in Graz, Austria to see their newest product for MAP packaging. Their TecPac sensor system is the world’s first non-invasive quality assurance system for modified atmosphere packaging.

The ability to sample 100% of the packages with no destruction of product is a game-changer.

The TecPac works by printing a small “dot” of fluorescent dye inside the packaging film. When illuminated by UV light, special optoelectronics in the sensor indicate how much oygen is inside the package without taking a direct air sample. This measurement verifies the flushing process; thus shelf life can be extended.

You can see the TecPac in action in this video.

Here are some additional details:

  • The dot inside the package has German food grade and pharmaceutical approvals, some of the toughest in the world.
  • The addition of the dot and measurement process does not slow the packaging process.
  • The cost per package is sub-cent. The fixed equipment cost varies depending on the number of scanners required.
  • The dot print process can be used on virtually any packaging material, and several commercial printers have already completed print runs for testing.
  • Besides packaging, the dots can be stuck on glass or clear plastic to measure the oxygen content inside a bottle or a closed-environment. This makes the technology potentially valuable inside algae photo bio-reactors for bio-fuel production or inside cell culture incubators.

TecScan dot on MAP packaging

One of the interesting side-technologies of TecPac was the TecScan. This handheld scanner can be placed in supermarkets next to the packaged meat cases. It allows consumers to scan the dot themselves and verify the freshness of individual packages before they purchase them.

GEA, one of the biggest food packers in the world, is already providing TecPac on its packaging machines (video). GasLab will be shortly providing this sensor as a retrofit and engine application kit.

One final note: Since the term "modified atmosphere packaging" doesn't roll off the tongue the marketing folks got involved and have relabeled it "smart packaging" or "intelligent packaging" for consumers. Either way, MAP is here to stay, and we look forward to the IFFA show in 2020 to see what the latest technology will be. I'll keep you posted.

Photos: Messe Frankfurt GmbH, Petra Welzel, TecSense

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