Where does our food come from? It’s a simple question that seems to command a simple answer, but we know today’s increasingly globalized food supply chain makes this a more complicated response. At the same time, consumers are becoming more and more interested in the source of their food. According to a 2015 Technomic industry report, 62 percent of consumers prefer “local” food and beverage products, perhaps because they feel local food is more safe or nutritious due to its freshness. As the demand for this knowledge grows, food manufacturers are increasingly using technology that provides consumers with more information while enhancing data streams to address regulatory standards for foodborne illnesses and cross-contamination.

Minimizing allergen, pathogen contamination

Signed into law in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has prompted food brand owners to advance their proactive strategies to prevent instances of contamination — whether it stems from foodborne illness or the cross-contamination of ingredients that could be allergens. According to a Food Allergy and Research and Education (FARE) report, an estimated 9 million adults and 6 million children in the United States are affected by serious food allergies. For some perspective, that’s 4 percent of adults and 8 percent of children. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 250 different recognized foodborne diseases affect one in six Americans (48 million people) every year. These statistics are an extension of a 2011 in-depth analysis that the CDC says still applies to the present time.

While FSMA provisions do not affect meat, poultry and egg processors as directly as other food manufacturers, the legislation reinvigorated discussions around food safety with a strong emphasis on planning and prevention amid an increasingly complex supply chain. As our collective knowledge about foodborne illness and allergens grows, so does our toolbox of preventative controls. Minimal food-contact surface area design and modular parts make processing and packaging equipment faster and easier to clean and sanitize between runs. To better track product batches in the event of an incident, meat and poultry products must manage tracing information and follow labeling standards enforced by the FDA and the USDA. Keeping up with these standards is vital to the meat industry as recalls prove to be damaging and expensive for brands, and certainly may be serious for consumers as well.

Labeling for transparency

Formal regulations are not the only factors when it comes to changing the way meat and poultry are packaged. Health-conscious consumers also demand greater transparency from brands on the origins of their food — and more and more, they seek local food sources free of antibiotics, preservatives and GMOs.

To provide greater transparency, meat brand owners are using packaging to tell their product origins story. Upfront labeling of organic, preservative-free and locally raised products helps consumers quickly find the goods they seek on crowded store shelves. On the back of the package, labeling  can help consumers understand what other food products may have come into contact with the food as it moved along the supply chain, thus helping them avoid possible allergens.

For greater engagement, Quick Response (QR) codes on meat and poultry products allow consumers to interact more directly with brands. Meat brands can use these data channels to provide consumers with valuable information regarding their product’s production via smartphone apps, social media and websites. These new two-dimensional codes can be equipped with up to 7,000 characters of information, whereas traditional barcodes contained only 85 characters. Additionally, these can be vital in helping trace contaminated products and assisting recalls should contamination occur. By including these codes and labels on packaging, brands are telling their consumers that safety is their No. 1 priority.

Sensing spoilage

A major issue regarding food safety is the adaptive nature of pathogens found in food, particularly meat and poultry, since these items can spoil easily if not handled properly. Despite efforts to limit contamination, foodborne pathogens are constantly changing and some are becoming resistant to different drugs used in meat and poultry manufacturing. In response to needs to improve production efficiency and address food safety concerns, packaging manufacturers increasingly use robotics and sensors along production lines to modernize their operations.

Advancements in robotics and sensor technology may soon allow spoiled meat to be detected by sensors before it is packaged, and therefore be removed from production before it can cause any damage. This type of technology is also being featured inside the packaging. Recently, MIT conducted a study in which sensors placed within packaging could be able to notify consumers of spoiled products before they had the chance to consume them.

Additionally, as consumers request more from labeling, real-time labels may be a way of outperforming some pre-printed labels. Real-time labels can ensure the right labels are on the right packages and products by minimizing the risk of human error along the production line.  NP