The fish industry has long faced a number of challenges in the grocery store – a perceived lack of freshness, excess liquid in the packaging that can lead to contamination problems, and concerns about safe handling. Advances in active packaging are working to combat these issues by extending seafood shelf life, reducing fluid build-up in packaging, and improving hygiene through a no-touch consumer experience.
In a study with Virginia Tech, Aptar Food + Beverage – food protection has demonstrated the ability of its SeaWell Protective Packaging System to reduce bacterial growth and maintain seafood quality throughout the supply chain. Introduced in mid-2020, the packaging incorporates technology that absorbs excess liquids that would otherwise build up around the seafood. The absorbent materials trap excess liquids in pockets or depressions that are integrated into the bottom of the packaging – and also improve consumer perception of seafood when shopping.
As the world’s most traded animal protein, seafood is consumed in the US at significantly lower prices. The perceived lack of freshness and safety are driving this consumption gap, Aptar notes in a scientific article focusing on its SeaWell technology. “Even closer to the coasts, the fishing industry has long had difficulties convincing consumers of the freshness and safety of the products,” says the paper, citing a study by Sustainable Fisheries. “With 62 to 65% of the seafood consumed in the US comes from other countries, even those who live near the ocean can buy seafood that has traveled thousands of miles to reach their kitchen.”
Your seafood is crying
Packaging can play a key role not only in maintaining the freshness and safety of seafood, argues Aptar, but also in improving consumer awareness.
Seafood is often packaged in foam trays with synthetic pods and wrappers. It’s an inexpensive solution, but offers little protection against bacterial buildup and excess fluid. Holes and leaks are common throughout the supply chain, so this packaging must also be repackaged frequently. Premium packaging solutions like vacuum skin packaging still can’t handle the high volumes of liquid that seafood produces, Aptar says.
It’s inevitable that seafood will cry – meaning it will lose weight due to the moisture given off. “However, a heavy cry is an indication of the breakdown of food proteins and a general deterioration in product quality,” explains Christa Biggs, Head of Business Development at Aptar Food + Beverage – Food Protection. “The SeaWell system controls excess liquid that would otherwise build up in the packaging. This control of excess fluid accumulation decreases the availability of water, which in turn slows the protein breakdown process by slowing the rates of chemical reactions and microbial growth. “
Image courtesy of AptarSeaWell technology uses a proprietary three-phase Activ-Polymer platform that can be incorporated into absorbent trays and pouches to greatly limit fluid build-up for improved safety and to extend freshness and shelf life.
The trays are thermoformed with cavities in which a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) technology mixture is introduced and secured with a heat-sealed piece of fleece. This creates a “false bottom” in the shell that separates the seafood from standing liquids. When the seafood thaws, the naturally released liquids fall through the nonwoven fabric into these cavities and react with the proprietary GRAS ingredients to form a gel that stays locked in the bowl’s indentations.
Image courtesy of AptarThe bag configuration works with bag packaging. In this case, the absorbent mixture is in quilted pockets on the back of the bag, hidden by the seafood it contains. This provides the same liquid separation effect to protect the seafood from the growth of pathogens.
A study conducted by Virginia Tech showed that optimizing liquid control slows bacterial growth in the package, thereby slowing product breakdown. Comparing the microbial growth and spoilage kinetics between scallops packaged in a SeaWell-based tray with those in standard packaging, the study found that scallops stored in the control group had a bacterial count of 6 log CFU / g reached (considered as a limit value for food spoilage). 12-13 days after storage, while scallops stored in the Aptar system did not reach the same threshold until 15-16 days after storage.
The Virginia Tech study also monitored total weight changes in scallops during 20 days of storage – another way to measure microbial and chemical spoilage. Scallop samples lost weight / moisture in both types of packaging, but the SeaWell packaging still performed better. Conventional packaging showed a 46% weight / moisture loss in scallops, while those packaged with SeaWell technology only lost 30%. The area lost by the scallops was also significantly lower in the SeaWell-based packaging.
Packaged for food safety
Although the Virginia Tech study showed that SeaWell offered longer shelf life for seafood, Biggs said that wasn’t the main attraction. “For more and more brand owners and consumers, the most important aspect is providing superior seafood handling and a safer product, more than just extending its shelf life,” she explains. “There is limited interest in seafood having too long a shelf life, as the consumer’s deeply rooted familiarity with the comparatively short top-quality freshness of seafood means that a later expiration date is more likely to arouse suspicion than convey a higher quality. However, the ability to add a few extra days has certainly given our customers a cushion in the supply chain as well as a reduction in food waste. “
Image courtesy of Aptar
Consumer hesitation about the freshness and safety of seafood is partly due to how long the seafood has been there and what type of packaging it was shipped in, Aptar said. Although retailers often view their fresh seafood as a distinguishing feature of high quality, the consumer has no way of knowing how fresh that seafood actually is.
“Most supermarkets and large retail stores have their fish products delivered, often miles away,” says Biggs. “In order for seafood to travel these distances without spoilage or deterioration, it is typically shipped and received frozen. Usually, even the seafood you see in fresh produce counters has to go through a second thawing process before being displayed. “
The SeaWell system supports the same process, Biggs adds, with the difference that the product can be thawed in the package, eliminating the need for human handling and minimizing contamination. “The retailer can simply move the product from a frozen environment to a refrigerated environment and let it thaw in the packaging before it is sold,” she says.
Aptar advocates the benefits of prepackaged products not only for consumer convenience and convenience, but also for the ability to add owner-managed labeling language that goes directly to the home handling process. Pre-packaged formats allow for a production date, recipes, and brand sustainability commitments. In an industry where shelf life is in question, consumers can be educated about the benefits of the active packaging that a seafood supplier uses.
“This proposed change to the protocol has been well received as many supermarkets have long struggled to keep their fresh food counters open as it is typically a costly and labor-intensive component of grocery retailing,” says Biggs. “And now that e-commerce is emerging and evolving through conveniences like in-store pickup and home delivery, a safer way to transport seafood is needed.”
Applying the technology to other sectors
Aptar has historically served the fresh produce industry with similar designs and packaging features as the SeaWell system. “In addition to this particular method of active packaging technology, we are also using our materials science platform to combat pathogen growth in fresh produce through a recently introduced antimicrobial delivery system,” notes Biggs. “And we have years of experience outside of the food sector with active packaging solutions in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Seafood suffers from similar supply chain problems that plague the food industry, including shortened shelf life, unfavorable moisture issues, and temperature sensitivity. “We have developed technology that could specifically target seafood-related quality parameters, and as a materials science company, our researchers are constantly working on new innovations for additional markets as well as ways to improve our current markets.”