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Food Packaging and Safety: 9/11 Continues to Resonate

It goes without saying the way we do business has changed since September 11. The destruction of the Twin Towers and the bioterroristic use of anthrax through our mail system have changed our sense of security. Today's food packaging products provide protection against moisture and oxygen, as well as physical damage. We expect our food to be fresh and without contamination. To this end, packaging engineers constantly develop packaging products that improve product protection and prevent foreign contamination.

However, the role of the package has been to preserve the products, not to interact with them. That is, the package traditionally has had a passive role in food preservation. In today's world, there is a clear need for the packaging to take a more active roll in protecting food contents.

The package traditionally has had a passive role in food preservation. In today's world, there is a clear need for the packaging to take a more active roll in protecting food contents.

Today's technological advancements have provided new opportunities to improve package protection. Among these technologies are oxygen scavenging and the use of antimicrobial materials, where I am spending considerable time developing new products.

Throughout high school, college, and graduate school, my course choices have always put me in the physical sciences. Mathematics, physics, and chemistry have been the primary areas of my focus. I avoided biology and its complexity for the “simplicity” of the physical science courses.

So, it's ironic that today I find myself taking crash courses in biology and bacteriology to understand how to develop packaging antimicrobial products.

Microorganisms are living cells so small, most can be seen only with a microscope. Microbes, which include bacteria, fungi, and algae, are found everywhere. Microbes can contribute to foul odors, discoloration, and the formation of slime.

Protection against microbes begins with proper hygiene and cleanliness. This includes the substrate, inks, coatings, adhesives, processing equipment, and packaging equipment.

Most packaging concerns about microbes center on E. coli, salmonella, fungus, or mold. But they also can include yeast, pseudomonas staphylococcus, and lysteria. These microbes, a daily concern for the food industry, are non-spore forming and fall into a class of vegetable bacteria. They can be destroyed by heat, irradiation, or through the use of antimicrobial materials.

A few microbes produce bacterial spores. Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) is the most famous spore-forming microbe. It forms rod-shaped spores on contact with oxygen. Spores contain DNA and enzymatic machinery, which are necessary for the microbe reproduction and give the spore the ability to withstand environmental stresses such as heat, chemicals, and dehydration. The spore composition produces a hydrophobic surface that resists chemical penetration.

Events of the past few months have contributed to big changes in our packaging philosophy, at least in degree. Safety concerns are not new, but they have certainly intensified.

More and more, packaging designs are incorporating safety features that provide greater tampering resistance and extend the safety envelope required in today's unpredictable environment.

The recent events that have impacted on our lives also have stimulated a positive response in developing improved packaging integrity. There is no perfect way to protect all the products on our shelves, but the incorporation of these new technologies can provide a greater degree of packaging security.

Dr. Richard M. Podhajny has been in the packaging and printing industry for more than 30 years. Contact him at 215/ 616-6314; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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