From the pages of Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit
With the Romaine Crisis just now receding, issues of the role packaging could play in enhancing produce safety is top of mind. Although in a piece we wrote for the Wall Street Journal, we put in perspective how safe produce is, even infinitesimal odds still mean that people get sick. It is also likely that government and media will not do a good job of placing this in perspective, so as an industry we need to find ways to make produce even safer.
Professor Paul Takhistov of Rutgers University’s Food Science Department, one of last week’s Wednesday’s Educational Micro-session speakers at The New York Produce Show and Conference, explained the concept of intelligent packaging — along with his Rutgers colleague, Kit Yam.
Takhistov spoke about the development of better technology functions to improve the microbial safety and quality of fresh and fresh‐cut produce. He provided critical information for all levels of the produce industry about the technological changes that can be expected in the next few years. Although he says there is still a long way to go, Tahkistov believes the future will bring a new level of food-product safety and quality.
We asked Linda Brockman, Contributing Editor to Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to look deeper into this new technology:
Paul Takhistov, PhD
Director of Professional Master (MBS)
Program in Food Science
Department of Food Science
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Q: What are the big themes in intelligent packaging that are driving this discussion?
A: Packaging is an integral part of the food supply chain. There are few commercial food products without consumer packaging. Packaging performs several important functions, such as physical separation from other products, protection from the environment, shelf-life extension and communication with consumers. The produce department is increasingly filled with packaging.
Environmental factors in the supply chain, such as temperature, are critical for product safety and quality. Intelligent packaging is a relatively new concept that combines the packaging, the product, and information about the supply chain environment, into an integrated cyber-physical system. This new approach will allow us to build a new decision-support system capable of monitoring and preventing any situations that might lead to loss of a food product quality or to a food safety concern. This new technology requires truly interdisciplinary approach, with contributions from the food science, computer science, and supply chain management analysis.
Q: Do you have a vision of what the future of food safety will look like? How can the industry be proactive instead of reactive?
A: We are living in an open and global world. Our food-supply chain is part of this globally changing environment. It is ever more dynamic, fast and agile. It requires more transparency, traceability and control. On the other hand, there is a growing demand for fresh, low-processed foods.
Changing demographics and population eating habits result in a rapidly changing food market and demand for different food products. Traditional food safety systems are based on the HACCP approach, which is suitable for a food processing environment but is hardly applicable to a flexible and dynamic product supply. Our food safety system, now based on the reactive approach, is moving toward proactive, preventive, risk-based methods.
New capabilities in big-data analysis will allow us to determine patterns and occurrences of the bottlenecks in the supply chain that are responsible for reduced product quality and safety. Future food safety systems should be based on a deep scientific understanding of the post-harvest physiology of produce, should be technically capable to respond to changes in the supply-chain environment, and obtain comprehensive real-time information about the status of produce that can be used by cloud-based analytics, and provide a science-based decision tool.
We envision the food safety system of the future as an all-encompassing tool that creates a transparent environment for the free flow of information about product origin, history, and current status based on the information from all supply-chain players and ubiquitous population of the sensing devices (Internet-of-Things) that provide real-time unbiased information about food product status, location, and expected safety and quality parameters. Such an approach will allow early detection, prevention, and elimination of the potential safety hazards at any location for every food product and any delivery mode.
Q: Can you estimate how much money these new developments will save the produce industry?
A: The economics of food safety is a gray area. We know that every year, our economy loses $15.6 billion due to foodborne pathogens. Every major food recall costs at least $25 million for the food manufacturer.
Implementation of the new technology is always associated with an initial investment into the new equipment, new modes of business operation, and personnel training. However, the ability to deliver quality products with verifiable and transparent history will provide strong market advantages and overall cost-savings due to reduced product loss, higher product quality, and greater consumer satisfaction. This is why, in our research, we focus on the low-cost sensing and communication devices to add value to the product without significant increase of the product cost.
Q: How are the new innovations and technologies helping to deliver safer perishable food products? What are the challenges?
A: Intelligent packaging as a system that combines real-time monitoring (sensors) and product protection (packaging) is the most suitable for perishable products. Short shelf-life and long delivery time make delivery of perishable food products one of the most challenging tasks for the food supply chain. However, putting sensors on the packaging would not solve the issues of product loss and safety.
There is a significant gap in knowledge regarding how various produce types respond to changes in the storage and transportation conditions. There is no reliable low-cost sensing system capable of real-time data transfer and suitable for food packaging applications. Additionally, current mathematical models, such as predictive microbiology (USDA) and risk analysis (FDA) are not suitable for the analysis of real-time data.
Additional barriers include a lack of trained food safety professionals capable of working with big data in the cloud environment. There are some gaps on the regulatory side.
Q: What is Rutgers’ role in training the next generation of produce industry professionals to practice better safety techniques?
A: Rutgers University is among the leading institutions in the field of food and agriculture science. We offer a full-spectrum education, ranging from short courses to doctorate-level professional degrees. Rapid changes in the agriculture and the food industry result in the growing demand for practical, industry-oriented education.
Specifically, our master’s degree program in science and business trains new professionals by providing a comprehensive set of business and technical skills. Our new program in master’s-level global food technology and innovation is particularly oriented for the produce industry, including courses in produce shelf-life, supply-chain quality management, agriculture, business analytics and data analysis, and others.
This program is offered online and is oriented toward working professionals looking for career advancement in the produce industry. We work closely with the industry and take the feedback from it into account when designing our programs.