These days, one hears much about high-tech ``smart'' cars, and even ``smart'' bombs, but, with the help of a packaging giant, a Menlo Park, Calif., company plans to drop a bomb of its own with ``smart'' packaging. Landec Corp. and Printpack Inc., an Atlanta-based film and package maker, will develop packaging materials for fresh-cut grocery produce, using Landec's superpermeable membrane technology, which allows the packaging to be fitted to a specific produce's respiratory needs.
``Different types of vegetables and fruit exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide at different rates, even after they are picked,'' said Joy Fry, chief financial officer for Landec. ``Some can spoil and discolor rapidly in low-permeability packaging materials.''
Fry said Landec's membrane innovations allow fast-respiring produce, such as broccoli and cauliflower, to breathe within the package, sustaining appearance and freshness and extending shelf life.
The fresh-cut produce market, in which some vegetables are picked, washed and packaged directly in the farmers' fields, is the fastest-growing segment of the food-packaging market, according to Landec, and maintaining freshness is crucial to the produce's appeal.
Landec is a 5-year-old firm that started by developing breathable orthopedic casting materials. Medical casts made with the materials allow air to get to the skin of the injured area.
``From there, we developed special, intelligent membranes that have a temperature `switch,''' Fry said. ``For instance, a membrane that is tacky and highly permeable at one temperature, but not tacky at a higher or lower temperature. The packages compensate for increased respiration rates of produce at elevated temperatures, preventing anaerobic conditions inside the package.''
The products are based on several natural fatty acids that the company calls Intelimers, which are coated onto a porous acrylic film base.
The membranes, called Intellipac, can be adapted to specific applications to maximize protection and freshness. The company has used Intellipac label panels on produce grown, cut and marketed by Fresh Express Inc., a California grower and distributor, with good results, Fry said.
Printpack spokeswoman Susan Folds said the firm has not decided exactly how or for what specific produce product the smart films will be used.
``Working with Landec will provide the chance to experiment in the area of modified atmosphere packaging,'' she said. ``We would hope that within a year we would have developed a more specific plan, but right now it is very vague. We are looking at the fresh-produce market in general.''
Printpack, already a major player in the development, manufacture and sale of flexible packaging, will gain a much larger place in film production following its purchase of the flexible packaging division of James River Corp., based in Milford, Ohio.
The purchase could be complete by the fourth quarter of this year.
In 1995, Printpack ranked seventh in Plastics News' survey of North American film and sheet producers, with about $465 million in annual sales.
James River ranked 10th with about $420 million in annual film sales.