The University of Florida has launched a Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, working with plastics companies to expand the shelf life of produce, meats, fish and baked goods.
At the center, officials test, among other things, gas permeability of film, probability of leakage and how plastic performs under vibration and shock during transportation.
``Sometimes plastic can get fatigued with the movement in trucks,'' said Jean-Pierre Emond, the center's co-director, during a recent tour of the Gainsville center. ``So we measure all that. It doesn't stop when people buy products. We want to know what goes on with the whole experience of the product.''
The center tests what happens with yogurt, for instance, when consumers get it home. The center has 14 environmental chambers that test how oranges react in cardboard vs. plastic.
Only 18 months old, the center boasts the largest radio-frequency identification lab for perishable and pharmaceutical products. It works in conjunction with scientists from five separate departments at the University of Florida, and its advisory board is made of up of executives from chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Publix Super Markets Inc.
``The RFID industry started to understand that if you don't have the food-packaging industry on your side, it's no good,'' said Emond.
Wal-Mart, for instance, has asked its top 100 suppliers to ship products with RFID tags. The Department of Defense has requested RFID, too.
``It's amazing the amount of companies focused more on what they can do with RFID,'' Emond said. RFID addresses traceability and quality issues, making quality management much more feasible.
``One of the critical issues with fresh-picked produce is to cool it as soon as possible,'' Emond said. ``For every hour that you wait to cool it, you lose a day of shelf life.''
By using packaging from IPL Inc. of St. Damien, Quebec, officials have cut cooling time by 50 percent. The system also reduces bruising during transportation.
``People want fruit and vegetables all year-round. We have to fly these products. We have to ship them,'' Emond said.
Centralized meat cutting now is a big trend. Meat is cut at one location and brought into places like a Wal-Mart Super Center.
``In terms of food safety and recalls, it's easier,'' Emond said.
Even resin prices affect Emond and his staff.
``We are exposed to that every single day, just to reduce price,'' he said.
The big trend right now in the food-packaging industry is organics, and consequently, research into bioresins.
``That's the biggest challenge for the plastics industry. ... How can we provide a package that is plastic for this market? We have a lot of people looking at that and we're working with biomaterials on that.''
Retailers are demanding more on the topic.
``They say, hook up with the plastics industry and find a way,'' he said.
The center also is looking for a film supplier to work on a pilot project.
According to officials from Packaging & Technology Integrated Solutions LLC of Kalamazoo, Mich., the packaging industry sees the need for an integrated value chain, including research centers that combine experience from the entire supply chain.
``You can't have the expertise inside your four walls,'' P&T principal Brian Wagner said in a Feb. 28 presentation at Packaging Strategies, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. ``There's no way you can do it.''