The seafood industry has long faced a number of challenges at the grocery store—a perceived lack of freshness, excess liquid in the package that can cause contamination issues, and concerns about safe handling. Advances in active packaging are working to combat these problems, thereby extending seafood shelf life, mitigating in-package liquid buildup, and improving hygiene through a more touchless consumer experience.
In a study with Virginia Tech, Aptar Food + Beverage – Food Protection has shown the ability of its SeaWell Protective Packaging System to reduce bacterial growth and preserve seafood quality throughout the supply chain. Launched in mid-2020, the packaging integrates technology that absorbs excess liquids that would otherwise accumulate around the seafood. The absorbent materials trap excess fluids inside pockets or wells integrated into the bottom of the package—also improving consumer perception of seafood at the point of purchase.
As the world’s most widely traded animal protein on a global basis, seafood in the U.S. is nonetheless consumed at significantly lower rates. Perceived lack of freshness and safety are drivers in this consumption gap, Aptar notes in a scientific paper focused on its SeaWell technology. “Even closer to the coasts, the seafood industry faces longstanding struggles to convince consumers of product freshness and safety,” the paper says, citing a study from Sustainable Fisheries. “With 62 to 65% of U.S.-consumed seafood originating from other countries, even those who live near the ocean may find themselves buying seafood that has traveled thousands of miles to reach their kitchens.”
Your seafood is weeping
Packaging can play a key role not only in maintaining seafood freshness and safety, Aptar argues, but also in improving consumer perception.
Often, seafood is packaged in foam trays with synthetic pads and overwrap. It’s a cost-effective solution, but it provides little protection from the buildup of bacteria and excessive liquid. Punctures and leaks are common throughout the supply chain, so those packages often need to be rewrapped as well. Premium packaging solutions such as vacuum skin packs still fail to handle the high levels of liquids that seafood produces, Aptar says.
It’s inevitable that seafood will weep—meaning it will lose weight related to moisture emission. “However, an extensive amount of weeping is an indication of food proteins breaking down and an overall product quality degradation,” explains Christa Biggs, manager of business development for Aptar Food + Beverage – Food Protection. “The SeaWell system controls excess liquid that would otherwise accumulate in the package. This control of excessive liquid buildup decreases the availability of water, which in turn slows the protein breakdown process by decreasing the rates of chemical reactions and microbial growth.”
Image courtesy of AptarThe SeaWell technology leverages a proprietary three-phase Activ-Polymer platform that can be incorporated into absorbent trays and pouches to significantly limit liquid buildup to improve safety and extend freshness and shelf life.
The trays are thermoformed with cavities into which a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) technology blend is dropped and secured with a heat-sealed piece of nonwoven fabric. This creates a “false floor” in the tray, separating the seafood from any standing liquids. As the seafood thaws, the naturally released liquids fall through the nonwoven fabric into these cavities, reacting with the proprietary GRAS ingredients to form a gel that remains secured in the wells of the tray.
Image courtesy of AptarThe pouch configuration works with bag packaging. In this case, the absorbent blend is housed in quilted pockets on the back of the bag, hidden by the seafood contained within it. This provides the same liquid separation effect to protect the seafood from pathogen growth.
A study conducted by Virginia Tech showed that optimizing liquid control slowed the growth of bacteria in the package, thereby slowing product degradation. Comparing the microbial growth and kinetics of spoilage between scallops packaged in a SeaWell-based tray vs. standard packaging, the study found that scallops stored in the control group achieved a bacterial count of 6 log CFU/g (considered the limit for food spoilage) 12-13 days after storage, while scallops stored in Aptar’s system did not reach the same threshold until 15-16 days after storage.
The Virginia Tech study also monitored the total weight changes of scallops during 20 days in storage—another way to measure microbial and chemical spoilage. Scallop samples lost weight/moisture in both types of packaging, but the SeaWell packaging nonetheless performed better. Conventional packaging showed a weight/moisture loss of 46% in the scallops while those packaged with the SeaWell technology lost only 30%. The area loss of the scallops was also significantly lower in the SeaWell-based packaging.
Packaged for food safety
Though the Virginia Tech study demonstrated that SeaWell provides an increased shelf life for seafoods, that is not the primary draw, according to Biggs. “For more brand owners and consumers, the most important aspects are providing a superior seafood handling experience and a safer product, more so than simply elongating shelf life,” she explains. “There’s a finite interest in seafood having too extensive a shelf life, since ingrained consumer familiarity with seafood’s comparably brief peak freshness period means that further-out expiration dates may unintentionally arouse suspicion rather than convey higher quality. However, being able to add a few extra days has certainly allowed our customers a supply chain cushion, as well as decreased food waste.”
Image courtesy of Aptar
Consumer hesitation regarding seafood freshness and safety is due in part to questions about how long the seafood has been there and what type of package it was shipped in, according to Aptar. Though retailers often look at their fresh-counter seafood as a differentiator of high quality, the consumer has no way of knowing how fresh that seafood actually is.
“Most supermarkets and large retail stores have their seafood products shipped to them, often from many miles away,” Biggs notes. “For seafood to travel these distances without spoilage or degradation, it is usually shipped and received frozen. So typically, even the seafood you see in fresh counters needs to go through a secondary thaw process before being displayed.”
The SeaWell system supports this same process, Biggs adds, the difference being that the product can be thawed inside the packaging, eliminating the need for human handling and minimizing contamination. “The retailer can simply take the product from a frozen environment to a refrigerated one and allow it to thaw in the package before merchandising,” she says.
Aptar advocates the advantages of pre-packaged products not only for consumer comfort and convenience, but also the ability to add owner-controlled label language that can speak directly to the in-home handling process. Pre-packaged formats allow for a production date, recipes, and brand sustainability commitments. In a shelf-life challenged industry, consumers can be educated on the benefits of the active packaging a seafood provider is using.
“This suggested protocol shift has been well received, as many supermarkets have long had a difficult time keeping their fresh counters open, since it is typically a high-cost and high-labor food retail component,” Biggs says. “And now, as e-commerce emerges and evolves through conveniences like in-store pickup and home delivery, a safer way to transport seafood is necessary.”
Applying the technology to other sectors
Aptar has historically served the fresh cut produce industry using similar designs and packaging functions as the SeaWell system. “In addition to this particular method of active packaging technology, we also use our material science-based platform to address pathogen growth in fresh produce through a recently introduced antimicrobial delivery system,” Biggs notes. “And we have years of experience outside of the food sector providing active packaging solutions in the pharma industry.”
Seafood suffers similar supply chain issues that also plague the produce industry, including an abbreviated shelf life, adverse moisture issues, and temperature sensitivity. “We developed a technology that could specifically target seafood-related quality parameters and, as a material science company, our researchers are constantly working on new innovations for additional markets, as well as ways to improve our current markets.”