Seafood Traceability Program
NOAA Fisheries to establish first-ever traceability program for U.S. aquacultured (farmed) shrimp and abalone.
NOAA Fisheries has issued a proposed regulation to implement the first-ever traceability program for U.S. aquacultured (farmed) shrimp and abalone—establishing comparable reporting requirements to those required for imported seafood products under the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP).
Congress has directed the Secretary of Commerce to establish a domestic traceability program for U.S. aquaculture of shrimp and abalone from point of production to entry into U.S. commerce.
NOAA Fisheries is committed to working closely with U.S. aquaculture producers to develop a program that provides the necessary comparable data, while reducing stakeholders’ compliance burden to the maximum extent practicable.
Shrimp at seafood market.
About the Traceability Information Program for Seafood
This proposed regulation establishes the domestic counterpart to the traceability requirements for imported seafood under the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP)—a step to allow imports of the comparable product to be subject to U.S. seafood traceability requirements under SIMP.
SIMP and the traceability system it established facilitates better data collection and retention, sharing, and analysis among relevant regulators and enforcement authorities for imported seafood—marking a significant step forward for addressing illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.
Mandatory compliance for eleven of the species covered under SIMP began on January 1, 2018. Shrimp and abalone compliance will be effective on December 31, 2018.
Establishing comparable requirements for domestic aquacultured shrimp and abalone also allows imports of shrimp and abalone to be subject to SIMP requirements— further leveling the playing field for U.S. fishermen, aquaculture producers, and seafood producers who play by the rules.
Public Comments on the Proposed Regulation
NOAA Fisheries has received public comments on the proposed regulation to implement a traceability program for U.S. aquacultured (farmed) shrimp and abalone.
NOAA Fisheries held two public webinars about the proposed regulation to implement the Traceability Information Program for Seafood
Fish and seafood processing and packaging is a valued industry in America. Many types of seafood products are available in the U.S., from shellfish captured in the ocean to freshwater fish from lakes. After fish is caught, it must be processed and packaged to reach consumers as an edible product.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Americans spent an estimated $102 billion for fishery products in 2017. Important species include salmon, halibut, tuna, lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, crab, herring and oysters. Without the fish processing sector, many Americans wouldn’t have access to the seafood products they regularly enjoy. Processing is necessary to keep fish fresh long enough to reach the shelves in stores, restaurants and homes.
WHAT IS FISH PROCESSING?
Fish processing involves preparing fish and seafood for delivery to consumers. Once fish is harvested, it must undergo several steps before it’s ready to be sold in the market. The process includes gutting, filleting and packaging of the product. Fish is a highly perishable food, so it must be carefully handled from the moment it’s caught until it’s sealed in packaging material. Proper, efficient processing and packaging prevent deterioration and ensure a quality product.
HOW ARE FISH PROCESSED?
Fish processing generally involves the following steps:
Sorting fish by size and species
Loading fish into a machine to remove heads
Moving fish to a cleaning machine to remove tails, scales and entrails
Fish processing may be done manually or by the use of processing machines. The details of the process can vary greatly depending on a company’s size and the fish species they handle.
MANUAL VS. AUTOMATED
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), freshwater fish are often manually processed, with employees using a wide variety of knives. Workers must be highly skilled to manually process fish efficiently and safely. In general, manual processing is more common in small processing plants.
Large plants require automated systems to yield abundant quantities quickly. Here’s a look at the different steps for both manual and automatic processes:
Sorting and grading: Sorting fresh fish to classify species and check for damage and freshness is often a manual process. Grading fish size, on the other hand, is easily accomplished with machinery. Machine graders accurately and quickly sort fish. According to the FAO, automated grading is up to 10 times more efficient than manual grading. However, small plants often do not use automatic graders due to the cost of the machinery.
Scaling: Scaling is another step that may be done manually, but it’s one of the hardest tasks because scales can be difficult to remove. Workers may scale fish using a hard brush or blade. Fish that are to be skinned or smoked do not need to be scaled. Some processing plants equip workers with electric handheld scalers. Electric scalers accelerate and simplify the process.
De-heading: Freshwater fish may be de-headed manually. Usually, saltwater fish are de-headed on a machine. Manually de-heading large fish requires too much effort, and an automated de-heading machine must be used. De-heading machines typically use band saw blades, cylindrical knives or guillotine cutters.
Gutting: The gutting of freshwater fish is also often done manually and is very labor-intensive. It includes cutting down the belly of the fish and removing the organs. A vacuum suction tool may be used to remove the entrails. Plants might utilize gutting machines to process certain species. Some machines provide an all-in-one solution and are capable of de-heading, cutting and removing the insides.
Fin removal: Manual fin removal is a difficult process, particularly for large fish. An automated device made up of rotating disc knives accelerates the process.
Slicing: Slicing fish into steaks is often done with a band saw. Large fish require mechanical slicing. There are many different types of slicing machines, such as ones that use several rotating circular knives. According to the FAO, a mechanical cutter can slice up to 40 fish a minute.
Filleting and skinning: Plants might have a filleting machine that uses a rotating disc knife and conveyor belt to speed up the process. An automated tool for skinning consists of an oscillating knife powered by a small electric motor.
quality and safety
QUALITY AND SAFETY FOR FISH PROCESSING
One of the top concerns in the fish processing and packaging industry is spoilage. Fish quickly deteriorates, so steps must be taken immediately to extend shelf life. The process includes:
Temperature control: Reducing the temperature to 32 degrees Fahrenheit slows down decomposition. Raw fish must be chilled in ice immediately after harvesting and be kept cool during the trip to the processing plant as well as throughout processing and distribution. Freezing is required to extend shelf life for a long time.
Moisture control: Drying, salting and smoking reduces water content and makes a fish product suitable for consumption. Salting is a traditional method that’s often combined with drying and smoking. It’s also a low-cost way to preserve fish.
Oxygen control: Fish may be vacuum-sealed to increase shelf life. Vacuum packaging deprives the fish product of oxygen, which prevents oxidation reactions and slows down spoilage.
Microbial growth control: A processing plant might apply heat or increase acidity to kill bacteria and slow decomposition in fish products.
Waste management is another important aspect of fish and seafood processing. Treated fish waste can be turned into fish oil, animal feed, fertilizer and other value-added products. Fish waste must also be managed properly for environmental purposes.
Fish plants generate large amounts of waste. It’s estimated that more than 50% of fish captured are not used as food. Fish waste mostly includes:
Fish processing also produces large amounts of wastewater. Liquid waste, such as discarded water from washing stations, needs to be managed and disposed of properly. The liquids must be assessed to determine the best disposal method.
Fish waste treatment may include methods such as hydrolysis, bioremediation, anaerobic digestion and filtration. Waste liquids undergo primary treatment, which removes materials that readily float or settle. Secondary treatment processes waste liquids after floating and settleable materials have been removed. Secondary treatment uses biological and chemical processes to change effluent and make it safer for the environment.
Packaging, labeling and distribution are the final stages of fish processing. Finished products may include:
Fish fillets, steaks or loins
Fish sticks or cakes
Gutted whole fish, called drawn fish
Scaled, gutted and ready-to-cook fish, or dressed fish
Shucked and cooked shellfish meat
Edible products are packed as refrigerated, frozen or canned items. Products can also be sold for further processing. Secondary processors use fresh or frozen fish and seafood products to add to other ingredients and create various salads, sandwiches and meals found in restaurants and stores.
SEAFOOD PACKAGING TYPES
Packaging serves two main purposes: to attract customers and preserve products. Food processing plants have a wide range of packaging options to choose from, but it mostly depends on the type of product they manufacture. Common packaging types include:
Stand-up pouches: Attention-grabbing stand-pouches offer convenience, reduce packaging costs and keep products fresh.
Cans: Canning has been a long-used method to preserve processed fish. Tuna, salmon and sardines are commonly canned after processing. A tin can is sealed and heated to keep air out and preserve the food inside.
Vacuum skin packaging: Vacuum skin packaging (VSP) forms a tight, clear film over a product to enhance its visual appeal and extend its lifespan.
Multi-layer films: Multi-layer films create a tight seal to keep fish fresh. This type of packaging shows the product clearly, and the multiple layers help protect packages from punctures and abrasions.
Individually quick frozen (IQF) packaging: IQF packaging is often used for frozen fish fillets and other frozen seafood products. IQF is usually available in bag format and may come in a variety of styles, such as the pillow shape or flat bottom.
Packaging is often an automated process involving sophisticated machines that fill and seal product containers and bags. This process reduces the need for manual labor and speeds up the packaging stage.
York Saw and Knife Co, Inc. Plays a Large Role in Seafood Processing and Packaging
PACKAGING USED IN FRESHWATER FISH PROCESSING / SEAFOOD PACKING
5.1 The Role of Packaging
The previous section discussed the processing methods most often used by small freshwater fish processing plants. Quality assurance is essential in each technological process, and suitable packaging materials and methods are of great importance. If these requirements are not met all efforts made during processing could be of little avail, which could lead to serious economic losses.
Packaging should protect the product from contamination and prevent it from spoilage, and at the same time it should:
- extend shelf life of a product
- facilitate distribution and display
- give the product greater consumer appeal
- facilitate the display of information on the product
The quality of freshwater fish which is delivered to the consumer or the processing plant as live fish greatly depends on correct handling during transport and, when processed, on suitable packaging. For short distances, the live fish can be transported in insulated containers with lids, capacity varying from 300 to 1 000 kg of fish. Fish can also be transported in normal lorries, but for long distances the water in the containers must be aerated and cooled by portable devices.
In order to maintain good quality of fresh fish during transportation, fish boxes made of suitable materials should be used. When purchasing fish boxes the six following requirements should be remembered; they should:
- be of a suitable size for the range of fish to be handled or the product to be put into them
- be of a convenient size for manual handling or lifting by mechanical equipment
- be stackable such that the weight of the containers on top rests on the containers underneath and not on the fish
- be constructed of impervious non-staining materials
- be easy to clean
- provide drainage for melted ice
Fish boxes are usually made of high-density polyethylene. Although this offers many advantages, such as duration, lightness, ease of cleaning, there are also disadvantages, e.g., high price and the fact that they are not returnable. That is why disposable fish boxes of about 25 kg capacity (fish and ice) are more often used: these include fibreboard cartons, waxed and waterproof boxes. In the case of transport by lorries with no cooling system, insulated cartons, e.g., boards made of moulded polyestyrene should be preferred. The latter is commonly used for delivery of chilled and frozen fish and fish products to wholesale and retail outlets. In the case of fillets, each layer of fillets should be packed thin and separated from the ice with a plastic foil.
Styropor boxes are normally sold with lids, which fit very closely and can be with or without drainage holes. In a typical range, wall thickness varies with box size; e.g., a 6 kg capacity box has a 15 mm thick wall, a 10 kg box a 19 mm wall, a 25 kg box a 25 mm wall. The main disadvantage of moulded polyestyrene fish boxes is their lack of strength. They are easily damaged or broken by rough handling. This limits their size and use.
Polyestyrene is difficult to clean. Polyestyrene boxes are difficult to re-use, and are usually non-returnable. They may cause disposal problems due to their bulk.
The packaging industry improves its products by using new materials with better insulating properties or by introducing new leakproof designs. The new containers are often lighter and less bulky. For example, the Therma Gard packing system consists of a metallized plastic bag (which reflects practically all radiant heat). This is then wrapped in a waterproof and leakproof carton. The metallized bag, together with a bubble-pack wrapper, provides a double-pack insulation. The Therma Gard bag can be sealed airtight and thus be used for carrying live fish. The Stratech aluminized boxes have a wall thickness of only 5mm and it is claimed that these boxes have similar insulating characteristics as polystyrene boxes with 30 mm wall thickness.
The future use of expendable packages is becoming questionable as there is a growing discussion, for example in some states of the USA, on imposing a ban on these packages.
The main drawbacks in using returnable containers are freight costs for returning empty containers. Use of "knock-down" returnable containers will reduce freight costs.
5.2 Retail Packaging for Freshwater Fish Products
The main role of packaging is described above but in respect of retail presentation it should also reduce the smell and the drip, and enable the product to be tucked into shopping baskets with other purchases. Moreover, the packaging of fish products should ensure attractive presentation among other food products without contaminating them.
Basic packaging materials include paper, cartons, sheets of metal, metal foils and many kinds of plastics. Despite the rapid growth in use of plastics, the role of paper and carton as packaging materials does not decrease.
Kraft paper or carton are often laminated with polyethylene or aluminium foil which render them waterproof. Such material is used for production of trays for packaging of fresh or frozen products. More often, trays are made of plastic materials such as polyestyrene or expanded polyestyrene. Expanded polyestyrene is frequently used but it is partly oxygen-permeable and so those products which are sensitive to rancidity have to be additionally overwrapped or skin-packed with suitable film.
The materials mentioned above are not stable at high temperatures and hence are not suitable for trays to be used in an oven. Polyester can be used as a packing material for heating of the product in the traditional and microwave ovens, but this material cannot be used for microwave cooking.
Trays used for packing are generally overwrapped with a protective film, often with PE wrapping which shrinks. The film shrinking is achieved by use of hot air or hot water.
Stretch wrapping is often used for products which are heat-sensitive. The film is stretched over the product manually (very often in the supermarket) or by machine. Foils used as wrapping or bags for packing of trays with product must be puncture-proof, extensible and impervious to gases like oxygen.
Hundreds of different films are used in the packaging industry. These can be broadly categorized into two groups:
- basic films consisting of a single layer of film
- laminate consisting of two or more basic films glued together or bonded together by heat or by adhesives
Plastics such as polyethylene film or copolymer of ethylene and vinyl acetate are very often used for packing of frozen products. Polyethylene packs can be produced manually using pre-made bags. An impulse or bar sealer is used to seal the bags which are hand-filled.
In order to improve the barrier properties of packages laminates are used, for example polyester/polythene. Products which are particularly sensitive to oxygen are vacuum-packed. During the sealing operation, air is removed from the package. A laminate nylon/polythene is commonly used as packaging material. This type of packaging is used, for instance, for smoked trout which are arranged on a board with, for example, a coated texture. Numerous machines exist for vacuum-packing with single, double or continuous chambers. Vacuum-sealing machines can additionally be equipped with a modified atmosphere packing system (MAP). Immediately on removing the air from the package a mixture of gases is pumped in. Usually this mixture consists of 30% nitrogen, 40% carbon dioxide, and 30% oxygen. In the case of fat fish the oxygen is replaced by nitrogen. This method is increasingly used for packing fresh fish. The MAP products have to be stored at the temperatures lower than 3° C because of C. botulinum hazard. MAP packages consist of two kinds of foil. The bottom film is foil-rigid or semi-rigid. This foil is formed by, for example, extrusion and the resultant tray is moved to the packing section. Because of product drip it is placed on an absorbing board. The top web is drawn over the filled trays and sealed round the edges. The pack may be evacuated or gas-flushed before sealing.
Vacuum-skin packaging is becoming more common for packing smoked fish. In this process the wrapper is heated and wrapped over the product, the film moulding completely to the product shape and sealing the product completely, forming an extra skin.
5.3 Labelling Requirements for Freshwater Fish Products
Lack of detailed standards and existence of only limited regulations concerning wholesomeness and sanitary conditions for production and trade of food products characterize the market economy. Here, the problem of labelling is of a particular importance. Regulations in this regard are very detailed and are aimed at protecting the health of the consumer and providing the best information. These requirements enable the consumer to decide which products to buy. A label placed on the product should inform the consumer about the raw material used, method of preparation and form of consumption, shelf life, etc.
Product labelling is of prime concern in the European Union. Directive 79/112/EEC of 18 December 1978 was revised several times, and in 1990 there came into force a new Directive 90/496/EEC which concerned labelling and providing information on nutritive and energetic values (kcal or kJ/100 g or 100 ml), the amount of basic ingredients and nutritive compounds such as: proteins, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, sodium and vitamin content (EEC, 1979). These requirements were supplemented in Directive 89/396/EEC recommending the labelling of batches of product which would make it easier to withdraw the batch from commodity turnover in the case of health hazard.
Taking into account the necessity to ensure complete information on the product to facilitate the selection of a healthy and economic diet, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a voluntary Nutritive Labelling Programme which covers, inter alia, a proposal for placing on the product for example information concerning the percentage of recommended daily intake of protein, vitamin A and C, iron, calcium, etc.
High technology for fish packaging
Fish and seafood have a high nutritional value but are at the same time sensitive, perishable foods. Packaging protects the products from harm and contributes towards reducing losses during transport, storage or at the retailer’s. The functions that packaging has to fulfil are accordingly diverse. And requirements are constantly growing, for the materials used to produce it are today expected to be as sustainable and recyclable as possible.
In the past fishmongers wrapped fish in newspaper before handing it over the counter to the customer but today it is sealed in high tech non-drip, odour proof, insulated packaging. Without these useful packaging options for purpose- and product-specific wrapping of packed goods “normal” commercial life would simply no longer be conceivable. What is true for products in general applies to fish and seafood in particular. Packaging maintains product quality, offers protection, and facilitates movement of goods and handling. Because there is a different packaging solution for almost every need and application, fish products are often repacked several times on their journey from source to the finished product. Producers and exporters tend to prefer bulk packaging from shatterpack to interleaved that is robust enough to withstand the demands of global seafood trade and at the same time guarantee that the products arrive at the customer’s undamaged and in optimal quality. Although the requirements of product packaging in wholesaling and retailing are basically similar further functions are necessary at the retailer’s. There, packaging has to appeal to the final customer, it should offer specific information, and also serve as a buying incentive.
Whether for frozen or cook-in-the-bag products there is a suitable plastic film for nearly every application.
The wide range of packaging solutions for the retail trade is quite overwhelming, particularly in the self-service section. Vacuum packs or MAP, skin packs or sealed plastic trays, traditional folding cartons and tins – not every packaging is right for every product. Fresh fish is packed differently from frozen fish, and the packaging for smoked products or ready-to-cook convenience differs from that used for marinades. Some products are not only packed once but several times, for example MAP smoked salmon which is additionally placed into a cardboard slipcase. A lot of packaging today is elaborately designed, colourfully decorated and equipped with windows for viewing the contents, and other clever details. Sometimes it is even possible to gain the impression that the producer has put more effort into the packaging than the actual product. Customer response to all this effort is not always good: consumers react with increasing annoyance, and for many of them packaging is a necessary evil that can necessitate complicated disposal once it has fulfilled its task of carrying the product the short journey to the domestic kitchen. And their annoyance is even greater if the packaging makes access to the product difficult, i.e. when the ring-pull, zipper closure, easy-peel or other “easy opening” solutions that packaging technologists thought up don’t work as intended. Who, in such situations has not asked themselves whether all this effort is really needed, whether less might not sometimes be better? But what is the right measure, how much packaging do we really need in self-service trade in its current form? And what alternatives would the producers have?
Primary, secondary and tertiary packaging functions
In fact, where some products are concerned companies have different packaging options to choose from. However, the desire for less packaging waste is only one of numerous decision criteria. It must also be considered that the packaging has to meet very high requirements with regard to food safety, moisture stability and hygiene. Apart from that, packaging is exposed to various mechanical stresses, for example during stacking in the warehouse, during transport, and at the retailer’s, for some customers like to touch and press products when considering whether to buy them. In spite of this, the packaging should not in any way suffer from this treatment since it has to be presented in the supermarket in such a way that will be a buying incentive. Packaging has so many functions that they are often grouped for clarity into three categories. The primary functions are geared towards the technical requirements of packaging, for example protection of the contents against external influences during transport, handling and storage. The material used has to be robust, stable and resistant, it should protect the product as far as possible from fluctuating temperatures, moisture and dirt. This function category also includes protection against loss, damages and theft.
The secondary functions of packaging are primarily to serve the retail section for they include the communicative aspects. Packaging should promote sales and make the buying process as rational as possible. Appearance, feel, smell, even the acoustics of the package should appeal to the senses of the consumer, arouse emotions and stimulate them to buy. Printed information on the labels informs shoppers about the ingredients, shelf life, intended usage, correct preparation and particular properties of the product. Product-specific EAN codes enable fast recognition by the scanner at the cash desk. The guarantee function if for consumer protection and product liability. It enables specific product recalls or the acceptance of returned goods by the retailer as long as the freshness seal is still intact. Tertiary functions of packaging comprise its possible additional uses. For example, cartons can be printed with figures to cut out, cups and buckets can be used as storage boxes or toys once they have fulfilled their main purpose, or they can be recycled.
Foods in glass jars or thin sheet metal cans are among the oldest packaging and storage types for fish and seafood.
Glass, tin or plastic
The packaging classic is the tin can, timeless since its development 200 years ago and it has lost none of its popularity. Cans are robust, protect the contents very effectively and convince users through their long shelf life. Nutritional value, flavour and aroma are optimally preserved. No special temperatures are necessary during storage. These are advantages that pay off for producers, retailers and consumers alike. Canned fish plays a significant role in the global seafood market. One just has to think of canned tuna from Asia that is traded in Europe and North America. Fruit and vegetables account for the major share of canned products; more than one quarter of all canned foods (26%) contain fish or other seafood. High-quality products are often preserved in screw top jars that allow a view of the products they contain. Although glass is chemically inert, tasteless and fully approved for food and can in addition also be recycled easily glass jars only account for a small proportion of fish preserves. One explanation for this is probably that glass jars often have to be filled by hand so that the contents are visually appealing. This considerable effort leads to additional costs that raise the price of the mass product.
Instead of glass, producers of preserved products mostly resort to tinplate or aluminium sheet, the “tin” that is known worldwide as the typical canned fish. Metal packaging is also 100% recyclable without quality losses and can thus be re-used after appropriate treatment. Europe-wide, however, only just under two thirds of such cans are recycled at present – estimates speak of slightly more than 60% recycling. And cans rarely consist of pure metal, for on the inside they are today usually coated with plastic based on polyesters, epoxy resins or organosols. This ultra-thin coating prevents direct contact of the contents with the metal of the can which could lead to undesired chemical reactions and alter the taste. Such plastic coatings are criticised by consumer organisations because they can give off substances such as bisphenol A to the contents of the can. Although the quantities released are extremely low it is warned that these substances can act like hormones and are said to be harmful especially to small children. In January 2015 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) therefore published a new report on possible health risks arising from bisphenol A. According to this report the substance does not pose a risk to human health in the concentrations concerned.
In spite of such concerns the use of plastics in the canning sector is increasing. There are already cans in which the can body is made of metal and the lid of plastic. To close the can securely the materials are connected using an elaborate folding technique. The plastic lids are relatively light-weight and usually transparent which reduces the weight of the fish preserve and allows a view of the contents. Some of these products are even suited to preparation in the microwave because the plastic lid allows electromagnetic radiation to pass through. Another variant are plastic lids made of PE (polyethylene) which are additionally slipped over the standard sealed can. This means that the can be reclosed after the standard ring-pull or easy peel lid has been removed. In the meantime there are even containers that are completely made of plastic, something which was long thought to be technically impossible, for cans are subjected to temperatures of at least 75°C during pasteurisation or, in the case of fully preserved products, temperatures of above 120°C during sterilisation. This places extremely high requirements on the plastic material used which also has to have good barrier properties against oxygen and other gases. Not just for a few days but over the product’s full lifetime. The immense progress in polymer chemistry and the development of coextruded multilayer plastic film have now made such containers possible, however. In spite of this, products in plastic boxes are likely to remain the exception in the foreseeable future.
The upper film of the skin pack wraps itself snugly around the product, fixes it on the base, and prevents excessive leakage of liquid.
Inexpensive and resilient, temperature and moisture stable
In many areas, however, plastics are indispensable and are considered a universal and cost-effective packaging material. Plastic film, bags and pouches, crates, tubs, buckets and barrels, canisters and pails – plastic packaging can be tailored to use for almost any purpose. Thermoplastics are moisture stable and light-weight and at the same time mechanically resilient and relatively break-proof. They can be thermally formed, coloured as one wishes, and printed on. Some plastic materials are suited to deep freezing, others can even endure oven heat. This versatility opens up ever new application fields in the packaging industry.
Flexible plastic film, for example, is available in different hardnesses and thicknesses. It can be used for wrapping fish, for interleaving packed products, or for plastic bags, carrier bags or sacks. Temperature stable film that can withstand up to 200°C are used to produce cooking bags that are suited to the preparation of foods in the oven, in the microwave or in “sous-vide” techniques. Some of them are equipped with several chambers to enable the separate heating of fish, sauces and other side-dishes. This kind of film mostly allows the passage of any resulting water vapour to enable excess pressure to escape. Cardboard packaging can be coated with a thin film to render it impervious to liquids and to hold in flavour and aroma. Since the development of modern coextruded film which as a rule consists of three to nine laminar layers the application range of “plastic film” has expanded significantly. It is often specifically tailored to its intended use. Hot soups and dried fish, fresh or frozen products, delicatessen salads, seafood mixes and ready meals, almost anything will keep well and maintain its quality in packs made of coextruded film.
Stand-up pouches, MAP-sealed trays, vacuum and skin packs
The success of fresh and smoked fish products in the self-service retail sector was not possible until packaging in modified atmosphere (MAP) was developed.
Applications for plastic film are to be found practically everywhere. Self-adhesive household film protects food in the fridge, cartons on pallets are wrapped and secured by film, shrink film bundles product batches in the warehouse, barrier film seals MAP trays of fresh fish at the retailer’s. Some plastic packaging such as tubs, trays or blister packs are already delivered ready formed and can thus be filled immediately. This type of packaging includes stand-up pouches, flexible bags with a firm base that are in the meantime replacing traditional cans for some seafood products. In contrast to tin cans the stand-up pouches are often equipped with devices that allow the bag to be closed again (e.g. reclosable zippers, retortable press to close). Other packaging varieties are thermoformed in the required size immediately before filling. An example of this method is sealed trays in which fish is packed under protective atmosphere (MAP). MAP usually requires two different films: a relatively rigid lower film that can be thermoformed into a tray, and a flexible film lid which closes the tray and maintains the quality and freshness of the fish under modified atmosphere. Both materials – the upper and lower film – must have high barrier properties and be reliably combinable with one another. There is also peelable film that sticks on uncoated aluminium and so can be used for materials other than thermoforming grade bottom films.
The main advantages of deep drawing during the packaging process include the fact that producers can react quickly to current market trends that frequently demand new packaging solutions. By exchanging the forming tools they can vary the shape and size of the trays, for example, or include several chambers or portion packs. Intelligent MAP trays are also fitted with absorbent pads that soak up any liquid from the fish fillet and at the same time release CO2 that inhibits the development of harmful bacteria and prevents enzymatic spoilage processes. This can often extend the shelf life of the products by several days.
Film that is used for vacuum package of fish products must also have high barrier properties. In the case of MAP the protective atmosphere should remain in the sealed tray, in the case of vacuum packed products the air should in contrast be fully evacuated as far as possible and kept out until the pack is opened. A special form of vacuum packaging are the skin packs where the upper film wraps itself around the product like a second skin. Skin packs constitute high technology in the packaging sector. Sometimes the shrink process of the high-tech lid film is additionally supported by a vacuum but mostly it is already enough to soften it through the effect of heat. In what almost seems like a magical process the film then wraps itself around the product like a second skin. This takes place so gently and carefully that the soft product is neither squeezed nor constricted. To perfect the protection of the product the film is joined over a large area to the cardboard on which the product was arranged. In the past it was often difficult to free the skin film from the cardboard and the contents again when opening but in the meantime this problem has been solved and today’s improved film can be peeled off easily. Like almost all packaging, skin packs also serve as protection and enable a longer shelf life of the packed products. Apart from that, they maintain moisture within the product and enable a visually appealing presentation at the retailer’s.
Sustainability is gaining importance in the packaging sector
Vacuum packaging prevents fat oxidation and the development of aerobic, i.e. O2-dependent pathogens, through air removal.
The technical, aesthetic and economic requirements of packaging are today already very high but now sustainability has become an important issue, too. Since more and more seafood companies have committed themselves to sustainable usage of resources the topic has moved more strongly into public awareness. Sustainability seals such as ASC and MSC communicate a producer’s values and philosophy and have become an important marketing tool. Viewed holistically it is not only the products that should be considered, however, for the packaging is equally important. But how does one determine the sustainability of packaging? Particularly since it is not only a question of the material used but also of its design, the colours used for printing, the transport paths and methods, the weight and also its recyclability. The problem is extremely complex and so it is difficult or even impossible to find a simple answer. A cardboard carton made of recycled cellulose that is flown from the other end of the earth to Europe can be less sustainable than a light-weight plastic packaging that has a big CO2 footprint during its production from crude oil but which will be used again several times.
When assessing the sustainability of packaging similar rules apply as to the fish products themselves. From their origin to the final product their path has to be fully traceable. Although such lifecycle considerations are controversial among experts this is at present presumably the simplest way to determine the ecological footprint of packaging within a reasonable time. Direct comparison of materials is difficult, for their resource and energy consumption varies depending on the application. Cardboard can be more expensive than plastic, the production of tin sheet costs even more but is very economical in the overall balance because it can be recycled and once in the can hardly anything spoils. Some plastics can also be down cycled and re-used. In the eco-balance glass is more advantageous than plastic but only if the transport distances are less than 50 km. No packaging material is per se “good” or “bad” or superior to another. And this also applies to packaging materials made of paper, which are allegedly particularly ecological. But they are often coated with a plastic film as a moisture protection, as in the “coffee to go” mugs.