Understanding the importance of smart packaging for consumer confidence, food safety and an improved supply chain

In September, the NZFSSRC hosted an online workshop on ‘Understanding the importance of smart packaging for consumer confidence, food safety and an improved supply chain’. The workshop was facilitated by NZFSSRC-funded PhD student Erin Young, Professor Phil Bremer, and Assoc. Prof. Miranda Mirosa, all of the University of Otago.  

This online interactive workshop provided advice to the food industry and packaging researchers on issues they should consider prior to the development and implementation of smart packaging for products targeting the Chinese market. The advice was based on a 3-year research project which determined Chinese consumer-perceived benefits of smart packaging technologies, willingness to accept these technologies and willingness to pay. 

At the 2-hour workshop, 50 workshop participants from both NZ and China used the insights that the research team had obtained through focus groups, interviews with industry stakeholders, a large consumer survey and eye tracking testing of developed protypes, in an interactive way to engage with the packaging design process. 

The study results presented indicated that parts of the New Zealand industry are interested in investing in active and intelligent packaging, but that interest varied depending on macro, sector, and business factors.  Some of the barriers were also perceived as insurmountable, in addition to an industry focus on adjusting their packaging technologies to those that favour a more circular material cycle over single use materials.  Chinese consumers were revealed to be generally receptive and accepting of active and intelligent packaging, with some prepared to pay a premium for products with those technologies.  Perceived benefits such as the additional information on the condition and history of the product as well as feeling more confident and reassured about the product quality were most valued by Chinese consumers.  However, familiarity with the technologies was low and providing additional communication about the technologies on pack was also deemed important.  Cluster analysis identified only two Chinese consumer segments: Indifferent, and Enthusiastic.  And finally, consumers had more trust, belief in authenticity, confidence in and willingness to purchase most food products presented that incorporated active or intelligent packaging over conventional packaging.

The workshop was actually originally developed to be run the day after the New Zealand Food Safety Science Research Centre research day, with the team travelling to Wellington for a face-to-face workshop, but due to COVID-19 related lockdowns was converted to a fully online workshop and was run via Zoom. The mix of the presentation of results alongside purposefully designed participant breakout sessions for discussions worked well in this online format and this will be used again for similar Centre workshops in cases where face-to-face isn’t an option.

NZ-China network helping to decipher new packaging regulations

The consumer drive to get rid of plastic, and consequent pressure on government and food manufacturers, was huge in 2019. It overshadowed by far the development of sustainable alternatives.  Kate Parker, Portfolio Leader for Scion’s Bioproducts and Packaging activities, says, “The entire packaging world is scrambling to meet the global commitments of ‘all packaging being 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025’.  There are also pressures to increase recycled content in our packaging materials. However, this raises issues with food contact compliance of these materials.”  

Scientists at Scion, which is based in Rotorua amid our enormous commercial forests, are not just researching alternative forms of sustainable packaging using NZ’s wealth of renewable biomass, but they are supporting our food exporters behind the scenes to interpret and comply with all the different and  complex regulations countries impose.  This is a fast-moving area, especially post pandemic, and can be very challenging for companies.  Chemist Eva Gaugler, working in Kate’s Portfolio, has a specific brief to research and advise on technical details around food contact safety and compliance.

Through the NZ China Food Protection Network (NZCFPN), enduring relationships have been established with scientists in China who are helping Eva understand what is acceptable to our biggest export market.  There have been visits both ways, which have further strengthened these invaluable partnerships. A key contact is Dr Marco Zhong, director of the National Reference Laboratory for Food Contact Materials (Guandong).  Fortunately, he is fluent in English, which is enormously helpful when precise meanings can so easily be lost in translation.  Marco spoke at the 2018 Appita Fibre Value Chain conference on “the testing approach for checking compliance – Case study”.  (Appita is the Australasian Pulp and Paper Technical Association.)

Another important contact is Professor Chang-Ying Hu, Jinan University, who visited New Zealand in 2018 and met with industry partners to answer their specific questions on Chinese food contact regulations.

In turn, Eva was funded by NZCFPN to visit Jinan University as well as the National Reference Laboratory in China.  She says, “You learn so much more easily from a person,” surely a profound truth about education generally.

There are myriad concerns about the use of recycled materials in food packaging – the migration and transfer into the food of potentially hazardous chemicals including (often unknown) impurities, reaction and break-down products, such as mineral oil hydrocarbons, phthalates, limonene etc.  As Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor said with reference to her report to the PM on plastics, we need science on the case now.  

Report on remote auditing experiences available now

New Zealand China Food Protection Network commissioned standards and accreditation expert, Professor Pavel Castka, University of Canterbury, to design and lead a survey of companies and organisations involved in remote auditing during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The research team included food safety, food marketing and supply chain experts at the University of Otago – Professor Phil Bremer, Associate Professor Miranda Mirosa, Associate Professor Lincoln Woods – plus four professors from partnering Chinese Universities, with Dr Xiaoli Zhao overseeing the project.

Remote auditing was yet another steep step change in traditional business operation, with challenges across the food sector, but also with unexpected benefits from necessary innovations.  Better preparation in advance of online meetings led to efficiencies and perhaps a greater consciousness of requirements and standards.  And of course, there were considerable savings in travel and time away from home for auditors.  

For companies with advanced IT systems, such as CCTV cameras and integrated documentation systems, it was reasonably easy to adapt, though it came at a time when people were dealing with all sorts of other stresses, like 2m distancing between staff, logistical problems and market access worries.  For those using hand written check-sheets, for example, there was a lot of tedious, time-consuming scanning.

Will we ever go back to the way we were? Pavel thinks not. He says, “In future, we will probably adopt hybrid models, where ‘in person’ inspections and audits will be used for new clients and major audits, whilst regular surveillance audits might continue remotely.  And we will also likely see more and more new technologies being used, such as drones, sensors, satellite imaging and AI. For example, drones can be used to monitor geospatial requirements on farms and sensors to monitor water quality.” 

You can read the full report here.  All enquiries to pavel.castka@canterbury.ac.nz  

Workshop on “New Zealand – China Food Protection Network for risk assessment on Tropical Fruits”, March 2019, Haikou China

In May 2018, New Zealand Food Safety Science Research Centre (NZFSSRC) and Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences (CATAS) had signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for cooperation in the field of research and education. In order to enhance mutual academic understanding and future cooperation, the workshop for risk assessment on tropical fruits will be held in the city of Haikou China from 11-12 March 2019 and hosted by NZFSSRC and Institute of Quality and Safety on Tropical Agro-products (IQSTAP) of CATAS.

To view schedule click here.

China workshop on pesticide residues in tropical fruits

Centre director, Nigel French, led a delegation of NZ scientists to attend a workshop and field trips in Hainan and Nanning, China, 12-15 March: Dr Thiagarajah Ramilan (Massey University), Dr Yun Duan (the Centre’s visiting scholar), Dr Melanie Davidson (Plant & Food Research), and Centre Manager, Wendy Newport-Smith.

The purpose of this workshop, organised by the NZ China Food Protection Network, was to encourage the development and use of Integrated Pest Management strategies to reduce or eliminate pesticide residues.  It was one of the Network’s initiatives to collaborate with China on food safety science and research for mutual benefit. The workshop explored the causes behind the evidence for the identified chemical residues, which are many and complex, requiring understanding of the social as well as environmental contexts.
For example, in the current market for mango in China, large and spotless mangoes are favoured by consumers. This requirement may drive the application of unnecessarily high levels of pesticides.  So the consumers have an influence on the pesticide application decisions, and thus food safety may be compromised for cosmetic appeal. Growers have different levels of education, knowledge, and awareness of the safety issues around pesticide use. Most growers are more concerned with fruit yield and spotless appearance than safety. Calendar chemical spraying is normally the first choice to control the pests and pathogens, whereas as alternative approaches may be as effective and yet safer. Pest resistance can occur when pesticides of similar modes of action are used with high frequency. There is a knowledge gap concerning the combined food safety risks associated with the application of multiple pesticides.

See the full report of the workshop presentations here

Yuwei Zhang receives NZ-China Food Protection Network PhD Scholarship

The Centre congratulates hardworking Lincoln intern, Yuwei Zhang, on her successful application for a NZ-China Food Protection Network for a PhD scholarship, strongly supported by Dr Stephen On at Lincoln University.  Her work will relate to work they have been doing with Prof Steve Flint at Massey University, and Dr Graham Fletcher at Plant & Food,  in an endeavour to differentiate relative biofilim-forming potential in strains of Vibrio by studying the characteristic “Elastic Light Scatter” patterns made by each when you shine laser light on cultures.  Clever stuff.  But once they have sorted which are the high risk ones, the next task is to find natural bio-controls to stop them becoming a problem for our thriving seafood industry and recreational shellfish harvesters.  Vibrio are moving south and proliferating as oceans warm.

Exemplar image of a Shiga-Toxigenic Escherichia coli strain examined using Elastic Light Scatter analysis

Meeting with the Minister of MBIE, the Honourable Dr Megan Woods

1 August 2019, Wellington

The Directors of the three China Research Collaboration Centre (CRCCs), Professor Hong Di, Professor Nigel French and Dr Hu Zhang (representing Professor Jim Mann) met with the Minister of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) on the 1 of August 2019 in the Minister’s office in the Beehive. The three CRCCs gave the Minister a briefing of progress and achievements over the past three years. Minister Woods was very impressed with the progress of the three CRCCs so far. She also stressed that the work the three CRCCs do is important in strengthening the scientific ties between New Zealand and China. She expressed support for the Centres’ activities.

It was a useful and positive meeting with the Minister and to get her support for the three CRCCs.

NZ China Scientist Exchange between Scion (NZ) and Jinan University (China) – Visit to China

In June 2018 Eva Gaugler a researcher from Scion travelled to China as part of a scientist exchange funded by the New Zealand China Food Protection Network (NZCFPN). The aim of the scientist exchange was to establish a platform for ongoing knowledge exchange in the area of packaging food contact compliance. While in China she visited the Packaging Engineering Institute and the College of Science and Engineering of Jinan University, as well as the National Reference Laboratory for Food Contact Materials at the Guangdong Inspection and Quarantine Technology Center (IQTC).She also had the opportunity to attend the 21st IAPRI World Conference on Packaging, Zhuhai.

From left to right: Eva Gaugler (Scion), Professor Chang-Ying Hu (Jinan University) and Dr Daniel Li (IQTC)