[03. Sure
It is the safe and healthy packaging that protects individuals and communities throughout its life cycle. Safe is the packaging that accounts for its traceability, the processes of its production chain; it is safe as regards the protection of the contents and its hygiene, safe during transport, as well as during use. And this for the entire life span of the packaging.

The FreshTag Story: a smart ink to ensure food safety

Among the responsibilities of packaging, safety is certainly a value that has taken on particular importance in recent years, given the growing concern for health on the part of consumers. The packaging, as an object of use, ensures that its contents are preserved and protected, without suffering damage or deterioration due to physical, chemical and microbiological aggression, during the entire life cycle of the product. The safety offered by the packaging is connected to its nature as a “body” of the product and includes aspects such as watertightness, asepticity, the maintenance of particular internal conditions, etc., but also more advanced technological properties of, for example, packaging active and intelligent.

Unlike active packaging, which modifies the conditions of the packaged food in order to extend its shelf-life and ensure its quality, intelligent packaging does not act directly on the preservation of its content, but does a task anyway relevant: monitor the conditions internally, providing useful information both during transport and distribution to the consumer. This happens thanks to devices that give real-time feedback on the state of fresh products such as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, communicating possible problems, from the interruption of the cold chain to the deterioration of the food.

FreshTag is a start-up founded in London by designer Rui Xu, who starting from her graduation project developed in 2019 at the Royal College of Art, has created an intelligent label that changes color when with the passage of time or due to a change in storage conditions reduces the freshness of the food.

Il sistema di monitoraggio di FreshTag reagisce ai cambiamenti biochimici e microbiologici che avvengono nell’alimento e ne comunica la freschezza, segnalando il cambiamento di stato da “best before” (da consumarsi preferibilmente entro), a “use-by” (da consumarsi entro), fino a “don’t eat” (da non consumare), mediante variazioni cromatiche nell’etichetta. FreshTag si basa su un sistema di rilevamento sensibile al pH e può essere integrato in dispositivi a contatto con gli alimenti, come film ed etichette, che possono così segnalare quando un prodotto è sicuro o no da mangiare, riducendo i rischi per la salute delle persone e allo stesso tempo evitando gli sprechi di cibo e le conseguenze ambientali che essi comportano.

In an interview released for Packaging Europe, Rui Xu points out that the expiration date refers to a properly stored product and the actual durability of a food can actually vary considerably depending on various internal and external factors, such as storage conditions ( temperature, humidity) in addition to the deterioration process specific to each product. In addition, the freshness of the food changes when the package is opened and is exposed to oxygen or external contaminants, which can lead to an accelerated decay of the food, especially in the case of fish, whose alteration can cause possible food poisoning.

FreshTag’s monitoring system is based on an ink that changes color in the presence of ammonia and carbon dioxide. This special ink can be printed on flexible paper and plastic substrates using a traditional inkjet process.

The reason why ink-jet printing is used instead of other solutions already on the market – explains Rui Xu in an interview for the Next Nature platform – is its simplicity of application: the ink can be easily printed on paper and plastic, thus transforming a flexible support into an intelligent monitoring system that reports the conservation status of the food. According to its creator, the special pH-sensitive ink was also obtained using only natural ingredients of plant origin.
For future developments of this system, which for the moment is still in the prototyping and testing phase, it will also consider adding other additives, for example natural preservatives that will help improve the durability of food products and reduce the growth of some microorganisms. From a commercial point of view, the goal is to make the application flexible to different types of food and beverage packaging, ensuring adequate customization for brands that want to adopt this monitoring system for their fresh products.

The hope – said Rui Xu – is that in the future, every family will be able to buy a FreshTag at the supermarket and use it at home as a system to test the freshness of products inside their refrigerator or pantry.
In this perspective, the FreshTag project shows how in packaging the use functions are strictly connected to the informative ones: the safety of the product, which is guaranteed by the instrumental dimension, is made explicit and manifest by the communicative dimension, alerting the consumer and helping him to make informed and responsible decisions regarding nutrition and health. In this sense, packaging accentuates its ethical responsibility and the role it assumes as a “mediator” and facilitator: in fact, packaging favors the relationship of the consumer with the product, creating a “bridge” and bringing two realities together – production and consumption – still too often distant, due to the lack of adequate knowledge of foods and the not always so immediate understanding of the information related to them.