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Innovative non- intrusive laser gas sensors on food production for real time quality/safety in line control of food packaging and bottling systems

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Harnessing lasers to make Europe’s food safer

EU-funded researchers are harnessing the power of light to put packaging to the test and improve food safety.

Industrial Technologies

EU researchers have developed a new, non-invasive method of testing the quality and safety of packaged food which could have big benefits for food manufacturers and consumers. The SAFETYPACK project uses laser sensors to test the composition of gas inside a wide range of packaging in a contactless and non-intrusive way. ‘It is so fast, it can be applied for inline measurement on the packaging line,’ says project coordinator Dr Luca Poletto, Senior Research Scientist at Italy’s CNR-Institute of Photonics and Nanotechnologies in Padua. ‘This means that 100 % of products can be checked and, in case of any failure in the packaging process, immediate feedback can be given to the line.’ Many foodstuffs are packed in an atmosphere with a low oxygen content to keep the food fresh and extend its shelf life. Until now, comprehensive testing of how well the packaging had been done was not possible; typically some packages would be taken out of the production line at random and tested using invasive techniques which destroyed their integrity. With SAFETYPACK, food packagers will be able to build quality control into their production process by checking every single item as it rolls down the production line. ‘It aims to ensure product quality and safety and reduce food waste and the number of complaints,’ says Dr Poletto. The new technique sends a beam of laser light through the headspace, or air space inside the package, for collection by a detector. The laser has been tuned to emit a wavelength or colour which will only be absorbed by one type of gas, in this case, oxygen. Measuring the amount of light absorbed shows how much oxygen is inside the package. During the three-year project, researchers from Italy, Sweden and Denmark designed the laser technique, whilst industrial partners from Italy, Sweden and Norway and Iceland built the sensors and the accompanying machinery. The real crunch came in September 2016, when two small producers - Latteria Soligo in Italy and Santa Maria in Sweden - put the new technology to the test on their production lines for mozzarella cheese and tortillas. The SAFETYPACK team had to overcome challenges such as the flexible nature of the packaging material which made obtaining a reliable measurement of the gas tricky. The sensors had to show they were capable of measuring the concentration of a specific gas inside a moving object with a high degree of accuracy. The new prototypes passed the test with ease, producing accurate measurements time after time and easily keeping up with the pace of the production lines. As more and more foodstuffs are packaged using protective gas, SAFETYPACK’s technique could bring down the cost of inspection for food manufacturers whilst introducing greater safeguards for European consumers. ‘Representatives of the food industry are welcome to visit Latteria Soligo and Santa Maria for a demonstration of these pilot machines beyond the end of the project,’ says Dr Poletto, who adds that industrial partner FT System will produce a market-ready version in the near future.


SAFETYPACK, laser sensors, quality control, oxygen, packaging, safeguards, food manufacturers

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