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Smart label secures Fresh & Easy seafood safety

Smart label secures Fresh & Easy seafood safety
Consumer-readable seafood label indicates the species-specific effects of cumulative temperature over time on packaged product quality and safety.

Retailer chain Fresh & Easy’s branded seafood packaging carries a Fresh Meter time-temperature-indicator (TTI) label that, activated inline during packaging, provides assurance of high-quality, safe foods from store to home.

In recognizing October as National Seafood Month, it’s appropriate to celebrate it Packaging Digest style by highlighting a smart packaging-driven development that also encompasses the crucial topic of food safety.

Fresh & Easy, based in Torrance, CA, is a retail grocery chain in the western U.S. that operates 97 stores in the Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix areas. It has recently boosted the food safety of its packaged seafood in a consumer-friendly way: All of its stores sell seafood labeled with a “Fresh Meter” time-temperature indicator from Bizerba USA to ensure the delivery of safe products on shelf and into consumers’ homes.

“Fresh and Easy has always carried a great assortment of fresh and previously frozen, responsibly sourced seafood from the best fishmongers,” says Matthew Lovell, brand development, Fresh & Easy. “Our seafood vendors worked hand in hand with us to develop the Fresh Meter as they also see it as a great way to communicate freshness and quality to our customers.  The application of the Fresh Meter has been automated as well (vs. the old TTI) saving time in production.”

Two processors, Santa Monica Seafood and Pacific American Fish Co. (PAFCO), provide the retail chain with the packaged Fresh Meter-labeled fish. PAFCO’s website even includes this web page that explains the use of modified-atmosphere packaging and the Fresh Meter indicator.

The Fresh Meter is only as accurate as that of the research on the product side to determine the quality shelf life of the different species and products in the program. Fresh & Easy’s research was conducted by its own food safety scientists and at Bizerba’s laboratory in Germany that together was coordinated with the two seafood vendors.

“They worked through extensive validation to ensure the Fresh Meter met the FDA Seafood HACCP regulations for modified atmosphere packaged fish and customer acceptance of the label design,” says Lovell. “This partnership led to a new, novel printing process for the label and opened the possibilities of new fresh foods utilizing the Fresh Meter.”

The 4-foot-wide seafood display at a Fresh & Easy store that features the Fresh Meter-labeled products.

How it works: Activated inline

Fresh Meter is a branded application of Bizerba’s “OnVu” technology that uses “intelligent” temperature-sensitive ink to print the dynamic indicator. The specialty ink comprises the bulls-eye on the Fresh Meter label that’s surrounded by an outer ring printed in regular ink that serves as the standard. The preprinted labels are provided to the processing and packaging plant and are activated inline after tray sealing. That’s done by a specialized, microwave-oven sized activator/labeler near the end of the processor’s packaging line that activates the Smart Meter using ultraviolet light. When activated, the Fresh Meter indicator’s dynamic inner circle turns bright blue and immediately begins sensing the temperature of the products over time. Consumers can compare that dynamic center circle to the surrounding static-color ring; the latter is printed blue to gray to know when the seafood is fresh (blue) and when it is not (gray).

Bizerba reports that the custom system can apply the Fresh Meter at rates to 120 labels per minute. The implementation of the automatic inline activation and application of the Fresh Meter label was made in June.

The entire process begins with the quality of the fresh seafood.

“Our vendors select sustainably sourced, excellent quality seafood,” says Lovell. “The seafood makes it from their highly skilled fish cutters tables to our stores in about 48 hours.  This is faster and fresher than you will find at any grocery fish counter.  We use modified atmosphere packaging, which keeps the fish fresher, longer.  Our quality and value for seafood is excellent.”

Education also plays a key role in the program’s success.

Next: More details including education

Two-pronged education programs

Lovell points out that their program addresses two groups, store employees and customers for these reasons:

  • We need store employees to use the Fresh Meter to manage the freshness of the products for sale. 
  • We need customers to use the fresh meter to select the freshest fish and ensure the quality and safety until they use it.  The Fresh Meter lets the customer know, even in their home fridge if the product is fresh and safe. 

“We have not added extra signage in store at this time as we’re trying a slow roll out of the technology to gauge consumer acceptance through sales and direct feedback,” Lovell says. “We also designed the Fresh Meter to be simple enough to use without added marketing or education. The philosophy is that the customer has to ‘get it’ by looking at it once.”

Lovell says the FreshMeter technology fills a crucial gap in the safety of packaged seafood.

“No one in the market is offering a solution for customers to know the freshness at the time of purchase through the time they take it home, store it, and consume it,” he says. “Traditional fish-cutting counters in stores have no way of demonstrating how fresh the fish is and consumers don’t know if they’ve handled the fish safely.  Who knows how long it’s been in the hot car?  Who knows if it’s still fresh in their fridge at home?  Now they can.”

Easy & Fresh is also exploring other ways to use the Fresh Meter.

“In our fresh, ready-to-eat food and produce processing (value added) facilities, we’re exploring ways to apply Fresh Meter technology to demonstrate the value of the Fresh & Easy brand,” says Lovell. “Delivering ‘fresh’ to our customers is our core value and the Fresh Meter is our innovative, industry-leading solution.”

A backstory and more details from Bizerba

Pedro Garza, Bizerba USA’s regional sales manager, industrial product manager, label technologies, says the company’s Smart label technology had been in development since 2008, but it wasn’t ready for the U.S. marketplace until 2014 “after going through various design iterations and improvements.  We had to go back to the drawing board a few times to make sure that the label would resonate with the end consumer.  It’s all about the shoppers’ experience to quickly understand what the label does and how it functions, all at a quick glance. I think we have achieved that.”

Bizerba has experience with the OnVu Smart Label in Europe.

“We have had some success in launching the label on pork products as well as fresh cut produce,” says Garza. “We are in projects and discussions with U.S. based brands for convenience and ready-to-eat foods which we think present a great opportunity for the Fresh Meter since these particular category of foods are consumed without ever being cooked. For these foods, maintaining freshness via the cold chain is of the utmost importance.  Santa Monica Seafood has been a valued partner of ours. They are very well respected and have an impressive list of customers that trust them to supply fresh and safe seafood.  For us, the application at SMS provides a solid reference for other perishable categories to model.  If we can ensure the freshness of seafood, we can ensure the freshness of a whole suite of other perishables to the end consumer.”

He says the success with Fresh & Easy proves the technology can be adapted for other products and for products with differing shelf lives.

“One of the reasons we have achieved success with the OnVu FreshMeter is because of the inherent ability for the technology to be tailor fit to the shelf life of the product that it is going on,” he explains. “Without being disruptive to the production process, we can easily tune the label to match the shelf life of the various products that are being packed. We do this by our proprietary UV light activation process.  In terms of the label design, we worked closely with the Fresh & Easy brand development team to choose a design that would meet the technical requirements for the Seafood HACCP code, but would also resonate well with the end customer.”

Note: as this article was finalized we learned that the chain was closing stores and considering bankruptcy, according to an article in the LA Times.

Smart packaging will be presented in a case study, New Developments in Smart Technologies and Intelligent Labeling, during SouthPack in Orlando, FL, on Thursday Nov. 19.

You’ll find more on Smart Packaging at PackagingDigest.com

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Passionate about packaging? Learn about the latest developments in packaging innovation at SouthPack 2015, Nov. 18-19, in Orlando, FL.

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