Scientists at Writtle College are using essential oils to make antibacterial packaging for meat and fresh produce to extend their shelf life.
The Antimicrobial Packaging Research Group is using the essential oils products carvacrol and thymol – products of oregano and thyme oil – in the pads used to absorb the bacteria-friendly liquids from meat and fresh produce. They release vapours to create a protective atmosphere around the food product, which prevents it from going off so soon.
Nieky van Veggel, who is leading the research at Writtle College, said: “Food waste is a huge issue affecting supermarkets and homes.
“The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently stated that an estimated 1.2-2 billion tonnes of all food produced is wasted annually. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, which analysed food waste in the UK by cost, the largest groups of foods wasted are fresh produce at 21%, with meat and fish as a close second at 17%.
“One of the major causes of fresh products being thrown away is the limited shelf life – the deterioration of food due to microbial spoilage.
“If we can extend the shelf life of meat by one day alone it will have a significant impact. If there is less waste, there is more food for more people so this is not only about healthy food production but sustainable food production too. With the population expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050, this could be one way of producing food more effectively.
“I think there is also a move amongst the general public away from unnatural chemicals to more natural products, so this fits in with the general view at this time.”
The scientists are testing the essential oils in vitro, using pure bacteria cultures in agar to see what effect they have on the bacteria.
As they are using essential oils as vapours rather than within the food product, they do not affect the flavour, taste or colour of the meat as much. This is important as these are the factors people use as a basis of selecting their fresh produce and meat.
Using natural components which are already used in industry as flavour compounds also means they are already legally approved and Generally Recognised As Safe. The absorbent pads are widely used in meat packaging and, being based on paper, have the additional benefit of being biodegradable.
The next stage, over the summer, is to upscale the tests to industry-relevant meat packages and to look at how the vapours behave to inhibit the bacteria when the packaging is in the fridge, as well as analysing how the treated absorbent pads behave under storage conditions before they are used.