The collaborative project, co-ordinated by Pera Technology of Melton Mowbray, which involves nine partners across Europe and is backed by €1.6M (£1.34M) of EU Framework 7 research funding, aims to come up with a prototype edible film coating that does not detract from meat quality or taste.
If successful, the coating could replace plastic packaging with cheaper alternatives such as wax paper and extend some meat's shelf-life, said Dr Kamal Badiani, md of Pepceuticals, one of the project partners based in the UK. It would reduce costs for meat processors as well as cutting the environmental impact of fresh meat by reducing the 260,000t of wasted product and 81,000t of meat packaging sent to landfill every year, according to figures from the Waste and Resources Action Programme.
Huge cost saving
"The benefit to Europe would be immense: Not only in waste reduction but there would be a huge cost-saving for food manufacturers," said Badiani.
Another leading independent meat safety specialist also expressed enthusiasm about the potential of this project. Microbiologist Dr Jo Head suggested that consumers would welcome the use of such coatings, provided they had adequate understanding about how they worked. They would appreciate the idea of improving food safety while reducing the amount of waste and packaging used with meat, she added.
Edible films would also lower the risk of cross-contamination of meat products in the home, where problems often occur, said Head. "The coating represents a big opportunity if consumers do not have to worry about hygiene issues such as where to put uncooked meat in the refrigerator," she said. "It would be much safer and nicer to be able to put meat in the oven without having direct contact."
Before edible anti-microbial coated meat products appear on supermarket shelves, however, retailers will need them to be approved by bodies such as the Food Standards Agency and European Food Safety Authority, said a British Retail Consortium spokeswoman. Individual firms would then decide whether or not to adopt them, she added.
The project will develop films from synthetic peptides: biologically active compounds made of amino acids that can be used as additives in food. Within 18 months, the partners hope to have a working prototype to scale up for commercial use, said Badiani.
Initially the coatings are likely to be used alongside traditional plastic packaging to extend shelf-life in certain products. But, eventually, it is hoped they will replace most plastic used as meat packaging, he added.
However, Head said coatings would not be able to extend meat shelf-life in all cases. Lamb imported from New Zealand, for example, relies on lactic-acid producing bacteria to cure and preserve it on the journey to the UK and an anti-microbial film would kill off these beneficial bacteria, reducing quality and shelf-life, she added.
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