Fish product packaging quality assurance systems

Packaging exists to make what would otherwise be impossible possible. It contains and protects the product and enables a food, beverage or a flat screen television to be shipped long distances, often to different countries, then to a distribution centre and to the retailer where its displayed and sold. By Tom Kerchiss – RK Print Coat Instruments

Containment and protection are without question the basic elements of packaging. After all even fresh fruit and vegetables that are often displayed unpacked on a shelf are delivered in some form of packaging to the supermarket. Packaging technologists, marketers and supply chain providers, printers and converters have a lot to take on board during the packaging/product selection process. Tasked to making a concept a reality those involved must carefully consider what if any spoilage delaying mechanism or technologies to employ based on the type of product and its susceptibility to deterioration. Barriers engineered into the film, multi-layer and composite structures all have a part to play in extending shelf life and in maintaining food process integrity from point of pack to retail distribution, on shelf display and through not only to in-store purchase but right up to and including the time the package is opened and the product is used by the consumer.

For premium priced products that are often carry a degree of cache such as smoked fish, shell fish, roe and both ocean and riverine fish, various processes and technologies have to be employed along the way in order to move products as quickly as possible from the distribution and retail networks into in-store freezers and chilling cabinets or onto a fishmongers slab.

Great care needs to be taken when packaging fish as quality starts to decline almost immediately due to microbial activity and the presence of self-digesting enzymes that rapidly result in off-odours and disagreeable flavour. The oxidation of unsaturated fats, particularly prominent in oily fish contributes still further to unpleasant odours and also results in a rancid taste and unpleasant product appearance.

A variety of packaging mediums are associated to some extent with the packaging and presentation of fish products including vacuum packed, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), smart and intelligent packaging, flexible packaging and specially treated carton board. The latter used to some extent for on ship and dockside warehouse packaging.

Flexible packaging is regarded as being effective for many fish and seafood products such as Shrimp, Tuna, Prawns, Mackerel, Pollock, Bream and Scallops – most of which have been filleted with sharp edges removed or processed in some other way prior to being packed in flat or stand up vacuum pouches and gusseted bags. Prawns and other shellfish items receive a protective glaze

Many products are made from laminate structures with printing executed and placed between layers of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which serves to protect against oxygen and polyethylene (PE), which thermo-seals and provides a good moisture resistant barrier.

Salted, smoked and other products subjected to various preservation processes generally require a different approach to assembling and configuring the structure of a pack. Some of the ingredients or value added accompaniments contained within the pack and alongside the fish are marinades, sauces and dressings. When determining flexible material selection the aggressive and often salty nature of these ingredients or additives has to be taken into account. With this in mind filmic materials such as bi-oriented polyamide and laminates of polyethylene could be up for consideration and selection. The properties of bi-oriented polyamide provide good barrier resistance to oxygen, gases, heat and cold; also in its favour is the ability to lock in flavour. The advantages of PE have been described previously.

Many fish and particularly shellfish are vacuum packed or are contained within retortable pouches or some form of modified atmosphere packaging. Vacuum packed and MAP is generally associated with various filmic or combo structures however for some products other materials are utilised such as thermoformed trays with decorative sleeves Packaging is being used to project a positive marketing image with emphasis on colour, graphics and design. For example, Maine Lobsters are vacuum sealed for protection and then placed in a highly decorative wax coated paperboard secondary pack.

What is evident is that there is no single packaging solution that meets every requirement. Flexible packaging, coated paperboard, thermoformed and vacuum-packed trays have their place. Some packaging formats are inexorably tied in with a particular form of packaging and foolhardy would be the marketer who tried to make changes. For instance – potted shrimp, tinned caviar and plastic containers of jellied eels.

Colour is an element that has to be appropriate and reproduced accurately. Products such as fish that are often pricey and sometimes regarded, as a luxury must look as inviting as possible.

Informational content such as storage, cooking, nutritional value and expiry/use by date and allergy/health warnings must be displayed clearly and in a readable font and font size.

Processing elements and materials need to be chosen with care. Substrates, inks, coatings, adhesives and much else besides, needs to be evaluated and suitability determined. The development of package product performance enhancers such as oxygen scavenger sachets associated with active/smart or intelligent often takes place in conjunction with the trialling of other performance enhancers, the resins, additives and other components.

The K Printing Proofer, a colour communication device designed and developed by RK Print Coat Instruments enables users to meet agreed colour requirements. High quality proofs can be generated quickly using gravure, gravure-offset or flexo inks. Wet or dry laminated samples can be produced on this proofer using the gravure print head in conjunction with K-Lam laminating accessories.

Product development and the processes and materials needed to accomplish printing/coating and laminating are becoming increasingly complex. Thinner materials, the development of bio-plastics, environmental concerns, sustainability issues and the need to trial materials and different technologies has prompted the development of new systems for quality control, product development and testing of formulae, materials and consumables.

The VCML-Lab/Pilot Coater enables operators to print, coat and laminate on all types of flexible substrates and on a reel-to-reel basis. The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater has the ability to apply various inks, varnishes, adhesives and paint using environmentally acceptable formulations and where necessary solvent-based materials as well. It offers short run production capability, making it ideal for speedily bringing products to market; for monitoring quality and for undertaking many types of tests and procedures.

The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater has a web width of up to 300 mm, is touch screen controlled and is equipped with a cantilevered unwind and rewind, head mounting station with tray lift and trough and a laminator station with pneumatic nip.

Flexography, offset gravure and gravure, knife over roll, reverse coating, meter bar, slot die and many other processing options can be made available. The VCML Lab/Pilot Coater can be configured for hot air drying, infrared, UV curing and for corona treatment. Edge guide and heated laminator and ATEX coating zone can also be integrated in with the system.

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