Food Engineering

Oxygen sucker meets flow-wrapper

February 1, 2011
For manufacturers who would rather take out the air than add in preservatives, a combination of vacuum and modified atmosphere packaging provides an option.

An oxygen sensor confirms oxygen levels are below 0.2 percent in a product prior to wrapping. Heavier gas surrounds the item during the transfer process. Inset: Fresh pizzas and bakery goods are among the most common packaging applications for the VacMap in Europe, where manufacturers want an alternative to preservatives for extended shelf life. Source: Ilapak Inc.


People’s craving for fresh foods often collides with manufacturers’ need for extended shelf life, forcing companies to either accept high product returns or rely on preservatives. Another alternative is to remove all but trace elements of oxygen prior to packaging. A Swiss machine builder is trying to make the case with North American packagers for the enabling technology.

Ilapak Inc. introduced the VacMap in 2006, combining the system with its flow wrapper to draw oxygen from the product itself prior to packaging. “Depending on the product, we can get oxygen levels to the parts per million level,” according to Andrew Axberg, president of Ilapak’s US division in Newton, PA.

Since its introduction, nine VacMap systems have been deployed in Europe, with French suppliers of fresh, refrigerated pizzas particularly receptive. Preservatives were out of the question for those firms, and shrink wrapping couldn’t remove oxygen from the crust. As a result, product deterioration commenced when the oxygen migrated from the crust and equilibrated in the package.

“People need to want to remove the preservatives from their products and have a really fresh product” to justify a VacMap investment, however, and that has slowed broader acceptance of the technology, says Axberg. For some baked goods, preservatives are a factor in the flavor profile, he says, and manufacturers are loath to fiddle with flavor. On the other hand, a case can be made for high-value products: A test involving coffee cake with a seven-day shelf life demonstrated quality could be maintained for four months by combining vacuum packing with modified atmosphere packaging.

Oxygen removal occurs inside chambers that resemble a Cryovac vacuum carousel, though the chambers are in line and move on a racetrack from front to end and back. When the product is discharged to the flow wrapper, it is enveloped in carbon dioxide. The heavier-than-oxygen gas prevents reintroduction of oxygen as the product enters the flow wrapper. Compared to conventional thermoform machines, the system’s film is less expensive, and throughput is greater, according to Axberg.

A single controller using OMAC’s PackML standard synchronizes motion between the vacuum chambers and flow wrapper. “One of the great strengths of PackML is in doing OEE calculations for a line,” says John Kowal, market development manager for B&R Industrial Automation Corp., Roswell, GA. The standardized modes and states in PackML should simplify integration with other machinery and facilitate data acquisition, he adds.

For more information:
John Kowal, B&R Industrial Automation Corp., 603-258-0371, john.kowal@br-automation.com
Andrew Axberg, Ilapak Inc., 215-579-2900, aaxberg@ilapakusa.com