Company: GEA Group

Packaging Snapshot: After receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA), GEA has begun sales of the GEA OxyCheck. OxyCheck is the world’s first in-line measurement system that can check the oxygen content and seal integrity of every single package in a modified atmosphere packaging line. It will be introduced to the market at the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA from January 28-30, 2020.

With GEA OxyCheck, every MAP (Modified Atmosphere Package) is non-invasively inspected for oxygen content after sealing on a GEA thermoformer. Up until now, packages had to be damaged by a probe and testing was limited to a small sample coming off the line. The demo version, initially presented in North America during 2018, has already been utilized in Europe with great success.

“OxyCheck will be an important add on to our thermoforming equipment. Large customers have already shown interest and are waiting for the new technology. At IPPE we will show our new thermoformer, the GEA PowerPak PLUS together with the GEA OxyCheck. Both have been developed to make the customer’s packaging job easier, which means more efficiency, improved package quality, reduced film consumption, and simple handling, as well as safe process sequences and greater availability,” says Steve McGady, GEA head of equipment sales, slicing and packaging, North America.

Today, more than half of all retail fresh food—meat, fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables, confectionery and baked goods as well as dairy products—is packaged in a modified atmosphere. During this process, a gas mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen is injected into a package prior to sealing. This slows down decay, thus extending the shelf life of the packaged product. A small percentage of oxygen remains in the package by virtue of the process, but this may not exceed a threshold. GEA OxyCheck carries out the important task of monitoring the residual oxygen content directly during packaging on the GEA PowerPak PLUS thermoformer.

The GEA technology uses a sensor spot made of an FDA approved polystyrene-based fluorescent dye that is printed on the inside of the top film. Similar to an indicator strip, the wavelength of the sensor spot changes depending upon the oxygen content inside the package. Sensor spot readers are installed on the GEA PowerPak PLUS thermoformer after package has been gas injected and hermetically sealed. GEA has developed a special method for calculating the oxygen concentration based on the light emitted and the temperature. The new measurement system has no effect on either the line speed or the throughput of the GEA PowerPak PLUS.

Up until now, spot checks have been carried out to measure the oxygen content in MAP—which means that less than 0.5 percent of the packs manufactured are typically tested. Spot checks involve the removal of packs from the line and their inspection through an invasive probe. When a pack does not meet specifications, the line is halted and all packs preceding it up to the last pass are destroyed. However, even perfectly fine packages are disposed of because they are damaged by the needles during the testing process. In contrast, the GEA OxyCheck process is completely non-invasive and neither the product nor the packaging materials go to waste. And 100 percent of the manufactured packs are inspected as well. In the end, only packages that meet all specifications enter the supply chain. “We also help food manufacturers avoid costly recalls of whole batches, which retailers can demand even if only one pack shows early spoilage,” added Volker Sassmannshausen, GEA Senior Product Manager Thermoforming.

GEA OxyCheck has been approved by FDA and meets all relevant EU regulations for Food Contact Materials (FCMs). The liquid is similar to the materials used in making the packaging films. The sensors work with the pulsed light of a LED, which is safe for both products and operators. The process has no effect on either the composition of the modified atmosphere or the package content. Initially designed for use on the horizontal thermoformers of the PowerPak line, GEA OxyCheck is available as an optional feature or retro-fit upgrade for other equipment with MAP capabilities.

In order to be able to guarantee that the MAP packs the company produces are absolutely safe, Tyrolean food manufacturer Hörtnagl (Austria) decided to test GEA’s OxyCheck optical monitoring system on the thermoformers. The advantages of the measurement system, which works non-invasively and leaves no pack unchecked, are evident along the entire line.

The manufacturer of high-quality sausage and meat products has been working with GEA to meet its packaging needs for nearly 40 years. At the moment their line includes three PowerPak thermoformers using a range of different pack types. GEA and Hörtnagl work together so well and have such a good relationship that the Tyrolean manufacturer offered to help field test an innovation and installed GEA OxyCheck on its thermoformer. Integrated into a packaging machine, this quality control system analyzes the residual oxygen content and, as a side benefit, the seal integrity of every single modified atmosphere pack (MAP) that leaves the thermoformer.

“When we were still carrying out costly spot checks, which were required after every film change, we only checked the oxygen content of one index full of packs and not the entire batch. In contrast, today we monitor 100 percent of the packs without damaging any of them,” Reinhard Penz, Hörtnagl says. “We also no longer have unplanned machine downtime because all packs now meet the required specifications. If the oxygen content of a pack is not up to standard, that pack is automatically removed without having to shut down the system. This is also more environmentally friendly because we no longer need to destroy packs, which means that we need less packaging materials. The process also has benefits in terms of hygiene. Once packaged, the packs are no longer at risk of contamination.”

GEA OxyCheck can be installed as an optional feature on the latest generation of PowerPak thermoformer. All existing machines that are equipped for MAP can be outfitted with this monitoring system. The system can then be configured to reflect on-site conditions and customer needs. OxyCheck does not impair the performance of the packaging machine in any way. Consumers, retailers and manufacturers benefit from using the monitoring system.