Public concern for food security is growing exponentially each time a new outbreak caused by a bacteria appears and the public authorities declare a health alert. In Spain, the breaking news were focused on listeria during the summer of 2019, but Salmonella and Eschericia coli are common every time temperature rise up.
Researching and finding solutions that ensure the good condition of food is the main objective of Encapsulae, one of our clients. This spin-off of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC according to the Spanish abbreviation) investigates and develops additives to create active and intelligent packaging capable of protecting products not only from bacteria, but from other external agents that affect their conservation, such as gases, microbes or light.
On the other hand, they are committed to environmental preservation. Their packaging reduces food waste and degrades in less than 180 days. That is why, in 2019 Encapsulae was selected as part of the CLIMATE-KIC, a European innovation-focused programme for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Last December, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published the International patent application for one of its inventions, designed to revolutionize the sector, and it has attracted a great interest in the food industry.
In this blog post we have interviewed José Francisco Fernández-Lozano, research professor at the CSIC Institute of Ceramics and Glass and co-founder of Encapsulae.
Active additives for food packaging
José Francisco, what is your invention about?
It is a food packaging with antimicrobial capacity suitable to ensure food safety. This function is achieved by incorporating a food additive into the plastic film of the packaging that is used as a moisturizer. This additive has been previously activated to enhance its moisture absorption capacity.
By doing so, the plastic container generates a contact surface with the food that prevents the growth of bacteria, including listeria monocytogenes that, when it cannot proliferate, end up dying.
Listeria is the cause of listeriosis that causes 27.6% of deaths from foodborne disease due to its high mortality rate (30%). How does food safety improve its invention?
The invention has shown that in an in vitro assay the bacterial population is drastically reduced in 24 hours, from 100,000 CFUs, colony forming units, to zero. It should be remembered that the infective dose is attributable to doses greater than 100,000 CFUs per ingested serving. The test conditions are very favorable for the development of listeria monocytogenes, 36°C and abundance of nutrients, an aspect that reinforces the effectiveness of the solution developed.
Having listeria-free foods is very relevant from a food safety point of view, since the bacterium is preferably present in underprocessed and fresh foods. Listeria is especially dangerous for its ability to grow even in cooling conditions. Eliminating the bacterium allows us to consume healthy products in perfect condition.
Even though the concern for listeria has been what has generated the most interest about your product, does it work against other types of bacteria?
In Spain, concern about listeria was generated in the wake of last summer’s food crisis, in relation to bad practices in a particular company. That crisis alerted the consumers to something they did not think about before as eating food that shows no signs of being in bad shape and that can be lethal.
The cases of infection detected, however, represent slightly less than a third of the annual cases of listeriosis in Spain. It is a bacterium with a high mortality rate but low capacity for infection. In the European Union, for every listerioris case that is recognized, about 100 food infections are detected in the form of campylobacteriosis (campylobacter is the main source of bacterial human gastroenteritis) or 10 salmonelosis infections. Although these infections are not so virulent, the complications associated with them are, particularly in risk groups.
The invention is effective for a wide range of listeria monocytogenes, innocuous Listeria monocytogenes, Listeria innocua, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter jejuni and Staphylococcus aureus. An interesting path has now been opened up to eliminate bacteria that are critical in food conservation and its effectiveness is being tested on a greater number of pathogenic microorganisms.
Very close to being in the market
What phase is the invention now in?
From the beginning we were very concerned that the invention did not stay on the laboratory scale and the materials that have served for the examples of the patent application correspond to materials produced in a pilot plant.
At this time, the production capacity of the pilot plant would protect more than 70.000 tonnes of food. Soon, the engineering phase will begin to design a higher capacity production plant.
Currently, demonstrators have been generated in the form of industrially developed vacuum bags that are allowing the supply of food packaging for the corresponding food tests. Different companies and food groups are collaborating to make these trials a reality.
The product is going through challenge tests, what are they? How are they performed?
The current stage we are addressing is to perform challenge tests for specific foods. The challenge test is an experiment where the food is artificially contaminated by strains of bacteria at a certain concentration and the survival of inoculated microorganisms is subsequently monitored. Among the foods currently being tested are meat products such as fresh, cured or processed meat; smoked and frozen fish; fourth generation vegetables; cheeses and pastries.
Given the current concern for listeria, after the crisis that this summer infected more than 300 people in Spain, what has been the reaction of the food industry to your invention?
Food industry reaction has been extraordinarily positive. We have found that said industry is very concerned about food security. Most large companies in the food sector have already contacted Encapsulae and, this aspect, has made it possible to streamline the tests. Industrial vacuum bags have been produced in just one month and product is available for going through specific testing. Now a race is taking place to be the first company that presents a product to the consumer that guarantees food safety made by the materials of our invention.
How will the incorporation of your invention impact the production costs of a food company?
The cost passed on to the food is negligible compared to the value of the food. Initial calculations state that the packaging can be increased between 0.5-1.5 € cents per kilo of food. We are talking about protecting a product whose cost can be tens of euros with only a cent.
How do you think the price of products by the final consumer would affect the incorporation of your invention into the packaging process?
The impact of the price of the packaging to the consumer would not be very justified in this case. It should also be noted that, in some cases, the packaging is already being paid at the price of food product.
Industrial Property Rights, one of the key factors
Encapsulae has applied for patent protection not only for the product but for its preparation process and for its use. What value has the industry given to your industrial property protection strategy?
Indeed, the patent application claims the product, its preparation process and its use, which are basic for this invention. We have found a disparity of reactions in the industry regarding patent protection depending on the company size. For large companies, “what level of industrial property protection -particularly patent protection- does the invention have?” is the first question being asked. They have also highly appreciated the fact that patent protection includes both the product and its use. In small businesses, the existence of patent protection is positive but remains an unknown element.
In addition to patent protection, what other administrative procedures need to go through to be industrialized? When could they make the leap to the market?
The company Encapsulae S.L. was incorporated in March 2018 and the different administrative procedures have been gradually overcome. We requested funds from of the Center for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI) in the NEOTEC 2018-19 call to perform the scaling and initial challenge tests, but the authorities considered that the technology was of no interest. It has been our main obstacle as it has delayed us greatly in the key activities for the development and implementation of technology.
Thanks to private investors, these dificulties are being overcome and we are confident that, with the results of the specific tests underway, we will be able to start the market entry this year 2020.
An invention resulting from multidisciplinary work
How many people have been involved in the invention?
The research team is composed by Ing. Javier Menéndez Menéndez and Dr. Julián Jiménez Reinosa from the company Encapsulae S.L. that has been created for the exploitation of this technology, and Dr. Alberto Moure Arroyo and Prof. José Francisco Fernández Lozano from the Institute of Ceramics and Glass, CSIC. In invention related works have also collaborated scientific and technical personnel both of the Smart Systems Materials Group (ICV-CSIC) and Encapsulae.
What has been the role of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in the development of the invention and/or the product?
CSIC has among its missions the generation of knowledge through scientific and technical research and the transfer of the research results with special attention to the promotion and creation of technology-based companies. In this invention we have fulfilled that mission and, therefore, it is a pride to be able to affirm that we have worked in that direction.
The invention has been the result of multidisciplinary teamwork. It has required both product knowledge and processes for the pursued use, as well as basic knowledge about the physico-chemistry of the materials involved.
The experience of the ICV-CSIC working group in basic problem-solving research along with efforts to obtain the corresponding protection of the generated industrial property have been keypoints to the development of the technology. They have served to establish both the novelty of the product and its inventive step or the advantage of it over the products preceding the state of the art.
How long have you been working on this invention?
The line of research was born 10 years ago aimed at combating the advance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The World Health Organization considers the search for antimicrobials a priority as deaths of people from bacterial infections are expected to outnumber cancer deaths by 2050. As scientists it is our responsibility to generate knowledge that is useful in solving the problems of society. In this time we have addressed different strategies and in the last 3 years significant efforts have been made in the sense of new solutions for safe food packaging.
Patent protection, in process
Following the publication of the PCT application, Encapsulae’s invention has been made known globally and has provisional protection that would allow reasonable compensation to be demanded from any third party who infringes what appears to be the subject of the patent.
Undoubtedly, the protection is one of the foundations of innovation. Once a patent has been granted, in addition to act as an exclusive right protecting the products, methods and/or uses to which it is addressed, it allows to obtain an economic return such as, for example, direct exploitation, granting operating licenses or even transferring the patent.
At ABG Intellectual Property we are proud to support advancements in food security through our Department of Chemistry, Materials and Pharmaceuticals.