Researchers at the Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association (CCFRA) undertook a quality assessment of recent trials of a standardised scheme to help train sensory panels across Europe.
CCFRA said the new training procedures, which are the result of a three-year pan-European project named Calibsensory, improved the ability of panels to detect odour, off-flavour in fatty foods and off-flavour in dry foods.
The results are good news for paper packaging firms and food producers alike as they strive to meet EU standards, dating back to 1989, that say packaging materials must not pass into a food in amounts that could cause an unpleasant taste or odour.
"The worst case scenario is complaints from consumers and product recalls," said Lotte Jeppesen, of the Sensory Group at the Danish Technological Institute, to DairyReporter.com.
"When changing or re-designing the packaging material (also if using a new type of printing ink or glue for labels) it is important for the companies to be able to make sure that these changes do not influence the sensory properties of the food product."
Mistakes would inevitably be costly for the food and packaging firms involved. Paper-based packaging is used widely across the food industry, including wrapping foods such as cheese and bakery goods, as well as in increasingly popular lightweight cartons.
And the EU may begin to enforce standards more strictly next year: the Commission plans to introduce sensory training standards in 2006, which should enable direct comparisons of results.
Standard procedures are needed in sensory testing because it is something so open to human error.
"The problem is that taste and odour can only be assessed by people, who tend to make subjective judgements," said Birgit Aurela of KCL in Finland and co-ordinator of the three-year project.
Jeppesen also believes that sensory testing is something that can only be done by humans, as the consumers, themselves.
"There are some instrumental methods for testing migration (often legislative) from packaging to food products but it is on specific compounds. However, instrumental methods do not provide information about the human perception.
"Sensory testing gives a more general answer of whether or not a possible off-odour can be detected and perceived by the human senses," she said.
CCFRA's quality assessment of the new testing procedures was led by Chantal Gilbert. For more information see the CCFRA site.
The Calibsensory project was funded by the European Commission.
How they did it
Researchers used a range of concentrations 'spiked' on odourless paper to determine what concentration will be just perceptible and what will give a strong odour.
A similar method was used to determine off-flavour in food. Here the paper sample was put in indirect contact with either cocoa butter (representing fatty foods) or icing sugar (representing dry food), and then tasted.
The concentration of the spiked sample is checked by chemical analysis to ensure that the test is repeatable. The results from each partner will be checked by another of the project partners.
The task was then to develop a standard method for training sensory panels across the EU.