Sterile packaging is designed to keep bacteria and other microorganisms away from the contents of the package. It is used for food, utensils, medical supplies and any other material that can be compromised by germs. First introduced in the 1800s, sterile packaging of one kind or another has successfully prevented disease and infection in countries around the world. An industrial process is used to seal and sterilize the contents of a sterile package. After the package has been sealed, the contents will remain sterile until the package is opened by the user.
Bacteria and other microbes cause the spoilage of unpreserved food, a fact that was not understood in the early 1800s. During the Napoleonic Wars of that period, the French government offered a reward to any inventor who could perfect a method of transporting unspoiled food for soldiers. This led to the creation of sealed glass bottles and then tin cans, which successfully kept the food from spoiling, although no one knew exactly why. The French inventor Nicolas Appert perfected the process, creating the first sterile packaging. This was more than 40 years before French scientist Louis Pasteur proved the connection between germs and food spoilage.
After the science of sterilization was understood, industrial processes were created to perfect sterile packaging. “Sterile” means “lifeless” and is used in this sense to mean “free of microscopic life.” After the package has been sealed, it must be heated to a high temperature. This process destroys all microscopic life in the package, effectively sterilizing it. Although the specifics have changed, the same essential process has been used since the 1800s.
Sterile packaging is used for a wide variety of foods, particularly meat and dairy products. Foods that have a high acid content, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, resist spoilage effectively without the sterilization process. Sterile packaging is also applied to medical supplies such as bandages. This prevents microbes from entering the bloodstream through an open wound. Hotels often place sterile containers on items such as cups to assure guests that their facilities are clean.
In the 1980s, food providers began using a new form of sterile packaging, the retort pouch. This device had been perfected by the United States Army as a lighter method of storing rations than heavy tin or aluminum cans. The retort pouch uses several layers of material to achieve the same quality of seal as a can. Like the cans, the pouch is then heated to destroy microbes, effectively becoming a sterile package. Already in wide use in Asia, the retort pouch was introduced to U.S. and European consumers in the early 21st century.