Stepping up to the plate

by Bryan Salvage
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Americans consume more chicken than any other consumers in the world. Per capita consumption of chicken is expected to total 83.1 lbs. this year and to increase to 84.6 lbs. in 2014, according to the National Chicken Council. Fueling this increase is product variety. As a result, chicken packaging formats vary widely to meet specific processor and product needs and include bags, films and vacuum rollstock packaging, among others.

“Packaging advances have improved the safety and quality of poultry products,” said Scott Russell, professor of poultry processing and products microbiology at the Univ. of Georgia, in discussing a recent study on the effects of packaging on the value chain for the chicken industry titled “Chicken and Packaging: A Sustainable Partnership,” from AMERIPEN (American Institute for Packaging and the Environment).

“We have seen a trend of vacuum-packed, individually wrapped products [i.e.; Perdue’s boneless, skinless individually wrapped chicken breasts],” says Gwen Venable, vice president of communications with the US Poultry & Egg Association. “We have also seen more value-added packaging [i.e., drumsticks that are packaged two per pack and marinated], as well as a reduction in the amount of packaging to protect the product.”

Packaging must lure hurried shoppers to the refrigerated case, plus it must allow labeling that is helpful to consumers, among other things. But most important, all packaging must ensure maximum product integrity.

Innovation never sleeps. Powertray LLC, Mockville, NC, was conducting a test early last year with a supermarket chain and major chicken processor, says Huston Keith, principal of Marietta, Ga.-based Keymark Associates. The refrigerated chicken was packaged in a coated, pressed paperboard tray that was biodegradable.

“Bell & Evans is using a PET tray they say is fully recyclable and uses the native barrier of PET,” he adds. “It’s a vacuum-skin package and it’s sold at Whole Foods and other chains.”

Providing solutions

General Films Inc. (GFI), Covington, Ohio, recognized for years that the vertical form/fill/seal “space” for fresh chicken suffered from high leaker rates. This realization led to development of BG/2M film, says Tim Weikert, president.

BG/2M is a coextruded film with nylon barrier, featuring two-sided sealing, Octene LLDPE sealant layers and a nylon interior ply. It’s a nine-layer structure, so it provides excellent physical properties, ranging from the sealant to impact strength, says Tom Granata, vice president of sales. This film was designed for fresh poultry packaged on a vertical form/fill/seal machine.

GFI began BG/2M trials in 2012 with a medium-sized US chicken processor. Although experiencing good results, the customer initially balked at its higher pricing. “But we kept sampling and they kept trialing. One year ago, they replaced their previous film with our product,” Weikert says.

Pricing of the new product (on a mil-to-mil basis) resulted in a price increase of about 70 percent more when compared to more traditional packaging. But when factoring in down-gauging opportunities this new film affords, the price goes down. Granata explains the processor was using a 3.25 mil film at one plant that was replaced with a 2.5 mil film that still reduced leaker rates. And the processor achieved much more yield compared to previous yields. With the printing cost factored in, the increase is closer to 40 percent. The film prints well and labels designed for PE films readily adhere.

On this processor’s line, each 10-lb. sealed, formed pouch of fresh chicken now withstands the rigors of rugged processing and distribution. After making the switch, leaker rates greatly diminished. Overall profitability grew substantially through enhanced productivity, fewer product rejects and increased customer satisfaction.

The processor is seeing a minimum leaker reduction of 50 percent, Granata says.

“BG/2M features higher impact strength, higher tensile strength, a substantially wide-ended heat seal window, the film is about 50 percent stiffer than the traditional solution, which benefits the vertical form/fill/seal machines,” he adds.

This processor banked a 20-percent throughput improvement on its packaging lines. This allowed expanded production with a lower footprint on labor. Increased throughput allowed the temperature on the seal to increase so it runs a little faster yielding increased productivity.

Packaging progress

Advances in heat-sealable materials, package design and packaging equipment to produce leak-proof seals ensure product integrity from the point of packaging to use, the AMERIPEN packaging study relays. Sustainability features will continue to grow in importance.

Packaging optimization is resulting in less packaging to protect chicken products. For example, one 5-lb. broiler can be packaged today with only 10 grams (less than .5 oz.) of flexible packaging, the AMERIPEN study points out.

Primary, secondary and transport packaging formats utilizing a wide variety of packaging materials will continue to drive poultry-industry efficiencies in the future. But when it comes to consumers and their refrigerated chicken, old habits die hard.

“Today, fresh poultry is still mostly packaged in [traditional] overwrap trays,” Keith says. “Most fresh poultry parts turn so fast the processors don’t need extra shelf-life.”

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