Tray chic

by Lynn Petrak
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Case-ready meats are growing in appeal among consumers who demand extended shelf life and enhanced convenience.

If variety is the spice of life, then meat cases have a decided kick to them lately, thanks to evolving consumer preferences and new packaging capabilities and uses.

Styrofoam and overwrap still dominate most retail cases, but the addition of different types of trays and films are adding a visual sleekness, greater shelf-life and enhanced convenience for end-users, as well as retailers.

The slow-but-steady meat case makeover for fresh meats has been driven by new applications and technologies in packaging materials and equipment along with shifting consumer demands and interests.

Consumers have made their buying preferences known in different ways over the past few years. One of those revealing surveys was the 2014 Power of Meat study, conducted by the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Sealed Air’s Food Care division.

Among other things, the most recent Power of Meat study found that case-ready meats, including those merchandised in non-traditional trays and films, are increasingly appealing to discerning shoppers. James Hodges, interim president and CEO of AMI, underscores the importance of variety in both product and format. “The meat and poultry industry is continuously responding to consumer demands. The variety of convenient fresh and processed products on the market today offer easy, nutritious meal solutions that are indispensable at that critical, ‘what’s-for-dinner,’ decision hour.”

Anne-Marie Roerink, a principal at 210 Analytics who has worked on The Power of Meat studies for several years, says retailers and processors have responded to the clamor for variety with different packaging formats. “If I think back 10 or even five years, the majority of respondents’ suggestions for improvement surrounded variety – a better variety of package sizes, with some asking for smaller quantities and some asking for better value packs, but also product variety,” she reports. “In the last few years, those comments have slowed to a trickle as retailers across the country have responded and consumers are flocking to the meat case for an ever-growing share of their total purchases. Unlike before, many stores now carry lamb, ground turkey, variety packs, kabobs and other value-added products in the meat case. The latter have seen very rapid sales growth in recent years.”

Self-serving

According to the 2014 Power of Meat study, 69 percent of all meat and poultry purchases are made from the self-service meat case. About one-quarter – 24 percent – of customers purchase meat and poultry exclusively from the self-service case.

The Darfresh on Tray package creates the look of a second skin on the vacuum-sealed meat product. (Photo courtesy of Sealed Air Care division)

The findings also showed consumers seem to be increasingly satisfied with what they find at the meat case: the combined “equally good or better” rating for case-ready versus the full-service counter share has risen from 62 percent in 2008 to 73 percent in 2014.

That said, there is room for improvements and innovation in case-ready packaging, including trays and films. Sixty percent of participants in the Power of Meat study indicated that “enhanced” packaging would spur them to purchase more meat and poultry products.

When it comes to packaging of case-ready meats, respondents to the Power of Meat study said they would like packaging that is more convenient, less messy, resealable and more sustainable, among other attributes. Out of eight different packaging innovations and features listed, “ease of use” was the most valued among survey participants.

Sean Brady, market development manager for study co-sponsor Sealed Air Corporation, says that in the 20-plus years he’s been the business, convenience has been a consistent driving force in packaging, in one way or another. “Every area within North America has a different definition of convenience. Some want a meal ready to eat, others want a pre-marinated product and others think convenience means self-contained area of the store,” he says. Today’s variety of trays and films, notes Brady, allows processors and retailers to better deliver the different types of variety that consumers are seeking.

Keeping it clean

According to the Power of Meat study, leak-proof packaging is another top-of-mind concern, with 62 percent of consumers wanting package integrity to guard against leakage that impacts product safety and quality. That’s up from a figure of 26 percent in 2011.

“We started tracking the use and demand for leak-proof many years ago and it continues to grow in popularity,” says Roerink. “While many retailers are making bags and wipes available at the meat case, cleanliness is a hot button for many shoppers and one of the great advantages of leak-proof. I think retailers actually have an opportunity to tout some of the other advantages as well, such as avoiding freezer burn and extended shelf- life, as an added advantage for those who tend to purchase meat in greater quantities, which is about half of the population.”

Interest in leak-proof packaging – and perhaps frustration with packages that are currently leaky and messy – is underscored by Brady. “Everything we’ve seen, from the Power of Meat to recent case studies we completed this year, is that consumers like the protection that the tray offers to them,” Brady remarks. “Especially now, when prices are high, the worst thing that can happen is to have a package be smashed or torn with purge coming out. People don’t like messy cases and don’t want to cross-contaminate products.”

Given competition in the case-ready sector, from private-label and branded products alike, one might expect to see other variations in trays in the near and long-term future. “Tray shape hasn’t changed a lot, because it’s hard for processors who invest in equipment to change that equipment, but we are starting to see it. It’s a slow process, but it is coming because of the differentiation in the meat case,” Brady reports, adding that texture and color can be other ways to distinguish a product or brand. In addition to choosy consumers, Brady says that retailers are also impacting the move for different tray options because of the ways they merchandise their products in the case or on the shelf.

Beyond the use of different rigid trays, vacuum-skin packaging (VSP) is another format that offers greater protection from leaks because the product itself serves as the forming die. “A vacuum-skin package for red meat, poultry or seafood gives convenience of an extended shelf-life and a freezer-ready package. It also allows for vertical display in the retail case. And a clear film and vacuum skin give transparency, too, so consumers can see the package,” Brady points out.

Seeking sustainability

Meanwhile, sustainability is an additional factor that plays into the choice of trays and films in the meat case. According to the 2014 Power of Meat study, 61 percent of customers say that packaging that reduces food waste would appeal to them.

To that end, various packaging material suppliers, processors and retailers have come out with more sustainable packaging for fresh meat and poultry in recent years. Weis Markets in the mid-Atlantic region, for instance, started working with a company called Clearly Clean Products on 100 percent recyclable modified- atmosphere packaging meat trays for its fresh-meat products.

At Sealed Air, Brady notes that plastic rigid trays with a #1 PET and #5 PP code are recyclable and that consumer feedback shows that trays are a good use of packaging material from a sustainability standpoint.

“The other piece of sustainability is extending shelf-life – it’s not just less plastic, it’s about extending the quality shelf-life of a good item long enough for the customer to consume that food item,” he points out, adding that reducing food waste is an important way to ensure that energy and resources used to produce it in the first place are maximized.

Whether for convenience, leak protection or sustainability, manufacturers of packaging materials and packaging equipment continue to introduce new packaging formats and applications to meet the evolving needs of today’s shoppers. Sealed Air, for its part, recently developed a new 10,000 oxygen transmission rate (OTR) vacuum-skin package for seafood, along with a new Cryovac Darfresh on Tray package created through an alliance with Harpak-ULMA Packaging. The Darfresh on Tray package creates the appearance of a second skin for vacuum-sealed meat and poultry products.

The Curwood line of packaging materials, from the Bemis Company Inc., offers a FreshCase active vacuum packaging that blooms fresh meat that maintains a bright-red color throughout an extended shelf-life.

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