Good to the bone

by Lynn Petrak
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No bones about it – or perhaps more succinctly, no bones through it – bone-in meat and poultry product packaging has continued to improve for the sake of quality and food safety.

From case-ready ribs and chops to primals and whole birds bound for restaurant kitchens or butchers’ backrooms, proteins that have not been de-boned can pose problems if not packaged correctly. On the issue of food safety, leaking packages can lead to cross-contamination and the spread of potentially harmful pathogens. From a quality perspective, packages that are not as sealed tightly as they should or could be cause issues ranging from appearance to odor to taste.

Ultimately, nothing ruins the look of a meat case – or down the line, a retail conveyor belt or home refrigerator – like a leaky meat package.

Packages that are not durable, reliable or user-friendly can lead to costly headaches for processors.

“Meat packers and processors want to run an efficient packaging operation, and if packages are leaking there is more rework. Rework means more cost, in the form of both labor and packaging material,” points out Roop Nangia, director of marketing for Exopack, Spartanburg, S.C.

The importance of package integrity to processors is underscored by Brian Conrad, marketing manager for Curwood Inc., Oshkosh, Wis. “No matter how good the meat is inside the package, if the package is leaking, no one will want to pay full price,” he remarks. “If a retailer receives a high number of leakers in a shipment, the retailer may reject the shipment back to the packer. The packer then must go through the shipment to remove the leakers, which is labor-intensive and time consuming.”

Downstream in the food chain, retailers, too, bear a brunt of problems with bones that may puncture through films or bags. “If a consumer finds a leaking package on the retail shelf, they will not buy that package and the retailer has to either re-package that product, mark the price down or throw it away,” Conrad adds. And if a package leaks on the shelf, the retailer has to spend time cleaning up the meat case to remove bacterial growth and any resulting odor.

When designing materials and systems for bone-in meat and poultry products, package integrity will always be the top priority, emphasizes Jay Wilson, director of marketing for Cryovac Food Packaging North America, Duncan, S.C.

In today’s demanding marketplace, other factors can affect the development and applications of such items. “The consumer also wants to  be able to see the product when they are buying it,” Wilson says, adding that beyond integrity and clarity, packages that save processors and retailers time and resources, while offering some kind of sustainability benefits, are in demand.

Cost, time, sustainability
Many retailers still package bonein products in their backrooms, often with a foam tray and overwrap or classic butcher’s wrap. But as the market for case-ready products has rapidly expanded over the past 10 to 15 years an changed the face of the retail meat department (and, often, restaurant kitchens), packaging for
bone-in products has been a focus of innovations from both the material and equipment side of the business.

Most recently, there has been a drive to create packages for bonein meat and poultry that use less material, for the parallel purposes of cost, time and sustainability. For example, Cryovac has introduced an Ultra-Shrink TBG Bag that can shrink up to 75 percent with a costeffective single patch, featuring a protected seal for single rib-inthe-bag merchandising. The single patch saves material for the processor, while also serving as a strong bone-guard, according to Wilson. “Prior to this, we’d have a patch on two sides. This line is designed to curl around the edge of the ribs [or bones]. We have lowered the cost, we have less material and we have improved the presentation of the bag,” he said.

Also heeding the less-is-more philosophy is Exopack, which now offers a patent-pending ClearShield technology, initially developed for Alcan Packaging (acquired by the company in 2009). “Traditionally, bone-in cuts of beef and pork have been vacuum packaged in boneless shrink bags that have heavyduty patches laminated to them to provide abuse resistance. ClearShield is a unique single co-extruded vacuum shrink bag that does not require the additional patch lamination,” Nangia explains, noting that the thinner solution is puncture-resistant yet more cost effective and environmentally friendly. “It’s a one-stop instead of a three-stop operation.”

Likewise, removing extra elements has been a focus of Carroll Manufacturing and Sales (CMS), Avon, Ohio. According to Market Manager Ryan Till, packaging aids for puncture protection have been continually streamlined. “It saves, time and money and provides a better result,” he says of the company’s latest bone-in packaging option, which is thinner and more cost effective. “What CMS has done is to offer 100-percent protection around the perimeter of the bag. It’s one material and one step, so you can seal through it and you don’t have to worry about the position of the meat inside the bag.” In addition, Till says, CMS offers a chlorinefree oxygen barrier that also plays into rising interest in sustainability and green features.

At Curwood, Conrad says the company has noted the move toward bone-guard bags instead of cloth in shrink bags, also for the goal of less material and expense. According to Conrad, Curwood’s newest ABP bags are made from a continuous lamination process that applies bone-guard material from one edge of the bag to the other, yet still leaves a thin header at the top of the bag. “The thin header allows our customers to seal boneless and boneguard bags on the same machine at the same time using the same conditions,” he explains. The edge-toedge, bone-guard protection ensures complete coverage of any bones in the body of the bag without needing to orient the bones a certain way or make sure a bone-guard patch is covering them.

Curwood also recently developed versions of its Form-Tite shrinkable films to work with bone-in products like pork back ribs and spareribs. “The finished package also looks more appealing because the ‘ears’ are minimized,” Conrad points out.

Although many bone-in packaging advancements center on caseready, fresh-meat products for retail, those that provide packaging materials and systems say that the bigger cuts can pose definite problems for butchers and foodservice operators.

“Typically, where we find the greatest challenge is on the larger institutional cuts. They’ll be a lot heavier and more abusive,” observes Nangia, citing bone-in pork loins and bone-in beef chucks as examples.

Meanwhile, in between traditional supermarkets and those who break down primals are club stores. Club stores tend to carry large portions of bone-in products, especially around the upcoming holiday season. “They are selling larger and some primal cuts,” agrees Till.

The increase in demand for cooked bone-in products in recent years has also affected packaging innovations. Conrad reports that cooked bone-in products, such as ribs, tend to be the most difficult to package.

“With fresh, bone-in products, there is still some flexibility in the meat and bones. However, once a product is cooked, the bones become more rigid and sharper, which makes it more difficult for the packaging to withstand puncturing during the packaging process,” he notes. Curwood has focused efforts on solutions for cooked as well as fresh bone-in proteins.

Expect more innovation
As the lingering financial downturn and job market has led to more people cooking economy cuts at home, and as dishes like short ribs remain hot restaurant items, one can expect packaging innovations on the bone-in side of the industry to continue.

Cryovac, for its part, has looked at convenience-oriented features of puncture-resistant packaging, so frustrated consumers don’t have to get out a knife to open meat packages. “In poultry bags, you’ll see some whole turkeys with an easy open, grip and ear version, which have scored high in market research,” reports Wilson. “Also, the Ultra-Shrink TBG bag lends itself to grip and tear.”

Lynn Petrak is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.

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