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Leaders of the pack

by Alicia Karapetian
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Though the economy continues to flounder, consumers aren’t continuing to tighten their belts where it will hurt poultry processors most – in the meat case. The percentage of consumers cutting their food budget dropped by about 17 percent last year, according to the latest Power of Meat Study, commissioned by the American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute.

At the same time, consumers are demanding more from their poultry products. They want items pre-portioned, preferably in meal-size amounts, but they want to buy in bulk so as to save more for later. These preferences, according to the survey, are driving 20 to 50 percent of purchases. Consumers also aren’t that excited about touching raw poultry, and they like the idea of going green, even when it comes to how their poultry is packaged. As a result, more flexible packaging is hitting the marketplace, replacing foam trays and overwrap.

The Cleveland-based Freedonia Group estimates flexible packaging demand will reach $3.7 billion in 2015, growing some 3.7 percent per year between now and then, while the overall meat, poultry and seafood packaging market will grow 3 percent per year to a total of $9.2 billion in 2015, according to the group’s latest study, published last spring.

The study further asserts flexible packaging demand will grow at a greater clip than rigid packaging thanks to increased market opportunities for high barrier film and pouches.

Packaging trends

St. Cloud, Minn.-based GNP Company has taken all of the trends and incorporated them into many of its products. In October, the company announced the launch of a new line of frozen products that include a four-pack of thighs, four- and eight-packs of breasts and two-packs of ground chicken chub. The fixed-weight products are scannable and have use-by dates, and for the consumer these feature individual, vacuumed-packed servings, so a home cook can use what is needed and keep the rest frozen, all while avoiding freezer burn, the company says.

What’s more, the pouches minimize handling and obviate the need for soaker pads and foam trays. “In addition to the convenience and no-touch features, consumers also will like the fact that the carton is easily recycled,” Tracy Miller, GNP Company director of new product development, said in announcing the product launch. “We see this as a win/win for both our customers and consumers.”

Other companies are also incorporating these ideas, such as Smithfield’s recently introduced portioned bacon. The two-pouch packages are attached via a perforation, and each includes approximately six slices of bacon, the average amount used by a home cook when preparing bacon, the company says. In advance of the holiday season, Butterball announced its whole fresh turkeys would be packaged in a Cryovac Grip & Tear bag, which includes pull-apart tabs at the bottom of the package. Cryovac describes the bag as one that is not only more convenient for consumers, but also enhances cleanliness during consumer handling since cutting and tearing are unnecessary.

GNP’s Just BARE fresh chicken products are packaged in meal-size amounts and play to consumers’ eco-friendly desires. The All Natural fresh chicken products, such as the boneless, skinless breast item that features three to four fillets per pouch, have an EZ-peel opening. The company also advertises these as freezer-ready, and an on-pack logo boasts “no foam packaging.”

In fact, GNP has made a dedicated effort to reduce its carbon footprint, and the packaging stresses the product’s sustainability with a carbon footprint reduction logo on each package. “Just BARE is built on the belief that less is more, and minimizing our impact on the environment and making our chicken and the planet better one step at a time validate that belief,” said Julie Berling, GNP Company director of brand advocacy, earlier this year.

Eco-friendly

When South Fallsburg, NY-based Murray’s Chicken launched a single-material, eco-friendly package for its fresh raw chicken, the move garnered more jeers than cheers. “Everyone called us nuts,” said Sales and Marketing VP Steve Gold. “They said that people don’t like change, and even though it’s eco-friendly, people won’t appreciate it because the foam tray isn’t there.”

Now, five years later, the packaging is a hit, and, Gold said, “Almost every competitor has gone with this type of tray. That says to me, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The company continues to seek even more eco-friendly products, such as biodegradable materials. However, shelf-life is a concern in using this type of element in packaging raw, fresh chicken. “There is packaging we could use, but by the time it gets into the store,” Gold said, “the product won’t be any good.” Similarly, the company is exploring a biodegradable tray, a product the Freedonia study says will be increasingly used and a driver of packaging market growth. With that type of tray, Gold says, seepage is the concern in the materials Murray’s has examined.

However, Murray’s is pushing forward with a plan to package cooked chicken breast strips in a biodegradable tray that is also microwaveable and ovenable up to a certain temperature since seepage isn’t an issue. The testing process has lasted nearly nine months, and Gold says the company is still not fully satisfied with the results, though the development is in its final stages.

Cost is also a factor, of course. While consumers are cutting less, they aren’t eating more. According to the Power of Meat study, overall consumption of fresh meat was flat last year. “You can’t come out with a green tray and charge 50 cents a pound more, especially in today’s financial climate,” Gold laments. “Everybody wants to be green as long as it doesn’t cost them more green.”
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