Beyond the whole bird

by Bernard Shire
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 Turkey
Jennie-O Oven Ready whole turkey comes in a cook-in-the-bag package as well as an outer bag for food safety. 
 
A lot more people eat turkey on a frequent or even everyday basis than they used to. Once considered only as the center-of-the-plate feature for family Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and possibly the star of Easter Sunday gatherings, turkey consumption patterns have changed greatly in recent years.
 
Now, when people buy turkey to serve for dinner at home, they no longer think only of buying a whole bird. Instead, in many cases, they’re more interested in acquiring and cooking turkey breasts, legs and thighs, ground turkey for chili, turkey burgers, turkey bacon or turkey sausage to serve with eggs or pancakes for breakfast, and turkey tenders for dinner.
 
Among other things, this has meant a change in the packaging of turkey and turkey products, both in retail stores as well as foodservice for restaurants.
 
Keith Williams, vice president of communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation, says the turkey industry has recently focused on the many different cuts the industry has developed and marketed, including the tenderloin, drumsticks, ground turkey meat, sausage and bacon, in addition to whole breast and deli-sliced turkey breast. For many years, they’ve been sold in tray packs and cooked in ready-to-eat portions.
 
Kim Anderson, brand manager for Jennie-O Turkey Store, a division of Hormel Foods, explains the processor works with suppliers on the latest innovations in packaging, and looks for opportunities to implement more sustainable options, as well as watching consumer trends and conducting research with the company’s consumers.
 
She explains there are packaging trends for the consumer that makes it easier for them to both buy and cook turkey. “Our Jennie-O Oven Ready items are packaged in a cook-in bag within the outer bag. The product is already pre-seasoned, so consumers can go straight from freezer to oven with no thawing,” she says. “This significantly reduces the amount of prep needed for the big holiday event, for example. This product has taken off in recent years with consumers looking to take the hassle out of preparing a holiday meal, while being confident they will have a beautiful and delicious turkey for all their guests to enjoy.”
 
Packaging doesn’t differ for turkey products that are fresh or frozen. “The vacuum package works well in fresh, and has benefits for the consumer when frozen such as less chance of freezer burn and uses less space in the freezer,” she says.
 
Shelf life has also been affected for turkey products, turkey portions and whole birds. “For our value-added turkey items, the vacuum package has allowed for a longer shelf life,” Anderson explains. “And for whole birds, the key is keeping the bag intact, hence the heavier shrink bags to handle the wear and tear.”
 
Anderson also talks about sustainable and recyclable packaging for Jennie-O turkey products. “We moved from trays and overwrap film on our fresh and frozen turkey parts to flex/flex vacuum sealed film several years ago, which resulted in the elimination of the foam tray and a significant reduction in packaging,” she says.
 
She explains the different types of packaging used for different turkey products, and notes there are differences in packaging depending on whether the turkey product is a whole bird, or turkey cuts. “Shrink bags are used for whole birds due to their non-uniform shape. They are also very durable, as frozen whole birds can move around during the shopping experience. Packages can be compromised or damaged in the bunker, cart or the consumer’s freezer,” Anderson points out.
 
“Products like our Jennie-O Oven Ready items come in a cook-in-the-bag package and then in an outer bag for food safety and consumer experience. The frozen Jennie-O Oven Ready product is removed from the outer bag, and then goes straight from the freezer, still inside the cook bag, into the oven to cook. So there’s no need to thaw or touch the raw bird,” she says.
 
There are also differences between packaging for turkey going to foodservice, for restaurants, and for turkey products going to retail sales in supermarkets and groceries. “Most foodservice products are frozen, so items can be bulk packed in bags or boxes,” Anderson explains. “Retail turkey items are typically packed the same way, fresh or frozen, either in a tray with overwrap film, or in flex/flex film and vacuum sealed,” she points out.

Ground Turkey  
Butterball's Farm to Family line is designed to have a natural look and feel. Butterball's Natural Inspirations sliced turkey is merchandised in a resealable package that allows consumers to see the quality of the product they are buying. 
 
According to Rebecca Welch, manager, seasonal and fresh, for Butterball, whole turkeys and parts are in sealed overwrap packaging. Ground turkey is in modified atmosphere packaging. Packaging is selected based upon what furnishes the best consumer experience, as well as food safety.
 
“Butterball looks to consumers to guide the evolution of packaging changes. We’ve seen consumers are looking for packages that keep products fresh and enable visibility to make an informed purchase decision,” Welch says. She notes that packaging is similar across the poultry industry, between chicken and turkey, and is really driven more by product size.

The end user plays a major role in packaging decisions. “For packaging used in foodservice, the package must meet the needs of that environment and enable easy access to a large volume of product. Packaging for the retail market will be smaller and targeted for one to two meals of an average-sized family,” she points out.

Welch says food safety plays an extremely important role in packaging decisions. “It must keep the product fresh and safe to eat for the maximum amount of time possible,” she says.

Consumer trends play an important role in turkey packaging. “In addition to buying fresh-looking products at the store, consumers want easy accessibility, they want to limit having to touch the meat, or having the raw meat come into contact with surfaces in their kitchen,” Welch notes. Modified atmosphere packaging is used in further-processed products like ground turkey or fresh sausage because it provides clear visibility and is able to keep the product fresh and maximizes food safety longer than if it was displayed in a normal atmosphere like a fresh meat case.

Packaging is also updated for the benefit of consumers. “For example, many consumers today are focused on organic and natural products. Butterball has updated packaging to call out more clearly the natural attributes of products. In some cases, new product lines have been developed, like Farm to Family by Butterball, which is focused on providing natural and antibiotic-free products. The packaging for these products is designed to have a natural look and feel, and communicate the natural attributes of the products,” she says.

Welch points out Butterball also takes steps to protect its packaging. “Butterball trademarks the brand name, sub-brands, and important clarifying statements to the brand. The company works with a packaging agency to create designs that communicate the brand, product and relevant information to help the consumer make an informed purchase decision,” she notes.


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