Sustainability is one of those issues that most meat-processing companies acknowledge as being a “hot-button”, but many are slow to commit resources toward. A majority of processors are comfortable with environmentalism as a tenet of their business practices and have policies and initiatives in place to address such issues, but the number that have implemented green initiatives or adopted sustainability as part of their business strategy number handfuls, at best.

Indeed, the topic of sustainability remains a bit nebulous in the processing industry, according to Jon Johnson, professor in the Sam Walton School of Business at the Univ. of Arkansas and director of the university’s Applied Sustainability Center. He reminds processors that sustainability is a comprehensive approach that includes more than programs designed to reduce a company’s environmental impact.

“There are social and economic components, too,” he says. One of those components is the looming issue of wasted food and its overwhelming impact on the environment.

Beyond the basics

The concept of sustainability is, indeed, more complex than committing to reducing an operation’s carbon footprint. “Often, the easiest thing to do is to start with the environmental factors, but when you start talking about limiting greenhouse gases and reducing water use, it becomes more difficult. But this is what sustainability is all about,” says Johnson. “You’re talking about resource use and consumption that’s sustainable in a very literal way. You do not take out more from the system than you put in.”

Officials with Sealed Air Corp., a worldwide leader in protective packaging for more than four decades, have adopted a similar philosophy of looking beyond the basics of sustainable solutions. At its design and development labs located throughout the world, the company has made monumental strides to diminish its own waste stream during the past two years by eliminating more than 2 million lbs. of packaging that would have otherwise been used by its customers. Now its corporate attention has been trained on addressing its customers’ varied needs. It quickly became apparent that a “less-is-more” approach wasn’t always the best solution in certain business segments. Perhaps nowhere is this measured and sophisticated approach more evident than in Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging Systems, where the emphasis is on identifying efficiencies and eliminating waste for processors, retailers and consumers. In formulating its sustainability strategy for the future, it is all-too obvious that a glaring opportunity for improvement exists now: food waste. Research from the World Packaging Organization indicates that more than 50 percent of the food produced in the world is wasted. Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture reports that 25 percent of wasted food never reaches a plate.

Addressing wasted food and its eventual impact on the environment is one of the most immediate and significant sustainability solutions food companies can make, according to packaging specialists. To deliver maximum freshness from processors, to retailers and ultimately to consumers, engineers realize the importance of balancing the maximum amount of performance and freshness using the least amount of packaging material. But one cannot come at the expense of the other. Validating this philosophy is information from the Advisory Committee on Packaging report that confirms food wasted before it is consumed requires 10 times the resources as the packaging used to protect it.

“The way we approach sustainability is in focusing on where we can do the most good,” says Jim Mize, global vice president of new opportunities for Cryovac Food Packaging. “That keeps us from just focusing on down-gauging the packaging and thinking we’re done. Instead, we try to look at the total picture.”
Rather than mandating what might, at first, seem the logical approach, and ordering across-the-board source reductions throughout its product lines, officials with Sealed Air Corp.’s Cryovac brand have taken a more measured, macro approach.

“First and foremost, we are really focused on food waste,” Mize says, echoing what has become a companywide mantra.

Supplying a sense of urgency to the issue among retail suppliers, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart announced in July that all of its suppliers, including meat and poultry companies, must develop comprehensive programs to promote sustainability and transparency throughout the food supply chain. The Univ. of Arkansas and Dr. Johnson have worked with the retail Goliath for some time. In fact, a grant from the Walmart Foundation in 2007 got Johnson’s Applied Sustainability Center off of the ground. Two years later, the retailer’s sustainability mandate broke new ground.

With data indicating a significant foodwaste problem, additional research has concluded a majority of waste occurs in consumers’ homes. Cryovac’s corporate strategy is, therefore, designed to avoid giving customers packaging options that will cause waste to occur even faster in the name of source reduction.

To address this issue on one front, Cryovac has developed Freshness Plus, which is sustainable – not because it uses less packaging material, but because it delivers and preserves the freshness attributes to consumers and ensures that fresh food is perceived that way by consumers. Freshness Plus uses odor and oxygen-scavenging technology that is engineered into the packaging film to “present food to the consumer in its freshest possible state,” says Mize.

Reducing oxygen prevents off-colors and odors throughout the product’s shelf-life. Freshness Plus is used in applications that include shaved deli meats, as well as thermo-formed, lidded rollstock packages or pillow packs. The odor-scavenging films can be used alone or along with the oxygenscavengers and it targets sulfur compounds and aldehydes. Both the odor and oxygen-scavengers are part of the film for these applications and Mize says they do not add to the thickness of the film. Foster Farms is one processor utilizing the technology for its sliced poultry deli meat.

“We scavenge oxygen off one side of the package and we scavenge containment odors on the other side,” says Mize, pointing out the value of giving consumers the most accurate snapshot of the freshness of their food.

Gauging life cycles

Ron Cotterman, the executive director of sustainable packaging for Sealed Air, points out that research indicating as much as two-thirds of food waste worldwide is avoidable and in most cases caused by consumers purchasing too much food or leftover food spoiling after being prepared or opened. This realization helped the company establish its strategy.

“You have to look across the foodsupply chain and identify the different points where waste can occur and how it can be avoided in the first place,” says Cotterman.

He says sustainability and packaging solutions should be based on addressing three areas. First, the full life cycle of the (food) product must be understood and then the question: ‘Where are the sources of waste?’ should be asked. Secondly, says Cotterman, “We ask, ‘can we use some modeling tools to help make good decisions and optimize the amount of packaging used based on the life cycle of the product?’” Finally, it is critical to work with other members of the supply chain, including retailers and processors, to help understand and communicate how packaging can be used as a tool to prevent waste.

The overriding mindset, according to Cotterman is: “Packaging is a way of minimizing waste, not generating waste.”

Less isn’t always more

Adopting a blanket policy of source reduction only when it comes to packaging might seem logical, but it can be a short-sighted approach. As Cotterman points out: “A few grams of plastic packaging to protect a few kilograms of fresh red meat really has a much lower impact on the environment than if that food would spoil.”

This is a message that must be communicated differently at various points in the supply chain. For consumers, the perception of packaging is realized when it is at the end of its usefulness and after it has preserved and delivered the attributes that the processors and retailers must have, including freshness, appearance, consistency, quality and taste. Conveying the importance of packaging to consumers can be a challenge.

“They often view it as a waste, and they don’t always appreciate the role that it played in getting that food product to their refrigerator,” says Cotterman, and the challenge is to educate them on the value that packaging created throughout the rest of the food chain.

This value proposition isn’t wasted on processors and retailers, who appreciate packaging that limits product shrink and increases shelf-life. Packaging must still deliver and perform without compromising quality in the name of using less material. Packaging engineers focus on the food waste that is avoidable by demonstrating how packaging can play a role in diminishing that waste. Cotterman points out that “empowering the consumers is a valuable step in that direction,” and it serves as an opportunity for improvement. “We focus a lot on making our processors and retailers more efficient and effective. We haven’t focused so much on making the consumers more effective in what they use,” says Cotterman.

One example of targeted technology designed to maximize the life of sliced deli meats for processors and retailers while providing convenience for consumers is Cryovac Multi-Seal. This proven technology delivers a re-sealable package that requires less material than plastic, lidded tubs and is one example of how consumer demand for freshness can be met using a sustainable solution that benefits the entire food supply chain.

Supply chain efforts

Processors’ sources of waste tend to be in areas such as food-yield losses during storage and distribution. Modified-atmosphere packaging and vacuum-package technology help control this loss.
Cotterman points out: “Our barrierbag technology is one example of how processors have used packaging technology to minimize and reduce food waste. The high-performance characteristics of the barrier bag, including its puncture resistance and durability, are very significant to keeping that segment of the supply chain efficient.”

At the retail level, where case-ready packaging is becoming more prevalent, waste is also being eliminated without necessarily down-gauging film or source reductions. Cotterman says by processing and packaging meat at a central location, yield losses are consistently 50 percent less than when employees break down subprimals at the supermarket.

In the name of improved merchandising for retailers, highlighting freshness and eye-appeal for consumers, Cryovac Mirabella case-ready packaging uses modified atmosphere technology that requires less space by delivering functional packaging without meat discoloration.

“We’re focusing on the attributes of the packaging that can help the consumer better manage their food purchases,” Cotterman says, including portion-control and re-sealable solutions.

Sustainability is a complex concept. Cotterman points out that many of the efficiencies developed with retailers and processors for the past 10 years would fall under the heading of “sustainability” in today’s terms. “We just weren’t calling it that at the time.”

Beyond down-gauging

The story of source reduction in food packaging is actually a series of sequels about continued improvement. However, source reduction on its own does not constitute a sustainable solution.

“We can down-gauge and thin things out even more than we have,” Cotterman says, “but at some point you lose performance. And as soon as you do that, you’ve lost any advantage previously gained by the source reduction.” Sacrificing performance and shelf-life in the name of using less material is a significant step backwards, which is why Sealed Air subscribes to a philosophy that looks beyond “can we squeeze another 10 percent out of our use of packaging materials” to instead, “looking at how packaging can prevent some of the additional waste that is out there in the supply chain. That is where the real focus is going to be in the next several years,” Cotterman points out.

Cotterman also points out that Sealed Air obviously has a vested interest in the production and sales of packaging material and equipment, but that fact shouldn’t imply the company is against initiatives to reduce material use. In fact, the company also manufactures paper based packaging and it advocates using the right material for the application, which might mean utilizing a flexible plastic pouch in some applications and in other cases it might mean using a fiber-based material.

With Walmart making its 2009 mandate, suppliers are behooved to provide not just sustainable solutions, but smarter solutions that are evident from farm to fork. The retailer’s public commitment will likely shape the future of how its suppliers go to market with their products, says U.A.’s sustainability expert, Johnson.

“While they aren’t the first retailer to emphasize sustainability, they’re certainly the largest,” he says. “I think the announcement they made this year will be seen in the future as a very important inflection point,” says Johnson. “They have begun a program I think will launch of bunch of innovations (and) generations in the future will see the benefits.”