CHICAGO – Pack Expo 2012 wrapped up on Oct. 31 at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Exhibitors at the show were disappointed that mega-storm Sandy prevented many East Coast folks, as well as some exhibitors’ staffers, from attending. “A lot of people planning to come didn’t. And some [East Coast] people who were here on Saturday [Oct. 27] got the hell out so they could get home,” one exhibitor said.

Regardless of a slow start on Sunday, the event was well attended on Monday and Tuesday and far from disappointing — particularly for those who came to see the exhibits and catch up on the latest in packaging trends. More than 1,800 exhibits showcasing state-of-the-art materials, machinery and methods for packaging and processing were on display — and more than 46,000 buyers from around the world were expected to attend.

New packaging and machinery either launched at the show or recently introduced were everywhere on fact, they are too numerous to include in this report; some of these products will be featured in the Showcase section in future issues of MEAT&POULTRY magazine.

Perhaps the most unusual product I came across at the show was the Vivos Edible Delivery System — an edible, water soluble film — from Cloud Packaging Solutions and MonoSol. Pouches engineered from these films disappear and release their contents when exposed to hot or cold liquids; the dissolved film can then be consumed along with the food.

It is composed of a proprietary blend of food-grade ingredients. The film is transparent and has no odor or taste when consumed. It also offers good oxygen barrier properties and has robust mechanical properties that enable real-world usage with various foods and forming of bags/pouches using existing converting technologies, the developers claim. Food industry applications include retail, institutional and as part of manufacturing process to add ingredients to food. Gravies and soups are among the applications.

While traveling the aisles, I visited with Lynn Dornblaser, director, Innovation & Insight, Mintel Group Ltd., Chicago, who discussed several packaging trends in meat and poultry products she is seeing. “One trend is the job some companies are doing to help ensure consumers [get] wholesome products,” she said. “That could mean [providing product in] an IQF (individually quick-frozen) chicken breast portion or more likely vacuum-packaged individual portions in a multi- pack. It is very convenient for consumers; they can take out what they want, and they toss the remainder in the freezer. It also helps raise their confidence that the product is still going to be wholesome. This is so important for consumers these days in all food categories, but especially meat and poultry — we are seeing some consumers who are a little bit concerned about the safety of the food supply.”

Another trend is more meat and poultry products are being packed for two. “That really ties into shifts in demographics we see with more one- and two-person households, maybe some people who have become empty nesters,” she said. “Having smaller families or no families to feed other than yourself and a spouse, makes that smaller portion size [for two] more sensible for a lot of families.”

When asked if there was anything new in microwavable packaging for meat and poultry, Dornblaser said the last biggest development Mintel has seen was the introduction of Healthy Choice Café Steamers from ConAgra Foods. For those of you who may not recall, Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers was billed as the first line of complete frozen meals that incorporates microwave steaming technology designed to maximize the individual components of an entire meal, preserving the flavor, texture and color of each ingredient. This line utilizes a one-of-a-kind microwaveable Steam Cooker that circulates steam throughout the meal during cooking. The Steam Cooker is composed of a bowl, which contains the sauce and a steamer basket, which nests above the sauce and contains the meat, vegetables and pasta or rice. Steam from the sauce cooks the meal components in the steamer basket; all the ingredients can then be combined after cooking, with the sauce bowl doubling as a serving bowl.

This unique design, which separates the sauce from the other ingredients, allows components to retain their individual character and freshness, alleviating some key consumer barriers in traditional frozen microwave meals, including the inability to taste individual ingredients, excessive uniformity in flavor and texture, and unappetizing appearance, Healthy Choice relays.

Dornblaser added that “the big picture” regarding any food is packaging that is easy to open, easy to hold and easy to read. By and large, companies have a lot of room for improvement in all three areas, she said. “Think about how hard some food packages are to open...any category,” she said. “Think how often you need an implement to get it open. Almost every single senior says this, but a lot of younger consumers are saying this as well. The same goes for easy-to-read. Us old-timers can’t read white type on a pale yellow background, for example. You see too much of that or print that is too small to read. If the consumer can’t read it, then he or she will buy a competitor’s product [whose packaging verbiage] they can read.

“I don’t think companies think about that,” she continued. “And that could be because of the [younger] average age of the brand manager. They can read white on pale yellow, but their target market usually can’t.”

One packaging exhibitor told his company sees capital purchasing opening up and more customers are more willing to try new packaging formats. He added the re-closeable feature for meat and poultry keeps getting more important. “What’s going to be next in zippers?” he asked with a wry smile, hinting that something new from his company may be on the horizon.

For those of you who missed this year’s show, mark down on your calendar that Pack Expo 2013 will be held Sept. 23-25 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Here’s hoping you make that show because there is no substitute for being there.