KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Packaging. It protects both products and consumers. It also can lure potential customers into trying a new product for the first time. What’s more, it can educate and inform. As a result, packaging companies, along with their meat and poultry business partners, are constantly looking for new, more contemporary packaging options for retail and foodservice customers. Sustainable packaging is one format capturing a lot of industry interest these days, says Huston Keith, packaging expert and principal for Keymark Associates, Marietta, Ga.

“Top executives at Walmart and other companies have put out the word they want more sustainable packaging and a lot of packaging companies are throwing possible solutions out there,” Keith says. “But thus far, nothing is very cost-effective nor can it meet the integrity requirements the food requires.”

One test currently underway on the West Coast by Costco involves a paperboard-based tray for meat and poultry products, Keith says. “But the jury is still out on whether that tray actually will hold up because of the nature of the protein and packaging materials,” he adds. “Paper absorbs water and there’s a lot of water in poultry meat…you can have a mess. From what I hear, there are still some issues that need to be resolved on this package.”

Many consumers perceive paperboard as a more sustainable product. “People see something that’s made out of paperboard and think this is biodegradable,” Keith says. “It’s true that plastics are not biodegradable, but when you throw things in a landfill —nothing is biodegradable.”

Bell & Evans, Fredericksburg, Pa., is using a new, clear polyester tray that can be recycled like beverage bottles, Keith relays. “Along that same line, Weis Markets Inc., Sunbury, Pa., is using Clearly Clean trays being packed by JBS Souderton. This meat packaging consists of a polyester tray with a barrier film laminated to one side of it to get extended shelf-life,” Keith says. “When you’re done, you peel away the barrier film and recycle the polyester tray.”

Clearly Clean Products LLC, South Windsor, Conn., announced in December it had launched a recyclable modified-atmosphere package tray for food products. It uses a patented process of applying a peelable, thin liner to an RPET tray, the same material of water bottles. The liner provides barrier protection to maintain shelf-life and can be customized. The tray can be used to package meat, poultry, entrées and kabobs. The tray is made in the US and comes in industry-standard sizes: 10S and 3P.

“This new packaging program underscores our strong commitment to adopting sustainable practices to minimize our impact on the environment,” said Patti Olenick, sustainability manager for Weis Markets. “We are continually increasing our conservation efforts, providing recycling opportunities for both our associates and customers, and evaluating our store designs to meet with our standards for environmental leadership and stewardship. We strive to lead by example, helping to make a significant difference in our communities.”

Challenges remain with a lot of extended shelf-life, vacuum packaging for fresh, red meat because the vacuum process results in red meat turning purple. There have been many attempts made by packaging companies to offset this problem.

“One is using modified atmosphere, but that has the disadvantage due to the excessive headspace — the product is loose in the tray,” Keith says. “The extra space also takes up more space in display and distribution and it is sometimes perceived as ‘over-packaging’ by the consumer. Nonetheless, it has been successful for some products, especially ground meats. It provides the familiar red color, extended shelf -life, is leak-proof and can still be more cost-effective than many alternatives.”

And there’s the use of minute traces of carbon monoxide in MAP packaging. “This is pretty widely used today, although nobody is going to admit it because people made such a [perceived food-safety] stink about it a few years ago, which I think is totally groundless,” he adds.

FreshCase packaging by Curwood, Oshkosh, Wis., a part of the Bemis family of companies, is another packaging innovation cited. This is the first technology to answer the meat industry’s decades-long challenge: vacuum packaging that blooms fresh meat and maintains its bright red color throughout an extended shelf-life, the company claims. Processor advantages include it extends shelf-life to more than 30 days (compared to current tray overwrap packages with 3-5 days’ display life); meats maintain fresh red color throughout shelf-life; eliminates costs of master packs, gas, oxygen absorbents, corrugate; eliminates purge or blackened bones; and runs on existing vacuum-skin equipment.

Sam’s Club sells its private-label line of Castle Wood Reserve meats, which features unique packaging for processed meats. “It’s a barrier tray like you use for fresh meats in a modified atmosphere with a polyester PET clear lid on the top with a label,” Keith says. “It is recloseable and product is sold in a 1-lb. 6-oz. size.
Looking to the future, Keith returns to the significance of developing more sustainable packaging. “If somebody could create the perfect sustainable package — one that is biodegradable and meets all packaging integrity requirements at a competitive cost — you would see a lot of meat and poultry companies using it.”