For its One Percenter burger line, Schweid & Sons utilizes tray-sealed packaging with a traditional-looking butcher-paper sleeve overwrap.

Although new ground-beef product launches may not be as active as introductions in other segments of the red-meat industry, they’re far from being dead in the water. And this category’s packaging continues to sway consumers and spur sales – all while protecting the product.

Private-label ground beef launches and packaging redesigns have been particularly active most recently, according to Chicago-based Mintel. For example, Kroger’s Simple Truth Organic Ground Beef has been repackaged with an updated design. Refrigerated product is made from grass-fed cows humanely raised on certified-organic pastures and contains no antibiotics, added hormones or preservatives. It consists of a mixture of 85 percent lean with 15 percent fat. It retails in a 16-oz. skin-pack package. Walmart’s new Uncle Albert’s Meatball and Meatloaf Mix, a blend of refrigerated ground beef, pork, veal and a solution, is packaged in a shrink-wrapped, black polystyrene tray. And Costco’s Kirkland Signature Lean Ground Beef has been repackaged and now features a new design. The new product has 9 percent fat and retails in a 5-lb. plastic pack housing five individually wrapped units.

In June, Schweid & Sons, owned by Burger Maker in Carlstadt, NJ, launched a new line of fresh, consumer-packaged burgers featuring the Certified Angus Beef brand. “The better-burger category continues to grow in restaurants, and we believe this has created an underserviced segment in the market for premium burgers cooked at home,” said Jamie Schweid, executive vice president of Burger Maker, during the launch. “We produce the freshest, highest-quality burgers available so at-home chefs can serve the very best.”

This custom-blend burger is made from whole-muscle Certified Angus Beef brand chuck and brisket for a distinctive flavor profile. Chucks from Certified Angus Beef brand Prime are used for the One Percenter burger in the Schweid & Sons line. Both items are available as 5.3-oz. burgers with four per package and 2-oz. burgers with 16 per package. This product line’s traditional-looking, butcher-paper sleeve overwrap utilizes tray-sealed packaging that makes an attractive addition to the meat case, the company said. This refrigerated product has a 21-day shelf-life.

Meanwhile, National Beef Packing LLC, Kansas City, Mo., recently launched ground-beef, brick-pack product line extensions in three lean points and primal grinds: Certified Angus Beef brand Ground Beef (93 percent lean/7 percent fat); Certified Angus Beef brand Ground Round (86 percent lean/14 percent fat); and Certified Angus Beef brand Ground Chuck (81 percent lean/19 percent fat). A 1-lb. net weight package can ship as a one-, two- or three-unit saddlepack. Products are packed fresh in an easy-peel-open, freezer-ready package.

National Beef Packing recently launched ground-beef, brick-pack product line extensions.

“Superior in flavor, Certified Angus Beef Bricks are vacuum-sealed in leak-proof packages to deliver the convenience, quality and food safety your customers seek,” the company said.

Bridger Beef, a division of Danvers, Mass.-based DiLuigi Foods, offers five varieties of value-added frozen burgers, which are relatively new to the company’s product portfolio. Bridger burgers are packaged six burgers to a 2-lb. box, 5.3 oz. for each burger; which is the industry standard sizing. However, Bridger vacuum-packages three burgers per cell after IQF freezing the product in a process developed by DiLuigi Foods to provide freshness and an appealing meat color for the life of the product.

Home-made look sizzles

Irregularly shaped, pre-packaged burgers that resemble homemade burgers have entered the marketplace in recent years and continue growing in popularity. One packaging expert estimates such products are packaged in a modified atmosphere barrier (PP/EVOH) “hi-ox” tray primarily in two sizes: a four-count (11x7) or 10-count (10x12) patties – with two or five cavities holding two patties each.

“The tray structure is my best guess since it’s clear, but slightly cloudy, and PP/EVOH is the most common structure,” says Huston Keith, principal of Keymark Associates, Marietta, Ga. “PET [polyethylene terephthalate] would be the other option, but it would be more clear, more costly and more complicated to seal.”

Although the sustainable movement continues strengthening in the industry, the future of recyclable retail meat and poultry packaging remains questionable. “I recently did a case-ready study for a company interested in recyclable packaging, but that type of packaging never took off,” Keith says. “It was a paperboard tray with a barrier laminate. The idea was to rip away the barrier laminate and recycle or compost the tray. But it never went to market. There are companies out there with similar packages for fresh meat – and they’re struggling. I don’t think consumers are too enthusiastic about taking apart their [fresh meat and poultry] packaging.”

Preferred packaging

Which packaging format do consumers prefer in their ground beef purchases? Most (88 percent) of consumers polled (from Oct. 2013 to March 2014) in a study titled “Ground Beef Answers,” funded by the Beef Checkoff Program (March 2014), said they purchased ground beef in traditional overwrap packaging. Overwrap is the traditional approach to packaging ground beef, in which a thin stretch wrap covers the meat and the tray. The total weight of each package can vary slightly. Ground beef packaged in this format generally has a maximum three-to-five day shelf-life in the refrigerator. When asked about future ground-beef purchases, most consumers said they anticipate buying ground beef in overwrap packaging.

Traditional overwrap packaging remains popular with consumers, but chub packs are gaining favor.

Chub packaging is the next most-popular packaging format mentioned in this study. With chub packages, there is a clip to pinch off the package on each end. Chubs typically come in even-pound sizes (1 lb., 2 lb., etc.). Generally, this packaging is the least expensive way to buy ground beef. It adds a few days of shelf-life in the refrigerator and freezes well.

Fifty-four percent of consumers said they purchased chub-packaged ground beef during this same time period. Because chub-packaged ground beef is primarily the least expensive packaging format on the market, this product is favored by those making less than $35,000 in annual income and households with kids. Since many Millennials are in these categories, they are the demographic most likely to purchase their ground beef in chub packaging. They do so for both burgers and ground-beef recipes, such as tacos, pastas and meatloaf.

Vacuum-packed ground beef attracted the least purchase interest. In vacuum packaging, a thicker film is used that conforms very tightly to the ground beef. Although the meat is not as red prior to opening the package, it will last at least twice as long in the consumer’s refrigerator. Once the package is opened, however, the ground beef turns red. This packaging also protects the meat more effectively in the freezer.

Nevertheless, only 12.5 percent of consumers have purchased vacuum-packaged ground beef in the same six-month period. Although vacuum-packed beef is least likely to be a package format currently purchased, it still has high future-purchase likelihood, according to the Beef Checkoff study.

Of those consumers polled who planned to make burgers, 39 percent purchased pre-formed patties in the same six-month period, while 41 percent felt they would buy them in the future. Pre-formed, uniform refrigerated or frozen ground-beef patties cost a little more per pound, but this packaging format offers the consumer convenience and minimal handling of the meat.

Purchasing behaviors

When it comes to the number of pounds of ground beef they purchase at one time, consumers vary with their purchase behavior. On average, shoppers planning to buy ground beef for hamburgers (vs. other ground-beef meals) tend to purchase slightly more ground beef per shopping trip, the study relays. The amounts purchased per trip vary when viewed by demographic. Not surprisingly, as they have the smallest household sizes, Baby Boomers purchase the least amount of ground beef per shopping trip.

Freshness, color, price and leanness are key factors that influence consumers' ground beef purchases.

Sell-by dates continue to be a source of confusion for consumers, including those purchasing ground beef. Half of consumers realize they must freeze or cook the ground beef by the sell-by date, but one in 10 reports that they do not know what the sell-by date means. The remaining consumers believe they have a few additional days to use or freeze the beef.

Freshness is the key factor that influences consumers when they’re buying ground beef for hamburgers or other ground beef meals such as tacos, spaghetti or casseroles, according to Shopper Insights featured on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board’s and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s website. Consumers are looking particularly at the color of the meat and the date code on the package. Price per pound is the next factor that most influences purchase decisions. Leanness is the third most-influential factor. As a result, retailers are encouraged to stock a variety of types, from 70 percent to 94 percent lean.

Looking forward, expect an increasing need for smaller packages of ground beef as people age and eat less, plus family sizes will continue to decrease while single-person households will increase.