The Thanksgiving turkeys have long been carved and their leftovers have been turned into everything from turkey soup to turkey tacos. But there’s at least one thing consumers may have noticed about the whole birds they purchased this year: Their packaging has never been better.

Turkey processors consider a smorgasbord of options for packaging whole birds, including durability, printability, seal, shrink, gloss, flexibility, handling and ease of use for consumers.

“All of these attributes are important for the packaging of our turkeys,” says Bill Klump, senior vice president of corporate marketing for Garner, NC-based Butterball LLC.

Butterball uses an easy-open bag to provide cooks with a simple and safe way to open the turkey, Klump says. All Butterball whole turkeys include large pull-apart tabs at the bottom center of the package that open in one clean tear.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to provide extra convenience to consumers, and this easy-open packaging is an added feature that makes the whole process easier and safer for cooks,” Klump says.

Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill, which processes the Honeysuckle White brand, packages whole birds in a high-durability film bag that is vacuumed and sealed with a metal clip at the closure. Some whole birds feature netting around the bags, which also forms a handle for ease in handling by store personnel and consumers. Other bags feature a built-in handle, where a handle is actually part of the bag.

“The bags used provide a high degree of automation, cost effectiveness, high productivity, efficiency and flexibility,” says Mike Martin, Cargill’s director of communications. “There is excellent flexibility in bag sizes to accommodate different whole-bird weight ranges. The bags are also easy to hand-carry and have a long track record of acceptance by our customers and consumers.”

Klump says the most important packaging components are seal, ease of use for consumers and durability.

“Ensuring that the product is properly sealed and packaged is important to ensure all of our products adhere to the highest food-safety standards,” Klump says.

Regarding ease of use, Butterball is always looking for ways to provide added convenience for customers, Klump adds.

“We want to ensure consumers have a positive, safe experience and are always looking for ways to improve,” he adds.

Durability for freezing is also vital.

“We want to ensure consumers can freeze their Butterball product without sacrificing quality,” Klump says.

Puncture resistance and barriers are also high on the list as well as superior print quality and gloss, Klump notes.

Martin also lists durability as a key component. He says the bags Cargill uses are durable enough to allow turkeys to be stored and transported safely, so they get to retailers and consumers in good condition.

Martin also cites preservation of product quality and production efficiency as important to the packaging process. He says printed graphics play a necessary role to provide a package that draws consumer attention at retail and readily communicates a product’s features and benefits.

The packaging Cargill uses provides a large surface area for printing product information.

“It’s like having a billboard to communicate product features/benefits or promotional offerings,” Martin says.

The flexibility in printing enables Cargill to print large, crisp, graphics on the bags, such as those used in the 2012 holiday season Disney-Pixar Blu-Ray DVD promotion for the animated movie “BRAVE,” according to Martin.

“Those graphics were used for both our Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms premium turkey brands,” he says.

As far as gloss and appearance are concerned, Martin says the package provides “great flexibility” to print a range from matte to high gloss and everything in between.

The L-Bag perseveres

One of the most popular bags in whole-turkey packaging for the past half century has been the Cryovac L-Bag, a vacuum bag for fresh and frozen birds.

“There aren’t many products around today that were essentially the same product that was invented 50 years ago,” says Don Smith, marketing director for poultry for Sealed Air’s Cryovac brand food packaging.

The L-Bag has evolved over the years. The package also has a new name: It’s now called the Super L-bag.

“All of the attributes that are important in this application have improved over the years,” Smith says. “But the functionality of the bag is essentially the same. It’s a second skin on the bird.”

The packaging features a soft vacuum, Smith says, to evacuate most of the air without crushing the cavity of the bird. The bag still features a metal clip like it did 50 years ago. “The biggest change is in the processing itself,” Smith says, noting that major changes have occurred with getting the birds into the bags.

Martin says equipment has become more efficient and productive, and the packaging represents proven technology that works for Honeysuckle White’s customers and consumers.

Klump is impressed with improvements that have been made in the past 20 years for whole-turkey packaging.

“Improvements have been made in puncture resistance — films are tougher now,” he adds. “Print quality has also improved; we have increased ability to print a variety of colors and shrink.”

Despite the improvements, Martin and Klump say there’s room for more improvement.

“Opportunities always exist to make a product a better experience for the consumer, whether in portability, ease of opening, etc.,” Martin says.

Klump says: “Cook-in films represent a substantial development. This technology increases convenience for consumers by allowing them to move product from the freezer to the oven without having to remove packaging.”

Smith says the next evolution in whole-bird packaging will be increased convenience in the form of a cook-in bag.

“We’ve developed a bag that can be used as the primary package, and that same bag can be the cooking vessel,” he says.

The Oven Ease Bags are capable of handling product in a frozen state, Smith notes. “Of course, the processor would have to change the way the [the bird] is packed by leaving out the giblets, and making sure it was seasoned, pumped and ready to cook,” he says.

This is happening, but it’s not widespread in the turkey industry. A reason for that is tradition, especially at Thanksgiving. Preparing and cooking a turkey in the oven is still a big part of Thanksgiving tradition, Smith says.

That said, Smith says there are plenty of young adults who don’t know how to cook a turkey and might welcome cooking a whole bird in a bag. But it will be a slow transition.

In the meantime, Smith says Sealed Air is listening to processors’ requests for improvements in packaging, especially in printing.

“That has been a big issue … getting the label to ‘pop,’ ” he says. “That’s where gloss comes in. Over the years the processing has become much more streamlined, and processors have been demanding that the ink stays on the label. This is a surface-print application. We’ve had to work with ink suppliers to make sure we have a tough enough ink to handle the conveyors and the way [the turkeys] are handled.”

Sealed Air has also concentrated on making shrink bags easier to open, Smith says.

“It’s always a challenge for consumers to get into a vacuum package,” he adds, noting that the Cryovac Grip & Tear bag has provided a solution to the dilemma.

Sealed Air usually analyzes its packaging products every few years to decide what it can do to improve and update them, Smith says. A few years ago, the company improved the opacity and shrink of the bag.

“Opacity is important because you don’t want to see the blood through the bag,” Smith says. “So, we made the color cream and white.”

Puncture resistance and shrink have also improved dramatically over the past several years, Smith says.

Larry Aylward is a contributing editor from Medina, Ohio.