Dan Siegel, owner of Deli Star Corp. in Fayetteville, Illinois, earned his Ph.D. in Meat Science from the Univ. of Illinois. As a packaging consultant for Bemis Co. Inc., he’s been exposed to all aspects and categories of meat packaging. When it comes to case-ready ground beef packaging, Siegel explains the difference between what consumers want, what retailers prefer, and what he, as a scientist, believes are the best options.

MEAT+POULTRY: What is on the wish list of retailers in regards to ground beef packaging?

Dan Siegel: Retailers are looking for a consistent [ground beef] color that will last more than two weeks. That’s the biggest thing. The most important thing is a shelf life that will give them time to merchandise. This interrelates with the packer’s desire to have time to distribute and warehouse, and then distribute to the store level and have a couple of weeks left on it at the retail level so it can be merchandised.

I still believe that the consumer prefers red color over purple. It can be done with vacuum packing; hence the big box store and the mother bag approach has been something that has been a very popular packaging format.

M+P: Explain the evolution of the use of mother bags.

Siegel: Walmart kind of led the whole industry toward getting rid of butchers. In the early 2000s, Walmart went to case-ready packaging and drove that way of packaging beef. They did it with a gas flushed, or modified atmosphere package (MAP), which was a preform tray and lidding stock with high oxygen in the head space. That would allow the meat to bloom for an extended period of time. At the same time, you’d get oxidations.

Almost all that product had rosemary extract in it in order to delay the myoglobin formation. Being done that way, rosemary extract became very common on the package as natural flavoring, but it didn’t last. It had an oxidized flavor, would look ugly after four or five days of retail display, and it was just a bad package. So, Walmart went to carbon monoxide. The color was great, but that MAP package was just not a preferred packaging format by the consumer. Then the carbon monoxide controversy hit, and Walmart immediately took the position that they weren’t going to use carbon monoxide.

They [Walmart] challenged the industry to come up with a solution. The solution was a mother bag, which has carbon monoxide and no oxygen in it, so the packaging format of choice is an expanded polystyrene tray that has either PVC or polyethylene perforated and stretched around the package and the meat sits on that tray inside a mother bag. The mother bag is a pillow pack that might house four to eight trays in a single layer. Inside that mother bag is an oxygen absorber to suck up all the oxygen and a little, just a touch of carbon monoxide to give it a bright red color.

M+P: How has this technology affected the supply chain and retail meat departments?

Siegel: Now, you can put it at the store level and go through the distribution chain and keep it that consumer-preferred red color for 28 to 35 days. Specifications could have changed since I’ve been directly involved, but at the time I was exposed to it, it was 0.4 percent carbon monoxide and 28 days was the shelf life on the mother bag package. Once you take it out of the mother bag and put it in the display case, the color conversions that occur, the carbon monoxide myoglobin, as I call it carboxymyoglobin, lasts a very long time. It’s very stable, but once you expose it to the atmosphere, the carbon monoxide blows off and you don’t have to worry about any consumer backlash because there’s theoretically no carbon monoxide in the package like there was in the MAP tray.

Now you put it in the display case and oxygen starts penetrating tissue fluid and it is the same color as the carboxymyglobin, and over the course of roughly three days, there’s enough oxymyoglobin formation that it starts to deteriorate and turn brown. So, it will display for three days fine, but if it’s in the mother bag, it lasts for 28 days. So, if the retailer gets it at 14, he just puts the fresh meat in the display case every day like Walmart does, and he doesn’t have any problem merchandising it. The mother bag is probably the highest volume packaging format that we see in case-ready.