Skin packaging has become one of the most favored types packaging used by meat and poultry processors, according to processors themselves, the companies making the technology, and the people doing their best to ensure food safety in the meat and poultry industry.

The packaging plan for steaks, roasts, whole chicken and parts, ground beef, and other meat and food products, gives processors several advantages they’re looking for, including an aesthetically pleasing product, a longer shelf life and controlling pathogens.

In terms of appearance, “When you enclose meat and poultry in skin packaging, you have a great-looking package that highlights the meat very visibly,” says Drew Lericos, marketing director for packaging at Multivac Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri. “And the meat or poultry can be merchandized on end without the product sliding down to the bottom of the package,” he says. Vacuum skin packaging (VSP) has a smaller “footprint” than modified atmosphere packaging, meaning products don’t take up as much space. “In many cases, you use less material in skin packaging due to the elimination of headspace. The (meat or poultry) product maintains more of its moisture before and after cooking. And shelf life is increased due to the elimination of oxygen in the packaging,” Lericos explains.

Vacuum sealed

The fact is, skin packaging is exactly what it sounds like. “Skin packaging creates a vacuum pack that protects the product and fits around it like a second skin,” says Jim Ryan, senior vice president of Harpak-Ulma, in Taunton, Massachusetts. He points out that skin packaging provides additional benefits to the meat and poultry industry beyond extending product shelf life. “They include liquid retention and enhancement of product appearance through the use of specially-designed top films,” he says.

Multivac’s Lericos describes it as a vacuum package where a special clear, high-gloss top film has been pre-heated and then vacuum “skinned” and sealed onto and around the product to a more rigid bottom web of film or tray. The film seals itself to all exposed surfaces of the bottom structure not covered by the product, giving the product a suspended and “premium” look. It’s available for both thermoforming and tray sealing technology.

Professor of Food Science Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State Univ. says skin packaging can be defined as any type of packaging that surrounds a food product’s natural form. This packaging process is used extensively in meat and poultry packaging. But for Cutter, also a food safety extension specialist at PSU, a main advantage of skin packaging is the amount of microbial control it exerts in the fresh meat and poultry processing industry. She says food packaging, including skin packaging for meat and poultry, can play a role in preventing pathogens in products, as well as lengthening the amount of time products can remain fresh.

Cutter wrote an article about the great amount of microbial control, thanks to skin packaging and other types of containers. “Packaging materials have provided the means to suppress microbial growth, as well as protect foods from external microbial contamination,” she says in an article she wrote for Food Science and Nutrition. The piece, called “Microbial Control by Packaging: A Review,” points out the great importance food packaging plays in keeping food, including meat and poultry, safe for consumers, as well as lengthening the time the product can be sold to consumers. Cutter says skin packaging, which can include modified atmosphere, controlled atmosphere and vacuum packing generally reduce the growth rate of microorganisms and can do an even better job if the products are kept colder, with no temperature abuse, and that the risks of foodborne pathogens could be less because of the packaging, lessening the growth of some foodborne pathogens and spoilage bacteria.

Lericos points to other food safety advantages of skin packaging. “The absence of oxygen in a skin package improves shelf life and results in reduced loss due to product expiration. If a skin package leaks, it will be instantly noticeable. Even a small leak will result in an air pocket bubble around the product, if not complete delamination,” he says. “In this way, leakers and therefore early spoilage are more detectable than non-skin pack MAP (modified atmosphere) packaging has been in the past.”

European popularity

Lericos says skin pack popularity has grown a great deal in the US and Canada, but the growth has been especially rapid in Europe. “Skin packaging is very popular in Europe for protein suppliers, where the vast majority of packages are now converted to skin pack. This is primarily the case for fresh red meat but is now beginning to show up with poultry products as well,” he says. “In the US, the fresh seafood industry has made a major move into packaging, largely because of the shelf appearance and marketable attributes of the package.” The meat and poultry side here in the US is moving into VSP starting with more specialty products and into premium channels like Whole Foods, he says.

Lericos points to two major trends in the meat, poultry and food processing industries that skin packaging lends itself to: the continued popularity of trays used in skin packaging, and the growth of online shopping, ready meals, meal kits, and the move to meals with multiple components. Packaged foods within the same sealed package are more complete and consumer convenient than a single meal component, he says.

Ryan notes an advantage to skin pack is that the film flows over the product and acts like a mold, as opposed to a traditional vacuum pack, where the film can end up being wrinkly. “Part of it is about appearance, and sealing the film right up to the package,” he says.

He points to a couple of new innovations in skin packaging at the company, including the Platformer, a new thermal former from G. Mondini in Italy, whose products Harpak-Ulma distributes in the US and Canada. The former produces high quality trays ready for product loading and feeding right into tray sealers. The film is cut to the length of the tray, resulting in a great amount of film saving, with only 2 percent scrap loss. It’s delivered to the belt or chain conveyor and can be loaded. Harpak-Ulma also offers customers technology for tray production. “It’s very exciting for our customers to be able to make their own trays as they’re needed, instead of having to order the trays from the outside. They can design their own trays at an inexpensive price,” he points out.

A new skin packaging innovation from Multivac is its skin packaging technology with an additional perimeter seal for added security, called its MultiFresh package. “Customers that require additional product safety or longer shelf life may add this perimeter seal to an already very tightly-sealed package,” Lericos says. “The company also has developed a combination of MultiFresh skin technology and LIPForm allowing the creation of a thermoformed package with exceptional skin packaging attributes plus with the feel and structure of pre-formed trays,” Lericos reports. There is also the FormShrink package, a meat cut skin package where the film has fully surrounded the meat portion, with no rigid bottom web or tray type structure.

Both Harpak-Ulma and Multivac offer skin packaging equipment to smaller processors, as well as the giants of the meat processing industry. They also have packaging technology for small portions like sliced deli meats up to large cuts like beef roasts. And both companies say small processors can move into larger production capabilities without compromising their unique package appearance and quality.