According to Perishables Group, ground beef represented 40 percent of the category share of beef sales by cut type in the US for 2018. From bulk distributors to foodservice, boutique purveyors and grocery stores, the packaging of ground beef provides and showcases attributes of the product necessary for optimum value.

Bricks and clips

Food safety is always a top priority for meat processors and some ground beef packers have begun to trend toward options reflective of a surge in foreign material recalls. On March 8, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced new best practices for the industry that included faster response time for recalls due to a recent spike in consumer complaints about possible product contamination due to metal, plastic or other foreign material.

“FSIS has placed renewed emphasis on industry responding to customer complaints of foreign materials in meat and poultry and, as required, reporting those incidents to the agency within 24 hours once the determination has been made that the product is adulterated,” Carmen Rottenberg, FSIS Administrator, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with industry and offer guidance to assist them in complying with agency regulations.”

Guenter Kuhl, sales support for Canton Massachusetts-based Reiser, says many processors have gone to thermoformed 1-lb. vacuum packed bricks instead of chub packaging.

“They don’t want the metal clip,” he says.

However, chubs do have certain advantages over the brick packs, such as a barrier preventing oxidation (protects color).

“Once you open it up it blooms bright red almost immediately upon exposing to atmospheric oxygen,” says Dan Siegel, Ph.D., owner of Deli Star Corp. and packaging consultant for Bemis Co. Inc.

That color will last up to 35 days without issue according to Siegel, which makes the worry with chub packaging microbiological. In terms of microbiology, vacuum-sealed brick packs shine.

Kuhl says brick packs provide a slight improvement in shelf life because the vacuum seal is tighter than a chub. The length of the improved shelf life depends on how the meat has been handled up to the point of packaging.

“It really depends entirely on how fresh the meat is,” Kuhl says. “If somebody can control it from kill all the way through, you will see the highest improvement. But if they take it in large 40-lb. chubs, reopen it and then reuse it, then it’s a different story.” Kuhl adds it can increase shelf life anywhere from a day to a week.

Large and small processors alike gravitate to the 1-lb. bricks, according to Kuhl. The main difference between the two is the smaller processor prefers flexibility when choosing packaging strategies while larger packers look more at solid volume.

“For the smaller guys it is very important that it’s flexible. So, sometimes they want to do the 1-lb. bricks and then 5 minutes later they want to do hamburger patties,” Kuhl says. “The smaller guys need a lot of flexibility, the bigger guys invest more in fully automatic lines running 1-lb. ground beef bricks almost 24/7.”

The foodservice segment also prefers the vacuum-packed bricks but likes them in a larger size, 5-lb. to 10-lb. packs shaped more like a rectangle.

“People like Five Guys prefer taking it in 5 pounders and proportioning it themselves,” Kuhl says. “Now there is a little bit of a trend where these kinds of customers want this pre-portioned so they have better control over it. They want pucks of their portion size, whatever it is, 4-oz., 6-oz., 8-oz. portions and have them actually individually packaged, or in a bulk pack. They want, let’s say 10 little pucks in a package and when they open the package if they want two burgers, they just take two out and then they smash them down or press them down to make a nice hamburger patty.”

Foodservice customers prefer the pucks to be vacuum packed, as well.

New technology

Another commonality among meat processing plants large and small continues to be labor, or more specifically a lack thereof. Companies across the country have cited a shortage of labor as the No. 1 issue they face. Many have moved to automation wherever they can within production to eliminate the need for humans and complete the necessary tasks with machines.

“As always, automation is a big thing. It’s so tough to come by people that want to work, so we focus a lot on automation – from our Vemags to our robots to loading belts, fully automatic loading belts – to take the human factor out,” Kuhl says. “Machines usually show up on Monday.”

Innovation in the packaging arena comes in many iterations. Harpak Ulma brings a new innovation to the table in the form of augmented reality. In the latter half of 2018 Harpak joined the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork Program as an OEM machine builder. The company’s G. Mondini and Ulma machines now provide augmented reality through smart manufacturing software company PTC.

Kevin Roach, president and CEO of Harpak Ulma, agrees that labor stands as the top challenge his customers face. He adds skilled technicians to maintain, repair and program the machines providing automation to that list.

“The augmented reality creates a digital three-dimensional, animated twin of the machine for use with available tablets, smartphones and smart glasses,” Roach says. “It is spatially accurate and doesn’t require any additional work to the machine.”

The technology allows for animated work flow and provides the means for a step-by-step digital re-tool. A technician at the machine with a device can be linked to a remote technician with a device who can show the field tech what needs to be done to the machine in real time. Circling parts, drawing arrows pointing to certain areas and even questions asked back and forth occur with both techs accessing an exact three-dimensional model of the machine.

“It can be used for training, with no language barrier, and as a living shop manual,” Roach says.

Roach says the technology will launch and be available soon on all of Harpak Ulma’s packaging machines and lines. The company estimates a 30 to 50 percent gain in human productivity from augmented reality.

Roach and Harpak Ulma might be considered early adopters of smart technology and augmented reality in the packaging world, but Roach believes it’s the future. He also believes being an OEM builder with the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork Program is the first step toward a new type of automation.

“IoT, AI, machine learning, big data, predictive maintenance, and augmented reality are just a few of the ways that connected machines promise to improve packaging operations and reduce total cost of ownership,” Roach says, “but realizing those benefits will require nothing short of rethinking packaging automation. By forging closer ties with Rockwell Automation and PTC, we can create innovative solutions and deliver them faster than any company can working independently.”