Despite all the buzz this year over plant-based proteins and boneless meats seasoned with ethnic flavors, bone-in products are still prominent in the meat case, on menus and in consumer mindsets.

Bone-in proteins comprise a healthy portion of the record-level of meat production in the US this year. Bone-in meats have long been touted by chefs and eaters as offering more inherent flavor, but these cuts have also been shown to improve gut health (via the accompanying collagen, gelatin and glycine), reflect the “whole animal” movement in an era where food waste is increasingly avoided and are often cheaper than boneless meats. Beyond brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants, many consumers are ordering traditional bone-in cuts like premium steaks and chops from online purveyors.

The need for packaging for bone-in products that protects meat, reduces rework and delivers the best and safest eating experience – wherever it may be and however the meat is purchased – has been a priority for as long as bone-in cuts have been sold. But as channels expand, global markets grow and consumers’ preferences and habits evolve, packaging is tweaked for all types of protein products, including bone-in items.

Looking good

Whether it’s because shoppers and foodservice staff are pressed for time or simply want to see what they are buying and using, presentation is an important factor in bone-in meat packaging, for products that are fresh, seasoned/marinated/sauced or fully cooked. “High shrink is important, because you want to see the product, not the package,” points out Brian Conrad, marketing manager, for Amcor, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Amcor, which acquired Bemis Co. Inc. in June, develops and produces responsible packaging for the food business and other industries, including flexible and rigid packaging, specialty cartons and closures.

Other features of bone-in packaging reflect the need for an attractive, clear presentation. According to Shawn Harris, director of marketing, fresh red meat, for the Cryovac division of Sealed Air Corp., Charlotte, North Carolina, clear patches are more in demand, to enable high quality graphics or a clear product view. A common solution for bone-in products, he says, is the multi-layer TBG bag with built-in bone guard protection for vacuum packaging fresh meats.

In addition to its high abuse, multi-layer TBG bag with built-in bone guard protection for vacuum packaging fresh meats, Cryovac also offers an Optidure line of packaging for high abuse bone-in portions that allows for better gloss, clarity and, from a functionality perspective, sealability.

TC Transcontinental, Chicago, has responded to growing interest in packaging that allows people to clearly see the product by offering a ClearShield patchless technology. Processors can still brand their products through graphics that can be printed on chosen areas of the front and back of the bag.

The multi-layer TBG bag from the Cryovac division of Sealed Air Corp. features built-in bone guard protection for vacuum packaging fresh meats.

Waste not, want not

It’s not a bone of contention, exactly, but it is a pretty strong demand: Consumers are asking for more sustainable packaging across the board, starting a movement that is impacting the packaged meat market. According to research and analysis from Innova Market Insights, the sustainability tipping point for packaging has been reached, and innovative recyclable packaging likely will be regularly rolled out going forward.

“Processors are looking for anything that helps them take out labor and cost, and improve sustainability,” Conrad says, summing up processors’ top demands for bone-in packaging.

That said, bone-in packages can be more challenging than other protein packages when it comes to sustainable materials and forms, given the importance of protecting the product from punctures and tears and preventing leakage. The thinner films that work on some meat items aren’t effective for some high-abuse bone-in offerings.

Amcor, which pledged last year to develop all its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025, has directed much focus on more sustainable packaging solutions. “Our CBP shrink bags are one product for bone-in that addresses such requests, from customers concerned about chlorine in packaging,” Conrad explains, citing concerns about the post-consumption burning of packaging material containing chlorine.

The lack of chlorine is called out by other packaging suppliers, including Flavorseal. The Avon, Ohio-based company’s bone guard meat shrink bags are designed for high-abuse products and are also chlorine-free, promoted as an “environmental food packaging solutions.”

In addition to the removal of chlorine in shrink bags, Conrad highlights other aspects of bone-in meat and poultry packaging structured for sustainability. The next step, he says, is to develop packaging that truly can be worked into the recycling stream; while mixed layers can reduce packaging, he points out, the current recycling stream requires clean and dry packaging, something that meat packaging rarely is. “The question is ‘How do we get to curbside recycling?’ That requires working with partners,” Conrad says.

There are other ways to make bone-in packages more sustainable. Flexible packages tend to be lighter in weight, using fewer materials, than rigid packaging. Processors can work to “right size” their packaging for their products, to reduce waste/scrap and rework.

Using eco-friendlier materials is another way to provide the sustainable packaging that consumers want and that manufacturers are promising. Sealed Air recently announced that it is working on producing plant-based food packaging in one of its facilities in South Carolina, using Plantic plant-based resin and post-consumer plastic. The Australia-based Plantic offers a variety of plant-based high natural barrier solutions for bone-in meat and poultry products, including pre-made trays and thermoform material.

Easing into it

Convenience and ease of use, perennial drivers of package development, continue to make a mark on the packaging of bone-in products – sometimes literally.

Flavorseal, for example, has used its patented seasoning “transfer technology” to create a one-step process that forms, applies flavor, color and pattern to both boneless and bone-in cuts. The seasoned tight-weave netting is more convenient for processors, who don’t have to apply spices the same way, as well as more cost-effective in reducing labor and waste.

Meanwhile, the struggle isn’t real for consumers, butchers and foodservice professionals, at least as real as it used to be, when opening packages of bone-in products. Package structures for bone-in proteins are designed for quicker and easier opening, like Cryovac’s Grip & Tear total bone guard packaging that protects the product from punctures but is quick and simpler to open and use.

Finally, as processors are cooking up solutions for fully prepared meats, ovenable packaging for bone-in products is another option. Amcor, for example, offers ovenable packaging for fully cooked protein cuts including ribs. The UK-based Sirane offers a nylon packaging solution used for cooking bone-in meats, like whole birds. The packaging solution can be flow-wrapped, vacuum packaged or used as bags with ties.