While delivering a quality meat or poultry product is the job of the meat or poultry processor, maintaining the product’s freshness and safety falls under the packaging umbrella. Processors look to their packaging equipment suppliers to provide the technology they need in order to deliver quality packaged products to their customers each and every time.

Packaging has a three-fold purpose. First, it protects product from any damage that could occur during shipping either to foodservice customers, retailers or even when shipped directly to the consumer. Packaging is also the key to shelf life extension in meat and poultry products. And when it comes to keeping food safe from contamination, adulteration and other food safety risks, packaging is the primary method of protecting meat and poultry products.

Choosing the best method of packaging and the right supplier to partner with is something every processor needs to consider on an individual basis. Factors to consider include:

  • the type of product being packaged;
  • the desired shelf life for the product;
  • whether the product needs to be resealable;
  • the equipment footprint requirements in the production facility;
  • how the equipment will fit into the existing production process upstream and downstream; and
  • any on-package printing that may be required.

Thermoforming technology is one option that fits the needs of many meat processors. The technology is flexible, versatile, efficient and customizable.

Used in a variety of industries including food, thermoforming is a manufacturing process where a plastic sheet or film is heated to a temperature where it is pliable and can be formed to a specific shape in a mold. After cooling the packaging retains the shape of the mold or product that was packaged.

Vacuum forming uses heat and pressure to pull the plastic film into the desired configuration once the sheet is heated and placed over the mold. Pressure forming is a similar process but uses additional pressure to create a package that can allow for more detail and texture.

Multivac Group, based in Wolfertschwenden, Germany, with US headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, is a leading manufacturer of thermoforming packaging machines. “We have many years’ experience in the manufacturing of packaging machines and deliver more than 1,000 machines each year all over the world,” according to the company. “Each machine is individually designed to meet requirements with regard to pack design, output and efficient use of resources. Reliability, durability and comprehensive service make our thermoforming packaging machines a resilient link in your production chain.”

Tray-free options

Traysealing is a common go-to option for meat processors looking for shelf-life and food safety packaging advantages. Unlike with thermoformers, tray sealing machines require pre-existing trays. The product is placed in the tray and then the plastic film is sealed over the tray.

“Traysealing is a more economical alternative to thermoforming from a capital expenditure point of view as the machines and tooling are somewhat less expensive than the comparable thermoforming alternative. They may also allow for flexibility as some processors will load the preformed tray and use it to convey product through their processing facility, even before packaging,” explains Drew Lericos, marketing director for packaging at Multivac Inc. “The advantage of thermoforming is the cost of the forming materials is less than the cost of preformed trays, so while capital expenditure may be higher, cost of goods is lower. It also eliminates the need for transportation and inventory of large quantities of pre-formed trays needed for upcoming production. Ultimately, depending on the specifics of the package, processors typically can get more output through thermoforming than traysealing, but it’s very contingent on the actual product being packaged and pack design.”

Multivac thermoforming packaging machines are designed for packaging all meat proteins, says Christian Uebele, product market manager – thermoformers at Multivac. “Our machines offer prolonged product shelf life, excellent presentation of the finished product, quality of seals and structure for package security and industry leading uptime and machine reliability.”

Other features include:

  • hygienic design to reduce time needed for sanitation;
  • repeatable package performance; and
  • machines that can be configured to specific requirements and retrofitted for future needs.

“Thermoforming helps reduce cost by forming the bottom web tray on the packaging machine versus buying a more expensive pre-formed tray,” Uebele says. “This also eliminates the need for significant warehouse space for storing inventory of pre-formed trays that will be needed for production.”

Staying flexible

Thermoforming packaging offers meat and poultry processors the sought-after benefit of flexibility, not only in the types of products that can be packaged using this technology but also the flexibility in the packaging technology itself.

Battleboro, North Carolina-based Ossid LLC, a ProMach company, features its ReeForm series thermoforming packaging machines. The series includes machines from entry-level to flexible and compact models up to high-performance machines. The frames and sheeting of the machines are all stainless steel which makes for easy sanitation and washdown, and the machine’s easy-open frame provides users with easy access to check, adjust and repair the equipment.

“The benefit of the ReeForm series is the capability of switching between flex/flex, semi-rigid, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and vacuum skin packaging (VSP) in one machine model,” says Jason Angel, vice president of Ossid LLC. “This removes the stress of requiring multiple different machines to perform each different function.”

The ReeForm series provides processors with a number of options to customize the machine to best suit the products being packaged, including:

  • remote monitoring and diagnostics;
  • integration and supply of thermal transfer printers, printers, labelers, etc.;
  • integration of product feeder/loaders, fillers, etc.;
  • preheat station; and
  • package development and prototyping services.

Taunton, Massachusetts-based Harpak-ULMA also offers a wide range of thermoforming packaging machines from the entry level TFS 200 to the high capacity production TFS 700 models. “From simple to complex, we can meet all of our customers packaging requirements and for any application,” says Dave Favret, product manager, TFS, at Harpak-ULMA. “Our machines deliver flexibility, reliability and longevity. ULMA packaging machines are easy to operate, easy to clean and built to last.”

Merchandising benefits

The features and advantages of thermoforming packaging technology go beyond those that benefit the production process. Many can be passed on to the retail, foodservice or even consumer end-users. Common advantages include extended shelf life, leak-proof packages, easy-to-open packages and improved presentation on the retail shelf, says Favret.

“Our TFS machines offer advantages with improved shelf life in a variety of ways depending on the product requirements. This includes vacuum and MAP packages in both flexible film and semi-rigid package applications and vacuum skin packaging,” Favret says. “VSP offers retailers the capability to display these packages on the retail shelf vertically, without liquid purge and optimal consumer presentation.”

Multivac’s goal is to provide its processor customers with the tools they need to meet the needs of their customers – the consumers. “Package technologies available on Multivac machines provide the consumer with a sense of overall product quality,” Uebele says. “There are many options which are tailored to satisfy our customers’ specific requirements, such as VSP, zipper packs, etc.”

Extending shelf life in the meat case is another demand retailers make of their meat suppliers, a demand of which they pass on to their packaging suppliers. “Multivac MAP and VSP packages are known to increase shelf life for longer transportation requirements and extended merchandising on the retail shelf,” Uebele adds.

Thermoforming machines also provide processors with the opportunity to add graphics and printing to the packaging film. This allows for the product packaging to deliver the marketing, nutrition and branding information that retailers want to pass on to their consumer customers.

“Packaging films run on Multivac equipment can be pre-printed and registered for excellent graphics and brand communication,” Uebele explains. “Labels can also be applied in place of pre-printed film or in addition to. Bottom web trays can be formed with embossed logos of the processor’s brand or tagline on a rigid bottom web film.”