KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Like many other segments in the food industry, meat and poultry packaging is evolving with more aesthetically pleasing and more functional packages. There are stand-up pouches (SUP), flat bottom bags, and other styles designed to display well on shelves or cases in the refrigerated and frozen sections. There are also more options for zippered bags and other reclosable styles.

Let’s face it, handling meat and poultry can get messy, so many producers are looking to provide an alternative to make the product easier to buy in the supermarket, prepare and store.

The latest National Meat Case Study shows that fresh meats case ready penetration has grown from 49 percent to 81 percent between 2002 to 2018. For beef, that number is up to 53 percent; ground beef, 83 percent; pork, 74 percent; and chicken, 94 percent.

“Across all proteins, PVC Overwrap – though still the most predominant package type in the case – has shrunk from 51 percent to 34 percent, while vacuum, regardless of package type, has grown from 10 percent to 29 percent in that same time period,” said Shawn Harris, director of retail business development for Sealed Air, a packaging company in Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute FMI and Nielsen, whose US headquarters are in New York, 70 percent of homes will purchase food online by 2025, which includes home delivery from the supermarkets. Harris notes this provides an opportunity for leak-proof packaging that takes up a small amount of space.

“This alone should drive the trend of increased vacuum package penetration we have witnessed in the National Meat Case Study,” he said.

Rafael Rivera, manager of food safety and production programs for the US Poultry and Egg Association, Tucker, Georgia, has noticed a rising interest in having more individualized packaging for ease of storage.

“Many consumers might buy fresh chicken but end up freezing it, so packaging should be able to protect the freshness and quality of that product,” he said. “Also, a package should be able to protect the safety and quality of the product and also be able to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.”

These individual packs can also have special marination to provide diversity in flavors.

John Kelly, marketing director – poultry/processed meats for Cryovac Brand Food Packaging, a division of Sealed Air, notes that easy open materials and packages that are “freezer ready” are becoming more and more popular.  

“The continued migration to more retail case ready packaging provides an opportunity for retailers to improve consistency, reduce labor costs and increase sales through a reduction in out of stocks,” he said. “These innovations also enhance the consumer’s experience when interfacing with these proteins.”

Kim Magon-Haller, marketing manager for Triangle Package Machinery Company, a Chicago-based manufacturer of vertical-form-fill-seal (VFFS) bagging machines and weighers, continue to see meat and poultry packagers who are looking for flexibility.

“They want to run a variety of package styles geared toward various product lines or for multiple uses, such as retail and foodservice. They’d like bags with reclosable zippers. And they want to run it all on the same machine,” she said. “Fortunately, there are new innovations designed to help fulfill this request for flexibility.”

Rich Cisek, CEO of Peco-Inspx, a San Carlos, California-based food safety company, said the demand for high protein, ready-to-eat and pre-cooked/marinated meat and poultry products has increased dramatically, which has changed the style of the packaging, but more so the marketing of the product.

“Additionally, with the increase in transportation costs, packaging for meat and poultry has become much more efficient in terms of space,” he said. “We are seeing more innovation around minimizing package materials while maximizing presentation and safety. To this end, vacuum sealing has helped significantly.”  

Packaging leads to sales

Proper packaging presents meat and poultry products in a way that convinces consumers to buy the items.

“Presentation and the information that is printed on the package should be simple and straightforward enough for a customer to get the information they need about the product before buying it,” Rivera said. “It is important that a customer is able to assess the quality of the product before buying it, so the package has to provide a way to do that.”

Product placement on the shelf is also important for big sales. Rivera notes a product should be accessible so that a customer can look at it and compare similar products in a short period of time.

“In the grocery store, packaging is what first catches the consumer’s eye. Bright colorful graphics that attract consumers, portray your product, and convey your company’s image all make an impression,” Magon-Haller said. “Obviously, you want that impression to be positive. Clear packaging that allows the consumer to see the actual product inside is also popular. Good packaging is also important for quality control, as quality film and strong, airtight seals will prolong product life.”

She notes that the company’s meat and poultry customers often run a combination of foodservice bags and retail packages, so it’s important that their retail packages look aesthetically pleasing in a display case.

“To catch the attention of retail shoppers, many customers choose to run Stand-Up Pouches, zippered bags, quad-seal/4-corner, or flat bottom bags,” Magon-Haller said. “Our Model XYRJ VFFS bagger, which we introduced just a couple years ago, has been a popular choice among frozen foods packagers for this very reason. It features an easily rotatable sealing jaw that allows food packagers to run pillow bags, 3-sided seal pouches, Stand-Up Pouches (SUP) and zippered bags, all on the same bagging machine.”

Harris said you only get one chance to make an impression, which is why safe, fresh and delicious are things on which brands and retailers cannot compromise and proper packaging ensures delivery of those promises.

“There are several ways to call out packaging innovation, including traditional mailers, closed circuit TV, and social media,” he said.

Retailers and processors that cater to consumer convenience can realize dollar gains from premium products such as boneless, exact-weight, etc. Also, healthy and socially conscious shoppers are driving the growth of organic and antibiotic-free options in the meat case, bringing in new consumers and additional sales to this category. 

“Retailers can utilize point of sale and point of purchase collateral to highlight the benefits of case ready packaging and convenience features,” Kelly said.

Cisek said the latest innovations for meat and poultry packaging are largely driven to increase marketing/branding opportunities, transportation savings, food safety, and consumer happiness. 

“There are several elements that create a culinary experience, including taste, experience, company, presentation, odor, etc.,” he said. “When it comes to purchasing meat and poultry products there are also several factors to drive a good experience including the packaging, transparency of ingredients, look and feel, portability, eco-friendliness and of course safety.” 

He suggests retailers add a variety of different elements to packaging to draw attention to consumers. Popup stands, bright colors, mascots, labeling, and packaging styles are just a few examples.

Green measures

Another concern that is driving the demand for innovative packaging is the environmental impact of packaging and food waste.

“New packages for meat and poultry should be able to address that concern in the future, so you have to consider packaging disposal that is environmentally friendly after use,” Rivera said. “Packaging also needs to consider the protection of that product, so it should be able to extend shelf life and maintain overall quality and safety of that product so that there’s a reduced need to throw the product away along with the packaging.”

For instance, two of Sealed Air’s latest sustainable food packaging innovations are Cryovac brand plant-based roll stock, designed for recycling and Cryovac brand Darfresh skin packaging options made with recycled PET materials. Harris notes there is heavy interest in this meat and poultry packaging because of rising consumers’ desires to save the planet.

“The Darfresh on Tray vacuum skin meat packaging helps extend the shelf life of case-ready fresh meat,” he said. “A sustainable solution, this package offers 100 percent film utilization, meaning zero scrap and zero film going into the landfill. Additionally, the meat packaging provides excellent merchandising with premium features, such as easy-open, leak-proof and freezer-ready.”

Also, consumers are more interested in knowing exactly what is in their food, so transparent packaging and easy to read labeling can help convey key information.

“As consumers look for more information about where their meat comes from, what is in their food and how it was produced, packaging can be a powerful messenger to provide the detail they seek,” Kelly said.