Bone-in packaging is used for a variety of products including ribs, chops, steaks, whole birds and hams.

The bone keeps the flavor in a cut of meat or poultry. The trick is keeping the bone in the package.

Packaging offering strength without inhibiting appearance delivers peace of mind for processors and retailers whose priority is to provide safe products, free of any punctures or tears. From a consumer standpoint, improvements in bone-in packaging have helped extend shelf life and assure the quality of the preparation and eating experience.

Retail meat cases and foodservice menus have always had a certain amount of bone-in products across the spectrum of proteins, from portioned cuts like ribs, chops and steaks to whole birds and hams. While the boneless cuts took off years ago for convenience and, in some cases, health reasons, the market for bone-in items has done relatively well this year due to shifting consumer habits.

“Prior to COVID-19, consumers and restaurant diners alike were already awakening to the flavor advantages of bone-in cuts of meat, driving sales upward. Since COVID-19 we have seen strong growth in the number and cuts leaving the plants bone-in,” said Mike Rosinski, marketing director of fresh red meat, poultry and alternative proteins with the Cryovac division of Sealed Air Corp., Charlotte, NC.

Rob Taylor, director of marketing, protein, for the Chicago-headquartered TC Transcontinental Packaging, agrees that pandemic-related cooking habits have influenced the bone-in meat category.

“As the number of people cooking at home is increasing, it’s more important than ever for packers to provide reliable, attractively packaged product to the retail shelves,” he said.

Appealing attributes

TC Transcontinental packaging

To Taylor’s point, consumer-facing packaging for bone-in cuts requires materials and designs that appeal to today’s choosy customers.

“The greatest challenge processors need to address with bone-in packaging is to provide excellent bone puncture protection and barrier while still presenting a visually appealing product on the retail shelf,” he said.

He cited TC Transcontinental Packaging’s Clearshield shrink bag that provides toughness without an unsightly patch and that is available with 10-color printing on the front and back. Clearshield shrink bags can be used on St. Louis-style ribs that require the best possible optics for retail presentation as well as a full bone-in pork loin that must have puncture resistance, Taylor noted.

Cryovac has also made improvements to packaging meat and poultry products with aesthetics in mind along with strength. Cryovac’s OptiDure packaging line for high-abuse products is designed for optimal clarity and the company also offers a clear patch for bone-in items that can be used to enhance (or at least not detract from) retail appearance.

Recently, consumer interest in more sustainable packaging has extended to the meat case. According to Taylor, the thinner gauge of the Clearshield bag provides a sustainability benefit and helps processors in their efforts to reduce packaging materials and have a better product-to-package ratio. Many, if not most, other packaging material and equipment suppliers are also working closely with processors to meet sustainability goals.

Making dollars and sense

Amcor Flow-Tite packaging

Saving on labor and costs is always a priority for meat and poultry plants, but it’s especially true in today’s environment, with ongoing COVID-19 issues and economic uncertainties. Among other benefits, Taylor said the Clearshield packaging solution works well with challenging cuts like pork butts and picnics, allowing processors to reduce rework while maintaining the desired presentation. TC Transcontinental also has introduced in-line bagger machines that allow processors to create their own Clearshield bags on demand directly on their packaging lines.

At Cryovac, Rosinski reported that recent consumer demand for more bone-in multipacks – largely driven by people staying and cooking more at home – has resulted in more pounds being moved through the plant with less labor.

He also underscores the circumstances that are leading toward the greater use of technologies in meat and poultry plants.

“As we work towards the more highly automated meat plant of the future, we will leverage our Cryovac TBG Bags as well as our expanding offering of patchless high-abuse bags to ensure our materials work in harmony with our automation solutions,” he said, adding that the pandemic is having an impact on the embrace of automation. “Our experience with COVID-19 in meat plants has highlighted the need to re-double our efforts towards realizing automation and a touch-free packaging floor. Cryovac brand TBG bags are an important enabler that will help us make that a reality.”

Mark McCarney, marketing manager for Amcor Flexibles North America, Oshkosh, Wis., agreed that automation will be a part of efforts to cut costs and find new efficiencies.

“With today’s complex operational challenges and unprecedented cost pressures squeezing profits in categories already experiencing razor-thin margins, Amcor is helping to solve these by delivering automated packing solutions fit for the future of essential fresh food manufacturers,” he reported.

Amcor is offering automated solutions as an alternative to conventional pre-made bags that are safer for people and cut labor, rework and material costs by as much as half. Those solutions include Amcor’s Flow-Tite and Form-Tite shrink rollstock solutions for flow-wrap and thermoformed packaging equipment.

Those shrink rollstock solutions, available in a range of thickness options, also work well in the current operating climate.

“Our automated solutions allow for fewer operators in a confined space, as social distancing may become the norm. It’s also more efficient in a high demand, sometimes 24/7 operating environment,” McCarney explained.

Amcor offers another alternative to the pre-made shrink by pairing Amcor bone-in and boneless tubestock with on-demand bagging equipment.

“Most hard-to-package bone-in products have traditionally resorted to custom-sized ‘patch bags.’ Amcor has high abuse bone-in materials that can be supplied in continuous tubestock format to be sized and sealed to fit every product at the touch of a button,” McCarney said.

In addition to appealing to consumers and helping processors stem costs, better bone-in packaging helps retailers as they face their own challenges and opportunities.

McCarney said that Amcor is increasingly bringing pre-packaged case-ready meat solutions to major retailer coolers with improved masterpack and motherbag technologies. Available in both rollstock and motherbag format, these packaging solutions also help retailers reduce their own environmental footprint.