The packaged meat sections of supermarkets might have seemed slightly barren or picked over this past spring. Demand for groceries skyrocketed in the wake of restaurants and foodservice establishments closing. With the increase in home-cooked meals, people began stockpiling food and filling their freezers in anticipation of supply shortages.

Packaging companies are quickly adapting to these changes in consumer behavior.

Consumers value increased shelf life and buying in bulk as they take fewer trips to grocery stores. Meat processors and retailers are looking for case-ready packaging that is cost-effective, looks attractive to shoppers and meets sustainability goals of reducing waste.

Barrier packaging is the obvious solution that satisfies both consumers and retailers. Vacuum-sealed packages extend the shelf life of cuts of meat and ensure that products are less susceptible to freezer burn.

Traditional foam tray and plastic overwrap systems that have been the norm for meat packaging likely won’t disappear anytime soon, said Lee Coffey, marketing manager at Amcor. But high-barrier packaging can provide many advantages for retailers and consumers.

High-barrier packaging often makes the most sense for high-value cuts of meat like steak and bone-in cuts that can spoil faster,” Coffey said. “As consumers continue to stockpile grocery purchases in response to COVID-19, high-barrier vacuum packaging makes a lot of sense given that it eliminates air exposure, extending shelf life, preventing freezer burn and thus preserving quality.”

Amcor is using what it calls “extended shelf-life film” in the poultry sector to combine two important elements of case-ready packaging: increasing shelf life and reducing the unappealing smell of raw poultry.

Typically, when boneless, skinless chicken breasts are put into barrier packaging it traps the natural smell of raw poultry in the package. Thus, when consumers open it up, they often believe the chicken is spoiled because of the naturally strong odor and the meat is thrown away.

“We’re combining the best of both worlds by adding barrier components to the packaging while also adding an antimicrobial to control the odor,” Coffey said.

The pandemic has changed how consumers shop and what they shop for. Many people are increasingly uneasy about spending a lot of time in grocery stores and interacting with store clerks at places like meat counters.

Personal shopping apps and grocery delivery services are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to going to the store. According to research from McKinsey & Co. over the summer, there was a 41% increase in online grocery shopping since the pandemic started, and the trend is not expected to decrease.

“Prepackaged case-ready meats can also save shoppers time at the grocery store, eliminating wait time for a butcher and streamlining the selection process for grocery delivery services like Shipt or Instacart that may be doing the shopping for you,” Coffey said.

Consumers and retailers see value in simplifying the grocery shopping experience and reducing the number of people handling food.

Cutting waste

Harpak-Ulma's PlatformerPlus machine reduces scrap waste and reduces the reliance on pre-made trays. (Source: Harpak-Ulma)

Retailers are using case-ready packaging to achieve sustainability goals. Many major retailers are shifting away from wasteful products like foam trays and stretch plastic meat packages.

Sustainability and waste reduction are not just environmental initiatives for many major retailers, they are also a way to save money. The cost of raw materials and labor impact the economic equation for meat companies. Reducing transportation and storage costs go a long way to bringing the price down for processors.

Harpak-Ulma is reducing waste for its customers by eliminating the reliance on pre-made trays for cuts of meat. Harpak-Ulma’s Platformer packaging machine uses large rolls of film and forms trays out of the plastic specific to each product.

The Platformer produces as low as 2% of scrap waste and allows for about eight times more trays to fit onto a truck than if a packer was using preform trays, said Jim Ryan, manager of tray sealing at Harpak-Ulma. “This could take about 50 trucks off the road and the associated carbon emissions.”

Retailers and processors are also saving money on the physical footprint of the product in the warehouse and the labor necessary to load it. There is about 35% to 38% in material cost savings because processors will be making the trays in-house instead of using a vendor, Ryan said.

Harpak-Ulma is leaning into sustainability trends with a “paper-seal” product as well. Paper-seal provides the advantage of extending shelf life using barrier technology while using recyclable paper that makes up about 90% of the packaging.

“It can be produced in a matte package with a lid or you can make it a skin package,” Ryan said.

Skin packaging is similar to traditional vacuum-sealed packages but provides a wrinkle-free texture. The film is molded on top of the product while it is hot without harming the cut of meat. The “skin” layer of plastic offers a barrier to oxygen while also providing a more attractive presentation of the product.

Kansas City, Mo.-based Multivac has two skin-packaging technologies: Multifresh and Multiskin. Both provide case-ready packaging solutions that reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the product.

“This lack of oxygen along with proper refrigeration extends the shelf life of fresh whole muscle meats beyond that of gas flush packages,” said Christian Uebele, product market manager of thermoformers at Multivac. “Depending upon the market, the same product can cater to either the bargain bin customer or to the premium product customer based upon the presentation.”

The grocery trends that shaped the past year will continue as the pandemic drags on into 2021. Consumers are expected to continue to cook more at home and make fewer trips to the grocery store. Meat companies and grocery retailers want to provide more case-ready packaging solutions that allow shelves to remain full while reducing the amount of meat that ends up in the dumpster.