Consumers have become more discerning when it comes to buying meat and poultry at retail. They expect to be able to see what they are purchasing, and they expect packaged meat products to be aesthetically pleasing.
Traditional overwrap packaging does not always allow customers to see the size, quality or texture of a cut of meat or poultry. More meat processors and packers are choosing to package products in vacuum skin packaging (VSP) because it gently protects products while also providing an attractive and increasingly shelf-stable solution that is adaptable to many types of material and equipment.
“The film forms around the product, which makes a much more attractive package,” said Christian Uebele, director of product innovation and technical training at Multivac USA, based in Kansas City, Mo. “The beauty of it is that the product sticks above the webline. It’s above the tray and it just looks better.”
This “product protrusion height” is important when placing one company’s steaks in a grab-and-go meat case next to another’s. Customers are drawn to the steak that pops out of the case. They can pick the product up, hold it, feel the thickness and see the marbling of the cut of meat.
Multivac offers its wide range of options in the MultiFresh packaging line that can reach taller protrusion heights. The top-of-the-line format MultiFresh PRO can achieve a protrusion height up to 100 mm above the webline.
Another advantage of VSP is its ability to gently handle meat and poultry so that the integrity of the muscle is not bruised or damaged.
Gentle alternative“You’re not deforming and destroying the product as much,” Uebele said. “You’re not pulling blood or moisture out of the product, and you won’t puncture the film like you would with a normal (vacuum) film because the film will just drape over.”
VSP is not immune to bone punctures in the barrier layer, but there is slightly less risk due to how the process works. Skin packaging starts by putting the product on the tray or bottom film and stretching the semi-molten film over the top of the product while vacuuming the air out of the pocket at the same time. This allows the film to fit all the contours of the product without squeezing or pushing on it as much as conventional vacuum-sealing applications do. VSP technology is able to work in multiple formats that provide versatility and customization for meat packers and processors.
The adaptability of vacuum skin solutions is a key feature of this type of packaging. Steaks, chops and chicken breasts are common products packaged with VSP, but now larger format muscles as well as seafood and fish are increasingly utilizing the packaging technology.
VSP can be especially helpful in packaging fish because the tight seal locks in the juices so the product is leak-proof while keeping it odor-free as well. As with meat applications, skin packaged whole fish or fillets provide an attractive product for consumers to see in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
Canton, Mass.-based Reiser has three different lines of equipment that can handle skin pack applications which offer customers a wide range of options.
Repak and Variovac are horizontal form/film/seal packaging lines that produce trays from rollstock material. Rollstock film offers customers cost savings on material and the convenience of multiple application uses. Ross Tray Sealers are Reiser’s fully automatic pre-formed and specialty tray machines.
“Lately, we have seen a rejuvenation of interest in skin packaging,” said Mike McCann, packaging specialist at Reiser.
Many of Reiser’s customers use the same machines to produce skin packs as well as conventional vacuum and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) simply by changing the programming and seal plate. This means packers don’t have to buy separate machines to do VSP products along with conventional and MAP products.
VSP removes oxygen from the bag when it is sealing, similar to MAP, which increases the shelf life of fresh meat and poultry significantly. It also presents a minor challenge to retailers.
Skin packaging with barrier film often retains the dark purple coloration of fresh-cut beef, said Jim Ryan, tray seal product manager at Harpak-Ulma. “Americans are used to seeing red beef so it’s a matter of educating people about the benefits.”
Harpak-Ulma, based in Taunton, Mass., can make skin packaging on both its Mondini tray sealing equipment and the Ulma TFS thermoforming equipment. This allows customers the ability to customize their production on either type of packaging format.
The company can produce skin packs in multiple applications from two flexible webs to rigid or semi-rigid plastic trays, Ryan said.
“Harpak-Ulma is now offering skin packaging solutions on sustainable paper-based trays and flat boards where 80% of the package is sustainable,” he said.
More meat companies are looking for sustainable packaging solutions that they can market to the public. Processors are requesting more products like paperboard trays derived from recycled material which emphasize the company’s sustainability goals.
Another avenue of sustainability is just using less plastic. Rollstock films maximize efficiency and provide cost savings for meat processors but also reduce plastic waste.
Brazil-based packaging company Videplast is making inroads in the US market by leaning into sustainable packaging.
“The challenge for skin package is to produce a film mono resin that is easy to recycle and to avoid using a foam tray,” said Domênico Macchia Jr., director of new businesses at Videplast.
The company is developing a thermoforming film that is 100% polyethylene resin and also a very thin laminated polyethylene film that can be used in VSP applications.
Videplast has also been innovating its thermoforming resins so there is less EVOH, which can be hard to recycle, Macchia said.
Vacuum skin packaging is quickly becoming one of the go-to packaging solutions used in the meat and poultry industry. The flexibility that it provides packers and processors enables companies to fit their production needs and offers a versatility in applications.
Most importantly, it provides the clean appearance and extended shelf-life that consumers value.