The world may be shrinking, but packaging formats and applications for meat and poultry products are ever-expanding. As many processors can attest, packaging continues to become more product specific and reflects the myriad drivers of the marketplace.

From the gathering green movement to the ongoing clamor for convenience to the desire to stand apart

on the shelf, influences on packaging has arguably never been greater or more diverse. That’s especially true as meat and poultry companies are finding new markets for their products in different parts of the world.

“It is the whole package, so to speak,” sums up Brian Barr, sales manager for Heat & Control, with offices in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia , adding that multiple trends affecting packaging choice are beneficial for the processor as well as the end-user. “It’s always a good challenge to have.”

As packaging becomes more tailored, the question, says Tom Egan, vice president of industry services for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, is this: “What do you ask of your packaging? The whole factor you have to deal with is balancing the elements.”

Integrity issues

Given the gravity of a national or international recall or, worse, an outbreak of foodborne illness, food safety remains a driving influence on meat and poultry packaging, including fresh and ready-to-eat products.
“Food safety is absolutely a priority right now. You’re seeing it on a global basis,” notes Egan, citing lingering concerns about packaging integrity from China, as well as the recent push by the Obama Administration to expand the oversight of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, among other factors.

Barr agrees. “It’s becoming a smaller world in terms of trends we’re seeing in safety. In many cases, we’re all on the same page and though the ways in which each country takes action does change, everyone is conscious in terms of the safety aspect,” he observes.

From a materials standpoint, concerns about safety continue to spur R&D action. Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging, for instance, recently extended its cook-in-bag technology to include post-pasteurization applications. The heavy bag now can be used on smoked and processed products with harder, abrasive surfaces, like brisket and products coated with coarse ground spices.

Various high-tech packages are also in the works for food-safety purposes. Researchers at the Univ. of East Angilia in the United Kingdom are trying to commercialize a new “smart” packaging technology designed to verify freshness. Essentially, a freshness sensor that detects the presence of biogenic amines produced by the bacterial decay of protein can be incorporated into a package and checked via a barcode scanner.

Packaging machinery is also a focus of ongoing efforts to bolster food safety. Barr says Heat and Control has expanded its overall inspection capabilities.

Multivac, a global equipment manufacturer with U.S. offices in Kansas City, Mo., has upgraded systems based on safety priorities. Its fully automated packaging line for fresh-meat products has been designed to help operators comply with strict hygiene standards, while its new generation of traysealers exemplifies the move toward automation and more hygienic design.

Less is more

Green packaging is currently a popular catch phrase, and interest in more eco-friendly packaging has impacted the global protein industry. The quandary affecting producers of perishable food products – especially meat and poultry that is vulnerable to harmful microorganisms – is how to balance food safety and greener packaging.
To that end, Egan emphasizes the fact that packaging is there for a reason. “One of the primary benefits of packaging is protection,” he points out.

Walker Stockley, marketing director of fresh red meat for Sealed Air Corporation’s Cryovac brand, says safety ultimately trumps sustainability – but that doesn’t mean the two trends are mutually exclusive. “The first key is food safety and product integrity preservation for the food processor or fresh meat packer. With the distribution systems in North America and for export, packers are not able to sacrifice shelf life and product position,” he explains. “Therefore, the focus is placed on a reduced gauge of materials using tougher polymers, which allows companies like the Cryovac to downgauge materials without sacrificing performance.”

Among other changes, Cryovac has added a new modified atmosphere packaging film that allows for contact between product and film, but reduces film waste. The thin, highbarrier shrink film can be used with tray heights that are reduced by up to 40 percent. In addition to customers in the U.S., the film is being used in supermarkets in Europe.

Sustainability goes beyond the package itself for Rocky Mount, NCbased Ossid, LLC, a division of Pro Mach. According to Ernie Newell, vice president and general manager, the company has installed recirculation units in some of its packaging machines in order to cool – and conserve – water during operations. “We came up with a unit that allows them to recalculate water. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if it’s a gallon per unit of water, it adds up,” he says, adding, “This is not a blip – this is a trend that will continue, because it has several benefits. It improves the environment but it also saves the customer energy.”

Many meat and poultry processors are reducing packaging through initiatives to become more Earth-friendly. Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, which has revamped several packages as part of its goal to eliminate 150 million lbs. of packaging materials by 2011, recently changed the Oscar Mayer Deli Creations carton to a version that is expected to save more than a million lbs. of waste.

Finished product packaging isn’t the only type that is being reexamined for sustainability and waste reduction. Earlier this year, Millsboro, Del.-based poultry processor Mountaire Farms teamed with Global Green USA and Interstate Container to convert its U.S. poultry plant to recyclable, wax-alternative boxes for transfer packaging.
Convenience, a hallmark of packaging design in the 1990s and 2000s, continues to affect packaging choices among processors around the world, albeit in different ways.

At Ossid, Newell says that convenience never really went away, citing recent packages like the company’s flexible trays that include spaces for individual strips of fresh poultry. “There are a lot of things driving consumer convenience – anything that makes it easier for the consumer to use,” he says.

Consumers in the U.S. continue to demand convenience-oriented features like recloseability and easy-opening. Consumers in other parts of the world accustomed to meat and poultry with a short shelf-life now have options.
Egan uses Mexico as an example. “What we‘re seeing in Mexico is an emerging middle class. The consumer is strong there and producing growth and they are getting out of the woods in the recession. As a consequence, we’re starting to see consumer packaged-goods companies going there trying to persuade the Mexican consumers,” he says.

In Europe, convenience is also contributing to a shift in packaging machinery and materials. For example, in Germany, today’s shoppers can choose from a growing variety of packaged meat and sausage products, including those with longer shelf lives and more convenience-driven features than even a few years ago.

Bringing packaging trends full circle, Stockley says convenience and safety do meet up in some package features. ”Providing a package with a peel feature or our newer Grip & Tear easy-open bag feature provides a mechanism for consumers to open the package without knives or scissors or touching the meat product as an avenue to prevent crosscontamination in the home kitchen. This is a trend in North America and also a growing trend in other developed countries, and will likely continue as advanced food packaging reaches around the globe,” he remarks. •

Lynn Petrak is a free-lance writer based in the Chicago area.