High demands call for even higher standards. Known for its precision and tight specifications, whole-muscle packaging provides containment, preserves product characteristics and offers convenience.
It’s also becoming a calling card of freshness, sustainability and a testament to how the industry is combatting supply chain issues. As processors face unprecedented cost pressures, ingenuity and foresight are helping meet the demand for whole-muscle products.
Demand is up
Forty-three percent of Americans buy more meat now than they did before the pandemic, according to the 16th annual Power of Meat 2021 report from FMI – the Food Industry Association and Foundation for Meat & Poultry Education & Research. Consumer shopping traditions are also changing with four in 10 shoppers buying meat products differently. This includes different types (42%), different cuts (40%) and/or different brands (45%). Drivers include better value, cooking more at home, consolidated shopping trips and smaller households.
Whole-muscle packaging is responding with smaller cuts. Downsized portions better suit smaller households and can be a hedge against rising product costs, according to Ryan Spencer, product market manager of chambers, portioning and slicing at Multivac Inc., Kansas City, Mo.
But whether consumers get their home cooking or grilling fix or not is dependent on successfully clearing a growing number of hurdles. Increased e-commerce demand and navigating ongoing supply chain-related shortages are prompting buyers to stockpile favorites such as baby back ribs, pork tenderloins and pork butts.
Multivac’s case ready packaging solutions reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the product. Coupled with proper refrigeration, oxygen-permeable films are one of the best ways to prevent purple colors in beef and chicken from off-gassing, Spencer shared. Its Multifresh complete packaging system encloses the product like a second skin – remaining free of tension and not impacting the product’s shape by securely enclosing bones using an upper and lower web.
FreshCase vacuum packaging technology from Amcor, Buffalo Grove, Ill., can help maintain the proper color of the meat, helping it bloom to an appealing red color without sacrificing shelf life in high-barrier packaging.
Although meat packaging remains a highly manual process, automation can minimize manual steps to improve efficiency and worker ergonomics and increase food safety by minimizing handling.
“Pre-pandemic, consistent and timely deliveries were a given,” Spencer said. “With all the risks in labor and shipping, ensuring a processing and packaging process that is as automated and reliable as possible is the best path forward.”
Amcor offers shrink rollstock, Flow-Tite, that reduces labor, resulting in an increased throughput of 10% and a 50% reduction in rework. Ahead from the production floor, shrink rollstock can also answer sourcing and warehousing challenges by eliminating up to 90% of pre-made bag SKUs and the need to inventory multiple bag sizes and graphics for each product.
New ideas are constantly coming in, so versatile, easily changed-over packaging machines are a real must, according to Mike McCann, packaging specialist at Reiser, Canton, Mass.
“Many firms are streamlining their production to more retail-sized packs, which is then sold as components for meal kits either in retail stores or as part of meal kit programs,” he continued. “At the same time, the foodservice side must prepare more precise offerings for the fabricators that are the middle step in this process of creating exact portion cuts.”
Freezer-ready solutions like high barrier and vacuum packaging prevent frost and ensure optimal freshness until the customer is ready to use it. Hermetically sealed packages allow for easy freezing and no purge dripping. These packages are important for preservation and presentation at store level and for e-commerce deliveries to the consumer’s front door.
Master Bag PVC-overwrapped trays from Harpak-Ulma, Taunton, Mass., provide a “butcher shop” look ideal for case-ready applications. The systems can group trays and automatically load them into a modified atmosphere pack with maximum product shelf life, cutting labor costs and increasing throughput of packages per minute.
Reiser recommends a single packaging machine that can easily produce a wide range of package sizes and even package styles. With a goal to keep things simple and user friendly, its machinery can switch formats and help customers fast-track in new directions to meet evolving market needs.
These needs include visual appearance, a critical cue for consumers and a major factor of purchase. Packaging must achieve the right gloss and clarity to enhance product appearance, according to TC Transcontinental Packaging, Chicago. This includes ensuring a high shrink performance to conform tightly to the product and deliver product protection through high-moisture and oxygen barriers.
“Effective bone-in whole muscle flexible packaging must provide consistent barrier performance and effective bone puncture resistance, without sacrificing optics and high shrink, in order to maximize appearance and minimize air pockets, while keeping rework to an absolute minimum,” said Rob Taylor, director of marketing – protein at TC Transcontinental Packaging.
Amcor is seeing meat packers move from a patch bone-in bag, ABP, into CBP, Amcor’s high-abuse bone-in bag, for higher gloss and clarity while maintaining excellent puncture resistance. The company offers high-abuse bone-in and boneless tubestock products to pair with on-demand bagging equipment.
Tubestock maintains the features of a traditional bag while simplifying inventory and allowing for operational flexibility. Continuous tubestock can be sized and sealed to fit every product at the touch of a button. Product features address shelf life goals, product protection, leak proof, freezer-ready and shelf appearance.
“Whole-muscle packaging needs to meet the shelf life demands for the supply chain,” said Melanie Bandari, senior marketing manager, Amcor. “This is accomplished by ensuring packaging is designed to keep your product fresh until the consumer is ready to eat it.”
Purchase among eco-conscious consumers increasingly considers the sustainability aspects of its packaging, reports Power of Meat 2021. Forty-nine percent consider sustainability factors when making meat purchases. Mintel found 85% of US food and drink shoppers think environmentally responsible packaging is important, 22% said they would pay more for this. With food waste being the primary component in landfills at more than 20%, reducing food waste is becoming a top priority.
“Sustainability is a major part of every conversation regarding meat packaging at TC Transcontinental Packaging,” Taylor said. “We continue to see evolution both in packaging technology and retailer demand for these products.”
Yet sustainable packaging must still uphold the expectations of shelf life and product appearance. Amcor’s Eco-Tite PVDC-free shrink bags reduce packaging material 25%. The thinner structure offers the durability of a standard shrink bag with reduced material usage and improved cost and sustainability savings through shipping and warehousing with more bags on every pallet.
Reiser works with all of the packaging material companies, McCann shared. “Testing and sample-making is the best process to prove sustainability claims and offerings,” he continued. “This is making huge impacts all the way back to the ranches and farms in our industry.”
Ensuring quality rules
The rising impact of sustainability is clear in a recent stat from the Hartman Group stating 72% of consumers are willing to pay more to support companies that share their values. Continuing advances in whole-muscle packaging demonstrate how collective efforts are helping the industry navigate environmental and sustainability concerns while providing safe, convenient and accessible whole-muscle products.
This includes clearly showcasing your brand. “When a consumer is considering spending $60, $100 or more on a whole-muscle product, your brand plays a significant role in the evaluation whether or not this is money well spent,” Spencer concluded. “Feature your brand prominently on the package and emphasize quality and other important product characteristics.”