Tray pack has always been a staple in poultry presentation, from multiple sizes of various offerings, showing off the product quality, safe shipping and case handling.

But a lot has changed with poultry tray packaging in the past two years, with some changes coming about due to food safety concerns, and others the result of a push toward more sustainable products.

“The newest advancements in poultry tray packaging revolve around versatility and having the ability to produce a wide range of package sizes and styles, preferably on a single machine,” said Mike McCann, packaging specialist with Reiser, Canton, Mass. “The need for versatility has been pushed by innovative ventures, pandemic supply issues, shopping habit changes, and equipment suppliers that listen to their customers.”

Glenn Divers, global tray packaging program manager for Midland, Va.-based Ross Industries, noted there has been a big push in North America to get out of polystyrene (PS) trays, with some processors looking at using the rolled edge APET trays as a replacement.

“The issue with the APET rolled edge tray is it breaks or punctures the overwrap film causing leakers and does nothing to extend shelf life over the polystyrene tray in the market today,” he said. “This tray is typically not recyclable due to contamination from the products placed in it.”

That’s why processors are also looking at using fiber-based trays with pull out liners, something big in Europe today, though Divers noted that these trays have had issues at the processing plants due to moisture breakdown.

Therefore, he noted the newest buzz in poultry tray pack packaging today is the use of Vacuum Skin Packaging (VSP) or modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), which have been used in the red meat market side of the business for years.

“The ability for MAP and VSP packages to be run at the same high speeds as overwrap in close to the same overall footprint in floor space of the overwrap equipment used today is what makes them popular,” Divers said.

Sean Brady, market development manager for Sealed Air Corp., Greer, SC, said the major packaging type for poultry (whole muscle) is still PS tray with SES overwrap, and for grinds, it is tray/lid (MAP).

“Prior to the pandemic, there was a shift for processors from PS to rigid trays due to sustainability,” he said. “The switch was mainly for APET trays for overwrap applications still using Cryovac Brand SES film.”

Thinking of the environment

Battleboro, NC-based Ossid has been working with several suppliers on new sustainable packaging material options to run on its existing equipment.

“Over the past year, we have seen a significant rise in recyclable or compostable materials, and these new materials are not always compatible with existing equipment and can take numerous testing cycles to perfect the materials,” said Jason Angel, vice president of sales for the company. “We work diligently with our material suppliers to ensure that our equipment has the capability to run these new materials, so that our customers can be the first to market with them.”

Steve Dickson, product market manager of traysealers for Multivac Inc., Kansas City, Mo., noted the shift is happening at the municipal level, with many trying to get away from plastic or Styrofoam – the latter of which poultry packaging is infamous for.

And since foam is easily replaced by polypropylene, that’s a direction that many are going in.

“We’re seeing a blend of paper that provides the strength of the package with a real thin-gauge plastic,” he said. “The new materials that are coming out are less expensive to make, and the industry is on the road to new substrates that will be more environmentally friendly.”

Reiser 2 smallerest.jpgThe Ross 'IN' Inline Tray Sealer is ideal for MAP and VSP packaging. The machine produces packages using preformed trays of almost any size or shape. (Source: Reiser)


Emerging trends

It’s not a surprise that versatile packaging options are coming on strong. These options allow poultry companies to offer their products in a wider range of styles of packages and sizes of offerings, from meal kit components, to club style packs, to retail individual packs (vacuum packed, modified atmosphere and skin pack styles), as well as food service, all from a single packaging machine footprint.

Another emerging trend is packaging poultry in a package other than tray overwrap, such as a thermoformer or tray sealer, Angel noted.

“We’ve worked with many customers who have shifted their poultry packaging focus to allow for flexibility of product output by using the same Reepack thermoformer to achieve a flex-flex or VSP semi-rigid package by simply changing out the film roll and performing a changeover quickly,” he said. “Reepack’s line of tray sealers can allow for flexibility, as there are solutions for all sized companies, and the option to select from tray lid, MAP, VSP tray or VSP on board applications.”

Auto-loading is also frequently gaining traction in processing-to-packaging lines. For instance, Reiser’s Vemag ground meat former is used to form and portion poultry loaves (or bricks) and then conveyed using Vemag index and shuttle conveyors to drop the loaves directly into a tray or form/fill/seal package.

Divers noted the more automated a processing line can be, the more efficient it can be.

“Over the past five years, we at Ross have worked on developing equipment that will now run from 8-120 tpm,” he said. “In the past, the maximum was 80 tpm. Today with the use of servo drives in our equipment, we can produce at higher speed in a smaller footprint.”

Reiser 3 smallerest.jpgFabbri automatic stretch wrappers use stretch film to package fresh produce products in pre-formed trays. (Source: Reiser) 


COVID yields innovation

The pandemic pushed poultry customers to think further outside the box to keep product moving to their customers.

“Likewise, it made us at Reiser look and listen and get outside the box as well,” McCann said. “We needed to be creative with new packaging offerings and new packaging material offerings. We needed to help with new poultry product development and help with personnel shortages which can be remedied with auto loading equipment that we provide. It really opened up a lot of new opportunities.”

For instance, the company’s JLS line of robotic packaging can be used for primary and secondary food packaging with a focus on robotic pick and place systems, tray loaders, and case packers. McCann explained that ready-to-package chicken parts come down a conveyor and are automatically picked and placed directly into trays, or finished packages come down a conveyor and they are automatically picked and placed into cartons.

Brady noted that the speed at which Cryovac Brand Darfresh, (Sealed Air’s trademark name for VSP) was implemented increased because of the pandemic mainly due to e-commerce.

“With e-commerce increasing drastically, the package had to be able to handle distribution,” he said, citing the importance of product protection and being leak proof. “Thus, VSP in a tray was required.”

In Divers’ opinion, the carbon footprint and amount of food waste that overwrap packaging produces is making MAP and VSP packaging the right direction to proceed.

“If we have learned anything in our industry due to COVID, it’s how quickly we can run into food shortages and empty shelves,” he said. “It is in our industry’s best interest and responsibility to produce the most sustainable package, providing the longest shelf life, and with the lowest carbon footprint.”