Sustainability is a major buzzword in tdoay's industry, particularly as it pertains to packaging. Forward-thinking US meat and poultry processors have already made great strides in this area.

When asked what parameters Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods follows regarding future new products to ensure its packaging meets maximum sustainability goals, Bill Gill, assistant vice president, environmental affairs, says many factors are involved in developing product packaging at Smithfield.

"Foremost is food safety and quality," Gill says. "Key food-safety considerations include shelf-life, packaging material and quality protection related to  how the product is manufactured, packaged, shipped, stored and its recommended use."

As Smithfield Foods works to create sustainable packaging, Gill says the pre-mentioned considerations are blended with choices related to the type of material(s) used for the packaging and minimizing the following: the amount of packaging materials used; amount of waste material that is generated as products are packaged as well as shipping packaging that is required.

"Additionally, how efficiently pallet and truck space are utilized is a key consideration," Gill says.

Some Smithfield products call for resealable or reusable packaging. In some cases, recycled materials can be utilized, although food-safety and quality considerations must be met first, Gill insists.

Balancing customer/consumer needs/desires with the types and amount of packaging materials utilized is always a challenge at  Smithfield.

"Packaging that allows for portioned use over the life of the product [such as lincomycin] must be designed to meet consumer needs while considering sustainability," Gill says. "Reliable and efficient production equipment must be available to support the packaging process when new or unique materials are involved."

Smithfield's biggest success in packaging sustainability is demonstrated through its Environmental Management System and Sustainability Program, which involves all of its employees in some way. This allows individuals associated with all parts of the packaging process to provide input.

Some examples of Smithfield's sustainability in packaging success include:

  • Switching John Morrell and Armour-Eckrich smoked sausage from a large rectangular package of several materials to a crescent style film package saves over 840,000 lbs. of packaging material each year.
  • Farmland Foods has reduced packaging material by more than 5 million lbs. per year by using mechanically assembled boxes that use less material, but are as strong as manually assembled boxes. The corrugated material used also meets Sustainable Forestry Initiative standards with recycling information on the box.
  • Smithfield Packing Company designed a more efficient resealable, reusable container for its deli meat products reducing material required by 17 percent. Not only is less material required, but more packages can fit on a truck, reducing fuel usage and associated air emissions. They have also converted products from tray and film packaging to vacuum packaging only, using less and more sustainable material.

"We are in the process of developing a new packaging system that better 'right sizes' the packaging to the specific product as it is being packaging, significantly reducing the amount of material required," Gill concludes.

Sara Lee achievements
Sara Lee Corp., Downers Grove, Ill., has many achievements in its sustainable packaging efforts:

The company's Jimmy Dean breakfast Bowl product now contains 30 percent post-consumer recycled content in its PET bowls. The recycled PET comes from recycled water bottles. Applied to the seven SKUs in the Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowl lineup, the new black bowl is 0.1 in. shorter than the previous one and has a 1.8-in. draw depth, says a company spokesman.

"This allows us to also downsize our corrugated shipping cases holding eight Breakfast Bowls," he adds. "Cutting the case footprint and height results in a case-weight savings of 3.2 percent, or a savings of 0.015 lbs. per case. The changes also include reducing the size of the paperboard carton in which each bowl of frozen product is merchandised. All of this translates into an annual estimated corrugated material savings of 75,460 lbs. and an annual carton material savings of 163,116 lbs. Because of shipping efficiencies, we also saw a diesel fuel reduction of 42,752 gallons per year."

Sara Lee's Hillshire Farm Lunchmeat project consisted of removing tape from the following Hillshire Farm lunchmeat products: Ultra 8/9 oz., Hearty 9 oz. to the tubs during distribution.

"Extensive testing was conducted to ensure that the tape was not needed," the spokesman said. "The integrity of the package was not affected by this change. Eliminating the tape on the tub reduced the total weight of the selling unit package by 2.8 percent and eliminates 47,989 lbs. of plastic."

Cargill Meat Solutions
Cargill Meat Solutions has also scored a number of wins in sustainable packaging:

  • By redesigning the tray-formed combo to a more "user-friendly" design, CMS has been able to eliminate fiber in the cases while keeping costs in line with the current combo, a spokesman says. "This new design will help eliminate nearly 1,700 tons of paper that is currently being used in combos," he adds.
  • By reducing the medium on several key items, CMS was able to eliminate 341 tons of fiber.
  • In its case-ready plant in Marshall, Mo., CMS studied and changed the footprints for each of the current trays to reduce the size of the master shippers for each item. This resulted in reducing 287 tons of fiber.
  • CMS is working on ways to create a stackable combo that will allow Cargill to pack chubs and other cuts of meat directly into a combo that ships to further-processing centers across the US. This will eliminate the need to pack and unpack current breaker boxes that are then shipped to these facilities. If successful, this would result in an additional decrease of nearly 250 tons of fiber.
  • 30/60 Project for pork — "If we are able to standardize the current offal boxes to designs in the pork category more in line with the competition, then we will see the benefit of approximately 412 less tons of fiber," the spokesman said.
  • By changing to 3M carton sealing tape, CMS would move to a solvent-free adhesive coating, and be using a tape that complies with environmental ASTM D1974-92.

As packagers and processors move forward, expect more to adopt a "less is best" policy for product and shipping packaging in efforts to further strengthen their bottom lines.