You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can get a pretty fair evaluation of the current meat and poultry industry by checking out some of its latest product packaging trends. As evident in today’s retail meat case, frozen food section, deli and foodservice kitchens, processors are thinking “out of the box” (and tray) to merchandise their products to highlight convenience, safety, sustainability and cost-effectiveness.

A new study underscores the evolving ways in which fresh, frozen and prepared meat and poultry products are packaged. The Cleveland, Ohio-based Freedonia Group Inc. released results in April from its “Meat, Poultry & Seafood Packaging” study, which pegged the current packaging market for US protein products at $7.9 billion and projected a $9.2 billion market within five years.

Among other findings, the study confirms a continuation of the shift toward case-ready products that meet the myriad (and not always parallel) needs of processors and consumers, both in the US and globally – including expanding markets like Japan and Chile.

Fittingly enough, results from the study indicate that the packaging terms “rigid and “flexible” can be applied to meat, poultry and seafood category trends. What was once, literally and figuratively, a rigid way of doing things in the meat and poultry industry has become, again in both senses of the word, more flexible.

Freedonia Group analyst Joe Iorillo puts it this way: “Demand for flexible packaging is forecast to increase faster than rigid packaging, reflecting the increasing demand for high-barrier films, which are necessary in case-ready packaging, and the burgeoning use of stand-up and other pouches as an alternative to traditional carton.”

Flexible packaging is also on the rise in this industry because of overall marketplace demand for and interest in sustainability, Iorillo points out. While flexible packaging comprises 39 percent of meat, poultry and seafood packaging now, compared to the 56 percent for rigid packaging, the study predicts demand for flexible packaging will increase about 3.7 percent a year to reach a $3.7 billion market by 2015.

Many processors are turning to high-barrier films, pouches, bags and other flexible packages because they require less energy to produce and occupy less space in landfills, according to Iorillo. The Freedonia Group study revealed that pouches are the fastest-growing flexible packaging format in the category, for the premium graphic appearance, sustainability features, barrier qualities for safety and security and various uses, from lunch meats to meat products that were previously canned.

Iorillo cites the example of a new rotisserie chicken pouch from Robbie Fantastic Flexibles, which purportedly consumes 88 percent less petroleum and emits 85 percent less carbon dioxide during manufacture than a plastic domed container. He also points to the recent shift of the Gorton brand of fish sticks from a carton to a resealable stand-up pouch, which has been well received by retailers and consumers.

Sustainability drives packaging

Processors aren’t just swapping packaging materials for environmental and cost reasons, but getting rid some of them altogether. “Sustainability concerns can also be seen in the trend toward eliminating paperboard sleeves on some packages,” Iorillo says.

One brand exemplifying that trend, he adds, is Lloyd’s Barbeque, which now packages its shredded meat products in plastic tubs with in-mold nutrition and product information labels instead of the extra printed paperboard sleeve that used to accompany the containers.

The growth of pouches and other sustainable materials and the simultaneous slowdown in metal cans and corrugated boxes doesn’t mean, however, that rigid packaging is static. The Freedonia Group projects rigid plastic containers and trays will experience “robust’ growth.

“This is because of the popularity of supermarket prepared foods, many of which are sold in domed containers, and increasing demand for resealable plastic lunch meat tubs, which are favored by consumers because of their upscale look and their superior freshness protection capabilities,” says Iorillo.

Understanding that many rigid containers use more materials than flexible containers, processors who are looking to reach their sustainability goals are taking a new look at making rigid packaging more Earth-friendly. Iorillo points out that Sara Lee has removed 3/16 of an inch of material in its deli meat tubs to achieve both lower shipping costs and less material consumption.

Other sustainability-driven innovations have affected rigid protein packaging, too. In recent years, there has been a growing use of rigid containers made with polylactic acid (PLA), which is more Earth-friendly than the polystyrene that has commonly been used in meat trays. The Freedonia Group study predicts greater use of PLA for meat and poultry products.

Beyond sustainability, today’s bottom-line realities have affected packaging choices by meat and poultry processors. Case-ready flexible packaging appeals to retailers, for instance, because supermarket operators are looking for ways to reduce labor costs in their stores, according to the study.

Convenience is still king

Still, there are some demands for meat and poultry packaging that seem to run counter to sustainability and cost concerns. Convenience, it seems, can sometimes trump those issues. The study revealed that value-added features like zipper closures and value-added products like further-processed meats appeal to consumers for easy preparation and storage, but typically utilize more packaging,

Iorillo agrees that innovations are often driven by demand for convenience. He points to newer packaging formats from Sealed Air’s Cryovac brand, such as its bag allowing for in-bag, one-step oven cooking, and its new Grip & Tear easy-open bags for whole fresh poultry.

Breaking down packaging use and trends by category, the Freedonia Group research found that the largest share of packaging in the industry comes from red meat products, but that poultry packaging is a dynamic area, due to poultry’s lower price point and perceived health benefits. “The poultry sector also seems to have a bit more packaging options available to it,” observes Iorillo.

Another area of future growth is the overseas market. Although the study focused on the US packaging of meat, poultry and seafood, it did uncover some international trends, like the continued demand for packaged meat and poultry in industrializedcountries, such as China.

Finally, the Freedonia Group study revealed how recent packaging industry shakeups are an indication of the evolving category, reflected in corporate changes like the acquisition of Alcan Packaging Food Americas by Bemis and the purchase of Pactiv by Reynolds Group, among others.

Note: For more information on this Freedonia Group study (Study #2753), go to:  

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area.