Decades ago, retail cook-in bag products were limited to boil-in bags – where a bag, usually of frozen vegetables, was immersed in boiling water for a set amount of time. Although convenient, these products often ended up overcooked and mushy in consistency. Today, a host of retail and foodservice meat and poultry products incorporate cook-in bags for conventional and microwave oven cooking to help the consumer or foodservice operator prepare consistent, convenient cooked protein – some with vegetables that exhibit a snap – and simplifying the messy kitchen clean-up everyone abhors.

Packaging expert Huston Keith, principal and founder of Keymark Associates, Marietta, Ga., recalls when his company conducted a multi-client study 15 years ago, the cook-in bag product category was fast-growing (7 percent to 9 percent per year) and had been for a number of years because of less product moisture loss and continuing deli growth, among other reasons.

“Nearly all the flexible packaging suppliers offered cook-in bag product lines and all the meat processors used them,” he adds. “The only new development I can think of today is improved smoked flavors for meat to increase usage. I would guess the cook-in bag category’s growth [today] is pretty close to the deli market.”

“I like cooking in the bag,” says Chef Alan Lazar CCE, ACE, associate instructor, ACF Student Advisor Chair, Johnson & Wales Univ., North Miami, Fla. “Retail products [featuring cook-in bags] have better yield, cook faster and the sauces have more flavor.”

Innovative products

Cook-in bag products in the market today include Perdue Farms Oven Ready brand cook-in-the-bag products (Boneless Chicken Roast and Whole Seasoned Roaster, among others); Seaboard Foods’ PrairieFresh Prime Cook-In Bag pork tenderloins, loin filets, roasts and ribs; while the Lean Cuisine Market Collection line from Nestle USA offers Chicken Alfredo, Chicken Poblano and more varieties.

Tyson Fresh Meats has also been offering cook-in bag features in some of its retail and foodservice fresh meat products for approximately one year.

“More development is currently being performed with retail products; longer-term developments are being planned with foodservice products,” says Paul Connor, director of business development, Tyson Fresh Meats, when asked if variations of cook-in bags are included in company retail and/or foodservice meat and poultry products.

Cook-in bag cooking technology offers features for both consumers and foodservice operators. “For consumers, they’re easy to use and perfect for slow-cooked [products],” he adds. “There are no-mess preparations and clean-up using the cook-in bag method. Minimal preparation and cooking experience are needed to deliver easy, mess-free, no-fuss meals. For foodservice operators, cook-in bag products diversify menu options; capitalize on the popularity of ethnic concepts; and they offer shorter prep times, error-free preparation, labor savings and attractive margins.”

Newer meat or poultry products incorporating cook-in bags are Tyson Brand Pork Shoulder for Carnitas, which is the company’s best-seller featuring cook-in bags, and Tyson Brand Pork Shoulder for Barbeque.

Challenges in incorporating cook-in bags include cook-in bag design and performance plus eliminating on-bag labels. “We are gaining widespread consumer acceptance for these concepts, retailers believe these items deliver a great value for their customers and [products with cook-in bags get] respectable retail margins,” Connor adds. “We are within three months of launching two additional products that incorporate cook-in bag technology.”

Another relatively new cook-in bag product is Farmland Foods’ (a Smithfield Foods business) Oven Perfect Fresh Pork. In June 2012, Farmland Foods announced the introduction of this new line of fresh pork products that is marinated, dry-rub seasoned and ready to cook right in the bag.

Farmland Oven Perfect Fresh Pork is one of the top-selling cook-in-bag pork at retail and is available in the fresh-meat case in a variety of cuts and flavors, including Chipotle BBQ Loin Filet, Teriyaki Sesame Ginger Tenderloin and Parmesan Garlic Herb Loin Filet, says Keira Lombardo, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, Smithfield Foods Inc.

“The new meal solution eliminates prep and offers easy clean-up while serving up juicy, tender and delicious pork every time,” she adds.

Farmland’s revolutionary cook-in-bag locks in juices, seals in flavor and self-vents at the appropriate time to ensure the pork is perfectly browned, she adds. Its exclusive Mylar (a registered trademark of Dupont Teijin Films) package is Food and Drug Administration-approved and BPA-free (bisphenol A is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s).

“With the cook-in-bag, preparation is as easy as setting the oven temperature and timer, while clean-up is simply disposing the bag,” Lombardo says. “Bringing even greater convenience to dinnertime, Oven Perfect can go directly from the refrigerator or freezer to the oven with no defrosting required.”

Lombardo says the company conducted extensive consumer research to understand the different types of pork consumers buy, what motivates them and what needs are most important. “A common theme across several consumer groups was an ongoing pursuit of a fresh, high-quality, homemade meal solution without the time and hassle of starting from scratch,” she adds. “Oven Perfect delivers on this need, offering a wide range of fresh pork products that are simple and convenient to prepare while delivering juicy, tender and delicious pork every time. Oven Perfect is the ideal solution for a weekday dinner or casual get-together with friends or family.”

Sous vide, the decades-old method of treating food by partial cooking followed by vacuum-sealing and chilling, is becoming more popular with some high-end chefs, sources claim. The food product is in a poly bag or pouch…it can be a sauce, soup, chicken breast, pork chop, etc., says John Green, director of strategic marketing for the National Pork Board. “It’s usually par-cooked or fully cooked,” he adds. “Then you put them in the package inside this pouch, which is then immersed in very hot water. The sous-vide machine holds the water at a certain temperature. That allows [operators] to bring the food back up to temperature in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of the product and at the same time holds it very well. It’s very efficient energy-wise. It has a lot of redeeming qualities and it’s very versatile.”

Cook-in bags also appeal to a certain consumer niche. There is one consumer segment that likes eating meat, but they don’t like touching or handling raw product. “Cook-in-bag technology is very appealing to that group of people because you just take the label off the bag, put the bag with product in the oven [or microwave] with the product inside and when it’s done open the bag and place the product on a plate…it’s that simple,” Green says. “It’s extremely convenient. And you don’t have to clean your oven very often if you’re cooking in a bag.”

This technology also offers a major food-safety benefit. “A benefit would be reduced handling of raw meat,” says Steve Larsen, PhD., director of pork safety at the National Pork Board. “The product is cooked in the bag so you don’t risk cross-contamination or exposure prior to cooking. A down side, however, would be that all consumers must read and follow the cooking instructions that came with the product. Sometimes, consumers don’t read and follow cooking instructions. As always, thermometer use is key when determining the US Dept. of Agriculture guidance for end-point cooking temperatures.”

A promising future

Looking ahead, meat, poultry and seafood packaging demand is forecast to exceed $9.5 billion in 2017, according to a recent Freedonia industry study titled “Meat, Poultry & Seafood Packaging.” What’s more, time-starved consumers will still be demanding more convenient, high-quality prepared entrées and dinners, which means more opportunities for processors and producers of cook-in bags.

Gains will be driven by improved growth in meat, poultry and seafood production coupled with an increasing presence of smaller-size and single-portion items, and products that are further processed for convenience of preparation, the study predicts. Increasing demand for single-portion and other smaller-sized products will reflect the significant level of one- and two-person households in the US, plus processor and retailer efforts to clamp down selling prices of beef as prices continue to increase. Further-processed products usually feature more packaging relative to their volume than larger unprocessed items, the study reveals.

Flexible packaging demand growth for products will outpace that of rigid packaging as a result of solid prospects for pouches and high-barrier film, the study predicts. Advances for pouches will be driven by increasing demand for single-portion fresh, frozen and processed products in vacuum-pouches. Stand-up pouches, such as the Lean Cuisine Market Collection line, are expected to continue supplanting bags in frozen meat, poultry and seafood applications due to their good aesthetics, ability to stand upright and large front panels, which all offer merchandising advantages.

For consumers and foodservice operators who want to consistently satisfy their families and diners with high-quality meat and poultry products for dinner night after night, look closely because the answer is right in front of you – it’s in the bag.