Meat Packaging: On the Innovation Trail
Consumers expect a lot from meat and poultry packaging. Their wish list includes a diverse set of attributes, including sustainability, convenience, freshness indicators and on-label nutritional data.
Packers are addressing those expectations with concepts ranging from compostable foamed trays to easy-open vacuum bags to smart freshness sensors. In addition, some new packages target supply chain needs by extending shelf life or reducing package size.
Sustainability solutionsMinimizing packaging materials is just one of several sustainability solutions, but its results can be quite substantial, as well as unique. To address consumers’ environmental concerns, Murray’s Chicken has replaced overwrapped foam trays with form-fill-seal vacuum pouches for fresh poultry. “Consumers who buy natural and organic products are very concerned about how the product is packaged,” explains Steve Gold, vice president of sales and marketing at Murray’s.
All Murray’s chickens are family farmed, naturally raised and humanely handled. Consumers can learn where their chicken came from and about the family that raised it by entering the production date, found on a sticker on the front of the package, into Murray’s web site.
Murray’s vacuum pouch is made from a proprietary, multi-layer film with ultra-high gas/oxygen barrier and high moisture barrier. It is sealed using a new type of adhesive that emits significantly fewer by-products than traditional adhesives.
In addition to getting rid of trays, the pouch reduces waste another way. Because the new package eliminates “leakers,” consumers don’t need to tuck the package into a roll-stock film bag at the point of purchase.
Further, the pouch is about two inches shorter than the old tray package, so Murray’s master cases have shrunk. More product can be packed on a pallet and onto a truck, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A different take on eco-sensitive meat packaging comes from BioPak, an Australian company, which markets the Naturalbox tray. This foamed tray is made from expanded polylactic acid (PLA), an industrially compostable bioplastic made from corn starch. The tray is can run on packaging lines that wrap with conventional stretch films or PLA film.
ConvenienceAnother top consumer concern for all types of food packaging, including meat, is convenience. Murray’s pouch meets that need by making it unnecessary to repackage the product for freezing-the unopened pouch is freezer-ready-and by incorporating an easy-open feature.
Also with an eye to convenience, Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging Systems group has introduced an easy-open vacuum shrink bag for meat. The high-barrier bag, called Cryovac Grip and Tear, is suitable for boneless products including fresh red meat, cooked poultry and other smoked and processed products.
The consumer simply pulls a tab to open the bag, eliminating the need for a knife. In focus groups, consumers appreciated the safety of the knifeless design and were glad to keep their fingers, countertops and utensils free of contamination from meat juices.
Research participants liked the package’s convenience, too. “It saves time. They don’t have to look for a pair of scissors or a knife, and they don’t have to clean it after they use it,” says Tim Avery, director of marketing for smoked and processed meats at Cryovac Food Packaging.
The company currently is developing a similar easy-open vacuum bag for fresh poultry products and another for bone-in meats.
Freshness and nutritionIn response to concerns about the freshness of uncooked meat and poultry, smart-sensor technology continues to evolve. One recently introduced sensor from Food Quality Sensor International (FQSI) Inc., called SensorQ, senses bacteriological levels inside the primary package.
The active component of the sensor is a natural botanical that changes color to signal bacterial growth: Orange means fresh, and tan means spoiled. The pressure-sensitive sensor is applied by the meat packer, distributor or grocer to the interior of the package’s film wrap.
The sensor overcomes consumer anxiety about date codes on packaging by sending a clear indication of product integrity. “About half the consumers in the United States have some level of distrust for the traditional sell-by code dating,” says Marco Bonné, president and CEO of FQSI. He characterizes the sensor as “very inexpensive,” with a price tag of pennies, not dollars.
The sensor can be used with modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and conventional package formats. When used in MAP, the sensor assures the consumer that the meat not only looks fresh but is fresh.
Superior Farms, a leading producer of high-quality lamb in the United States, is the first user of the SensorQ technology and plans to test market the sensor in MAP applications this spring. The test will include individual tray packs and master bags of multiple trays.
“We’re always looking for new, innovative ways to improve our packaging. This technology resonated as an opportunity to communicate directly with consumers and give them a whole new level of confidence in our products,” says Melissa VanLaningham, director of food science at Superior Farms.
Although the sensor doesn’t lengthen shelf life, “It lets consumers know their safety and peace of mind is important to us,” she adds. If they have any question about the product’s freshness, the sensor “should take that question mark away.”
In addition to being concerned about freshness, consumers crave nutritional information about meat and poultry. Many don’t know what nutrients meat contains, other than protein. Beef, as it happens, is a good source of micronutrients, specifically B vitamins, iron and zinc.
A study conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and funded by the Beef Checkoff Program showed that labeling fresh meat with nutrient and micronutrient data boosted sales.
In the study, at supermarkets in which meat and poultry packaging carried detailed nutrition labels, “Beef dollar sales increased by 6 percentage points versus the control stores,” reports Randy Irion, NCBA’s director of retail marketing. Pound sales increased only 1 percentage point, indicating sales of more expensive cuts.
Some supermarkets are adding nutritional information, including micronutrient data, to the net-weight label as the meat is packed in the store. In addition, Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets is using a triangular corner label that incorporates nutritional details on its meat packaging. Yerecic Label supplies Marsh’s corner labels.
The NCBA is encouraging its members and the meat industry at large to consider putting this type of information on labels of case-ready and other fresh meats.
Distribution-friendly packagingMAP innovations that target the needs of meat packers, distributors and retailers also are in the pipeline. The Cryovac Mirabella package improves on case- ready MAP by preventing discoloration caused by meat-to-film contact.
The Mirabella package consists of two coextruded shrink films: a permeable sealant film plus an outer film with high oxygen barrier. The double film is combined with Cryovac rigid polypropylene or foam trays to make a hermetically sealed package that eliminates leakers.
Prior to sealing on a modified tray/lid system, the double film is separated on the roll to let the MAP gases travel between the two films. If the permeable food-contact film touches the meat, the gas mixture moves through the film, preventing product discoloration.
With the problem of film-to-meat contact eliminated, package size can be reduced. That in turn reduces packaging materials, MAP gas usage and distribution and storage costs for the meat packer-and lets the retailer display more product in the meat case.
A MAP enhancement from Multisorb Technologies benefits all players in the supply chain by increasing meat’s shelf life as measured from time of packaging to time of display in retail meat cases. Called the FreshPax CR system, the technology features oxygen scavengers designed to be inserted into master bags of case-ready meat.
Multipack bags of beef or pork are flushed with a low-oxygen MAP gas mixture and sealed. Within 24 to 48 hours, oxygen scavengers inside the bags reduce residual oxygen to zero, which extends the shelf life of product in unopened bags to 25 days. When the bags are opened, the trayed product regains its red or pink color and demonstrates shelf life of three to five days.
These sophisticated packaging techniques bode well for everyone with an interest in meat and poultry, whether their stake is commercial or gustatory.
Salmon swims upscaleCanned salmon is acquiring an upscale look, thanks to a new black coated can that stands out on-shelf against standard silver- and gold-tone cans. Available in standard 8-ounce and single-serve 6-ounce sizes, the two-piece steel can’s exterior is colored using a black-pigmented polymer coating.
The container can be decorated with a paper label, cardboard sleeve or transparent or shrink film label. The can is compatible with easy-open ends and can be filled on standard canning lines.
The black coated can was developed by Crown Food Packaging USA, a business unit of Crown Holdings Inc., together with Bear & Wolf Salmon Co., a private label manufacturer of Alaskan salmon.
Bear & Wolf offers the black coated can to help its customers convey the premium quality of their top-tier lines of skinless, boneless salmon and appeal to a younger target audience.
For more information
Crown Holdings Inc.
Food Quality Sensor International Inc.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging Systems