Source: National Meat Case Study

Meat and poultry packaging is truly case-sensitive.

Changes in technology and, especially, consumer preferences for case-ready meats have had profound effects on packaging trends for meat and poultry. The leading motivator of these changes, as in other packaging shifts, has been Walmart.

The nation’s leading grocer gave case-ready meat a huge boost in the early 2000s, when it systematically began phasing out in-store butchers. Walmart’s move accelerated the trend of meat being packaged for consumers by processors instead of retailers, aided by packaging technologies that extended shelf life.

Case-ready is still going strong. According to the National Meat Case Study, commissioned by film and equipment supplier Cryovac/Sealed Air, the share of case-ready meat has been rising steadily since 2002, increasing (as a percentage of all packages in the meat case) from 49% in 2002 to an estimated 66% in 2010.

But, again thanks to Walmart, the rules are changing.

When Walmart started the shift to case-ready in the early 2000s, the up-and-coming technology was a deep tray, usually thermoformed, flushed with inert gas and sealed with a flexible film lid. This modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) technology has considerable advantages for both processors and retailers. It’s quick and reliable, and presents retailers with a neat, self-contained package that only needs to be put into their fresh-meat cases.

It's a Wrap

The major competing method of case-ready packaging is overwrap, usually with vinyl film and a shallow tray made from rigid plastic or expanded foam. This kind of package can also be gas-flushed, but it’s a more complicated proposition for both processor and retailer. It involves placing the overwrapped packages in an impermeable master bag, gas-flushing the bag and shipping it to the retailer, who must then unpack the packages and stock them.

Vinyl overwrapping is still the dominant form of case-ready packaging, but deep-tray MAP cut steadily into its share since Walmart brought it into large-scale use. Between 2002 and 2007, deep-tray MAP rose from 9% of all meat-case packages in 2002 to 17% in 2007. In that time, overwrapped packages declined in share from 51% to 39%.

However, consumer perceptions and preferences are pushing back on that trend.

Huston Keith, head of Keymark Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in meat and poultry packaging, says that deep-tray MAP packages have a disadvantage with many consumers: They look mass-produced (which, of course, they are). Retailers with overwrapped trays could use that perception against Walmart and others with deep-draw lidded trays.

“Because the [deep tray] package looked different, [competing retailers] could say, ‘Oh, you get it fresh here, whereas they’re bringing it in. We’ve got real fresh meat cut by butchers,’ which is a lie, too,” Keith says-at least, in the case of retailers who used the master-bag system.

Master Bag Rules

As a result, in the summer of 2008, Walmart began switching to an overwrap/master bag system, which now represents a majority of case-ready meats in its stores, according to suppliers and other industry observers. (A Walmart spokesperson declined to comment.) The result has been a rollback of the surge for deep-tray MAP. According to the Cryovac study, deep-tray MAP went from 17% of all meat-case packaging in 2007 to 12% in 2010, while overwraps rebounded from 39% to 42%.

This has obvious ramifications for processors, especially those who invested in deep-tray packaging lines. Walmart’s shift will motivate many of them to back away from those investments, Keith says.

“Tyson went pretty well whole-hog with the barrier-tray thing, and I’m sure that now they understand reality quite well,” he says. “They’re not the largest meatpacker just for fun.”

Mike Kennedy, Cargill’s director of purchasing of animal protein, says Cargill has already shifted most of its case-ready production to overwrap. “We effectively have made that change, so from a business perspective, we’ve dealt with it and moved on,” Kennedy says, adding that “more than three” packaging lines have been so altered, and the process is ongoing. The change required new equipment, but the overwrap lines run as fast as the deep-draw lines and require no additional labor, Kennedy says.

Keith says that deep-draw trays probably will be used more often for ground meat than for whole-muscle cuts. Deep-draw will still be used for whole muscle, but “it’s going to be tough to scale it back up to what it had been,” he says.

Vacuum Rushes In

A third alternative for case-ready packaging is vacuum packaging, either film-to-tray or (more often) film-to-film.

Vacuum packaging has some powerful consumer negatives. In focus groups conducted by Keymark, vacuum packaging came in last among the dominant case-ready packaging technologies.

“They had a hard time telling whether it was spoiled, or they’d say, ‘Oh, man, this looks like it was brought in on an 18-wheeler from Oklahoma,’” Keith says.

On the other hand, it has the virtues of simplicity. It doesn’t involve gas-flushing and, like deep trays, doesn’t require the retailer to deal with an additional layer of secondary packaging. Vacuum’s share of the meat case has been small but growing, according to the Cryovac study: from 10% in 2002 to 17% in 2010.

Of course, other trends besides case-ready have an impact on meat and poultry packaging:

Sustainability. Bio-based materials have been tried for both film and trays. The high water activity of meat is an obstacle for compostable materials, which tend not to be as water-resistant as regular polymers.

However, Cargill has tested both film and trays made from polylactic acid (PLA) and has found that modern versions meet performance standards, Kennedy says: “It’s taken some time, but the product itself is working fine. It used to not handle the cold temps very well, but now it’s working fine.” The extra cost of PLA is the biggest barrier to commercial implementation, he says.

Country-of-origin labeling. Most packages in the meat case had information regarding the product’s country of origin, according to the Cryovac study. Percentages ranged from 75% for beef to 80% for lamb.

Nutritional and cooking information. Nutrition labeling was present on 61% of packages in the meat case in 2010, up from 34% in 2002, according to the Cryovac study. Cooking information increased from 32% in 2007 to 39% in 2010.