Keeping product on the shelf for as long as possible is one of the most challenging issues facing processors. Product can remain unsold on the shelf for many reasons, including unattractive packaging, discoloration and spoilage. According to a USDA Economic Research Service report, more than 2 billion pounds of meat and poultry are wasted at the
retail level.

Meat preservation isn’t a new concept. It’s been around for centuries. However, in recent years market trends and consumer demands have caused a shift in the way processors think about perishable food items.

The average shelf life for meat or poultry is anywhere between 20 and 90 days, depending on the packaging method. Compared to other products, this is a relatively short time frame, so it is critical that retailers move these packages much sooner to increase product salability. Preventing waste at retail could result in substantial cost savings for retailers and processors, alike.

Even with more traditional and direct approaches to address shelf life issues, food packaging technologies provide a simple solution with a tremendous impact. Adopting innovative packaging systems is an effective way that processors can reduce product waste, lengthen shelf life and retain freshness.

Packaging evolution

Not all packaging is the right fit for every protein or issue. Oxygen is one of the biggest threats to fresh meats. It can cause flavor deterioration, lead to discoloration and encourage bacterial growth. Packaging that properly controls oxygen and moisture transmission can significantly reduce these side effects, without the use of artificial additives.

Another solution is modified-atmosphere packaging. Carbon dioxide is injected into the package to preserve freshness, extend shelf life and reduce pigment oxidation, which can be off-putting to consumers.

Pasteurizing products after they have entered the final package is another effective – but costly – preservation technique. Post-pasteurization shrink bag packaging, which involves either thermal or pressure treatment to a packaged product to extinguish dangerous organisms, is ideal for deli applications and products like smoked and processed meats. The result is high-barrier, high-clarity packaging, which extends product shelf life.

Finally, bulk packaging for case-ready meats, which involves placing primary over-wrapped trays inside of a secondary mother bag and bringing out the product as needed, is a system that ensures that packaged meats have a longer shelf and display life in retailers.

Functional additives and ingredients

Taking advantage of packaging technology is only one way modern food processors can combat shelf-life issues. Incorporating innovative types of preservatives and functional ingredients into processing operations also can be an effective method to extend shelf life.

Historically, meat processors have used phosphates to help retain water in protein, protect flavor integrity and improve yields. However, phosphate alternatives including new types of preservatives and functional ingredients have emerged over the past decade. Functional ingredients impede the growth of organisms, improve product safety and help mitigate the impact of waste.

These dry compounds replace phosphates in marinades or brine and are injected into meats or applied topically, producing tenderized cuts of beef, poultry and pork. Functional ingredients also increase yields on the production line by reducing the free moisture in the packaging, which lessens the amount of packaging required.

Maintaining product integrity

For years, consumers have demanded safe, high-quality meat products. Today, processors are even more challenged by the increasing demand for minimally processed, all-natural, preservative-free and clean-label products.

Meat products are extremely susceptible to microbial contamination; therefore, it is imperative to explore new food processing ingredients that help extend shelf life while maintaining product integrity. Essential oils like sage, rosemary and oregano, and spices and seasonings – such as garlic – are all natural additives containing antimicrobial properties. Adding these ingredients may help to extend shelf life while adding distinct flavor profiles.

Additionally, active packaging systems like anti-mold packaging, biologically active packaging material and biodegradable food packages containing films made with sugar cane extracts continue to evolve in response to market trends and consumer demands.

Addressing shelf life concerns through packaging and preservation advancements is a great way processors can manage shelf-life issues with new ways of thinking about profitability, efficiency and consumer trends. Emerging packaging technologies present key benefits for processors, retailers and the consumer. Processors are able to preserve the quality of the meat and extend shelf life, retailers benefit from fewer product markdowns and minimal waste, and consumers benefit from a more appealing product and a longer consumption period.