Convenience, Appetite Appeal color the meat case
by Bob Swientek
Case-ready packaging lets retailers broaden their meat selection. Cooked and seasoned items trim meal ‘prep’ time for consumers.
Once a dull “sea” of white foam trays with clear over-wrap film, the meat case is now a carnival of colorful and convenient packaging. This visual excitement and added functionality encompasses both fresh or case-ready and cooked, heat-and-eat products.
Busy consumers want food products with minimal preparation time. Cooked and seasoned meats can heat up in a microwave oven in just a few minutes.
These products also take the guesswork out of flavoring the meat and offer a “repeatable” eating experience from package to package.
Harris Ranch, Selma, Calif., markets fully cooked beef entrees in one- and two-pound packages. The packaging consists of a cook-in bag inside a black thermoformed tray with a printed film lid.
The meat processor recently redesigned the packaging to make it more “shopper-friendly,” says Bruce Berven, Vice President of Marketing.
Harris Ranch switched from a glossy film lid to a matte finish. This eliminates the glare on the packaging that can occur from lighting in the meat case.
“Glare can hurt product visibility and readability of the package,” Berven says. “Some consumers might not have realized that these were fully cooked products.”
Heat-sealing the film to the tray causes crinkling of the lidding along its edges. The matte finish helps to hide these wrinkles, Berven says.
The matte film—supplied by Curwood—also features an easy-peel layer that is independent of seal temperature and dwell time. Curwood reverse prints the film in eight colors. New package graphics showcase the products. Crisp photographs zero in on the grain of the meat, Berven says.
The background—previously colorful—is now white or light gray, which makes the meat stand out and “jump off” the package. This creates appetite appeal, Berven says.
Making the case for case ready
Like cooked products, case-ready packaging is also growing in popularity in the meat case. Case-ready meat offers advantages to both consumers and retailers. Meat processors also benefit with branded products that garner consumer loyalty.
For retailers, case-ready meat packages deliver extended shelf life—up to 21 days depending on the packaging technology and cut of meat.
This helps retailers reduce “shrink” or the loss of value as the meat product nears the ends of its “sell by” date. For example, a steak priced at $9 per pound may be marked down to $5 per pound as it gets toward the end of its retail shelf life.
Retailers worry about shrink, for example, when they’re cutting up meat in their store’s backroom. Are they getting the right mix from their “sub-primal” relative to their consumer preference? Will shoppers take all the packages at the price points that they want? Are they better off having those products come in case ready? Retailers must answer these questions when evaluating full or partial replacement of their backroom operations.
Case-ready packaging increases the variety of cuts for the retailer, says Phil Ryan, General Manager for Case-Ready Products, Cryovac. “It enables stores to have products available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and to replenish product quickly when demand surges.” By using case ready, retailers can create a custom product mix that meets the needs of individual stores.
Another factor driving case ready is food safety, says Mark Wilhelm, Tray Sealer Product Manager, Multivac. Retailers who cut meat in their stores’ backrooms face sanitation and food-safety issues.
Wal-Mart weighs in
Wal-Mart is a big proponent of case-ready packaging. The largest grocer in the United States uses case-ready packaging exclusively for its fresh meat products in Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets.
Many retailers have followed Wal-Mart’s lead. But others, in an effort to differentiate themselves, have kept their butchers in the backroom. This backroom appearance is important. Hence, some case-ready packaging mimics the look of backroom products.
The “Perfect Bloom” package from Swift & Co., Greeley, Colo., is a case in point. The case-ready packaging—co-developed with Cryovac—can hold whole-muscle cuts of fresh beef or pork. A low-oxygen atmosphere maintains a 21-day shelf life.
The meat rests inside a black foam tray covered with a dual-layer film. The inner layer accepts printing and branding. Retailers peel off the top airtight layer to expose the oxygen-permeable film. Since the packaging is pre-bloomed (the meat is always a red color), it can go straight to the display case.
After removal of the top layer, the meat has a three-day shelf life.
After removal of the top layer, the meat has a three-day shelf life.
“The package looks like it came from the backroom,” says Patrick Huebner, Swift’s Vice President of R&D. “Retailers can ‘peel ’em as they need ’em’ to meet consumer demand.”
Swift flexo-prints the package in eight colors. But it decorates only about 15-20 percent of the front of the packaging. “Consumers want to see the meat. It’s a very important aspect to the purchasing decision,” Huebner says.
The backside of the package carries cooking instructions and nutritional data. It also contains an individual “Guaranteed Swift Fresh” tracking number that verifies the product’s production date, time and location.
Along with colorful film printing, meat processors are elevating the visual intensity of their trays through special shapes and colors.
Pactiv Corp. markets extended-shelf-life trays for the meat case. In addition to standard rectangular shapes, the company can produce round and oval trays.
The trays come in a broad range of colors—red, yellow, green, black, etc. “Different types of meat look better on certain colored trays,” says Mark Spencer, Pactiv’s Manager of Product Development.
One of the newest designs is a dual-colored tray with separate interior and exterior colors. “The dual colors offer a high-end look for merchandising,” Spencer says.
The size of the trays is also becoming more important, Cryovac’s Ryan says. While marketers want unique sizes to differentiate their brands on shelf, some retailers, such as Wal-Mart, are looking to optimize tray sizes to reduce shipping, handling and display costs.
Plus, the meat case is not infinite. Brands receive a set amount of shelf space. Marketers need to select tray designs that maximize their SKUs. To increase the size of their meat display sections, many retailers use angled shelves above their coffin-style cases.
Cryovac offers a tray with an interior “step” that keeps whole-muscle cuts from sliding inside the package when it’s displayed at a 30-degree angle, Ryan says.
Another way to keep the meat from shifting in the tray is vacuum-skin packaging. This allows greater merchandising flexibility, including displaying the packages vertically.
Multivac offers a vacuum-skin system with registered over-wrap film. This outer film can accept printing, branding and labeling, Multivac’s Wilhelm says.
Marinated meats look appealing in vacuum-skin packaging. The liquid marinade remains trapped against the meat and does not slosh inside the package or coat the lidding film.
Most fresh meat packages—the exception being ground meat—are random weight. Net-weight packages offer added merchandising opportunities for retailers, Ryan says.
With net-weight packaging, retailers can use in-store signage to tout the unit price. It also offers promotional opportunities, such as “buy one, get one free.”
For consumers, net weight allows shoppers to select product quicker. They don’t have to search through several packages to find the desired weight or price. BP
The author, Bob Swientek, is the Editor-in-Chief of BRANDPACKAGING magazine.