Shoppers for meat, poultry and seafood are bringing home more products in pouches especially for prepared foods and meal kits. That trend appears likely to continue.  

Demand for pouches used in meat packaging is forecast to climb 5.3 percent per year to $220 million in 2021, with unit gains expected to advance 3 percent per year to 1.6 billion units, according to Meat Packaging Market in the U.S., a market study published in February 2017 by The Freedonia Group, Cleveland, Ohio. The report notes above-average gains will be driven by the growing preference for products that make meal preparation more convenient.  

The pouch format offers numerous benefits such as the ability to integrate value-added features such as easy-open/reclose zippers and peel/reseal flaps/labels. Pouches, particularly stand-up and peggable styles, are easy to display, and high-quality printing further boosts shelf impact. Other advantages include lightweight, excellent product protection; compatibility with oven, refrigerator and freezer conditions; potential to replace or eliminate heavier packaging and the ability to customize designs with distinctive shapes. 

Many meat, poultry and seafood producers form, fill and seal pouches in one operation on horizontal or vertical form-fill-seal equipment. A popular packaging method inside and outside the meat, poultry and seafood industries, form-fill-seal machines rank as the fourth most active packaging machinery category, according to the PMMI State of the Industry U.S. Packaging Machinery Report 2017, published by PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, in Reston, Va. Approximately $500 million worth of form-fill-seal machines were shipped in 2015, and this number is projected to grow more than 20 percent to about $650 million in 2022.  

The report reveals horizontal form-fill-seal machines dominate, but vertical form-fill-seal systems own a healthy share and account for about one-third of the shipments. Whether produced on horizontal or vertical equipment, film plays a vital role in ensuring package durability, printability, seal integrity and product shelf life.   

Although today’s materials deliver these attributes, three out of five meat, poultry and seafood companies want films with greater durability, fewer wrinkles, recyclability and temperature performance, according to the PMMI 2017 Trends Shaping Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Market Segment Report.

As a result, film converters are developing new options. In many cases, co-extrusions are replacing laminations. Laminations combine several films, or films, foil and/or paper using solvent, solventless or aqueous adhesives to meld the materials together. Co-extrusion simultaneously extrudes different resins to form a single web. Each layer in a co-extrusion can be fine-tuned. So structures can be customized to deliver maximum performance at a minimum gauge. Shelf life can be maximized by including a layer of barrier resin such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH). Five- and nine-layer co-extruded structures with EVOH are readily available and can include other resin layers to impart moisture control, strength and durability. Gauges typically range from 1 to 7.5 mils with maximum rollstock widths of more than 100 inches.   

Co-extruded films may combine the barrier properties of EVOH with a convenience feature such as peelability. Peelability enables easy opening and can be designed for optimum removal under hot or cold conditions. Enhanced seal layers ensure seal integrity without compromising the easy-peel capability. Peelable films also may be designed to be resealable to protect the quality and shelf life of multi-serving products. Peelable films are suitable for use as the non-forming top web on thermoform-fill-seal machines, which heat-shape the bottom-forming web to cradle the product.  

Meanwhile as co-extrusions proliferate, laminations are improving with the introduction of enhanced base layers. For example, new grades of polyethylene enhance processability, toughness, stiffness, hot tack, seal initiation temperature, formability, low temperature performance and sealability. As a result, pouches run faster, drop performance improves, seal failures decline and package integrity improves. In addition, the enhanced properties may enable downgauging with associated material cost savings and source reduction benefits.  

Films also support the demand for convenience products. Options include ovenable film for products prepared in conventional or microwave ovens and perforated materials for steam-cook applications. Ovenable films allow the package to go directly from fridge to oven, eliminating handling and preventing cross contamination. With in-pack cooking, the product often is designed to cook in its own juices. Therefore it doesn’t dry out or become overdone. It also tends to cook faster.   

Other next-generation films move beyond traditional passive barrier resins such as EVOH to active scavenging technology. These film structures incorporate an absorbent resin component that captures the oxygen that remains in the package and protects product shelf life, color, texture and taste, while eliminating the need for preservatives.   

More active packaging options are on the horizon. Development efforts focus on the use of natural nanomaterials and other additives or coatings to create antimicrobial films. Films that retard the growth of spoilage and pathogenic organisms can extend shelf life, eliminate preservatives, prevent foodborne illness and reduce food waste, a win/win/win/win proposition for consumers, retailers and brand owners.  NP