The future of the microwaveable-packaging market has pushed well beyond traditional trays and bags. That said, the main goal in designing an ideal microwaveable package is to develop a product or parcel that can deliver reasonable results no matter how bad the oven or how remiss the cook.

According to an article in Prepared Foods magazine, microwaveable-package design requires a continuing compromise between cost and value to the marketplace versus quality of results, ideal configurations versus merchandizing considerations, round versus square containers, high-sided versus low-sided containers, and so forth.

Compliance with existing Food and Drug Administration regulations is a given, yet safety, product liability and marketing considerations dictate going beyond the scope of published regulations to test products and packages together in microwave applications. It remains critical, that at high temperatures, food is not adulterated by packaging materials.

Tamper-proof, recyclable and environmentally friendly packaging options have also become increasingly desirable and marketable. More food companies are likely to adopt aggressive policies to stimulate the development of microwaveable green packaging.

A detailed study from Burnsville, Minn.-based Allied Development Corp. forecasts that microwaveable packaging will continue its astounding growth rate — an 11.6-percent increase annually through 2011. There are many key factors behind this growth clip, including emerging technologies and packaging formats.

Packaging pragmatics

Allied’s analysis suggests that one of the hottest markets for microwaveable products is the segment of refrigerated meat and poultry entrees. Hormel’s Beef Roast Au Jus and Tyson’s Pork Roast with Gravy, for example, are two of the industry’s many entrees utilizing a cook-in-bag technique as part of its microwaveable packaging strategy. As more evidence of the growing momentum in this category, suppliers have developed a packaging approach that uses a barrier tray and self-venting lid stock.

The importance of “dual-ovenability” — products that can be heated in a microwave and conventional oven — continues to be top of mind for many suppliers of microwaveable-packaging components. For instance, “Heat and serve” packages allow center-of-the-plate entrees — from beef tips, pot roast, pork roast, pulled pork and chicken breasts — to be fully cooked, distributed and sold in the same package. The cook-in technology is more efficient for processors and gives consumers a high-quality product that has undergone minimal handling.

These packages are typically made from a polypropylene (PP) tray that has a barrier laminate and easy-open sealant. The top web film forms a single, multilayer structure. Not only can consumers keep product in this type of package, but they don’t have to puncture the upper film for ventilation during microwave cooking.

Some of today’s microwaveable packages are wrapped with a paperboard sleeve with colorful branding, a window so consumers can see the product in the tray, and heating instructions. Curly’s fully cooked barbecue pulled meat products, for instance, employ a mold-injected tub wrapped with this type of paperboard sleeve for jam-packed product marketing with eye-popping appeal.

Another industry innovation is a package that allows foods cooked in the microwave to have similar browning and crisping characteristics as foods cooked in a conventional oven. The package/tray has a series of foil patterns and susceptors that change the way microwave energy interacts with food and allows for browning and crispiness of the food’s surface. This type of packaging redistributes the microwave power to the appropriate areas of the food — whether frozen, refrigerated or ambient — to enhance the cooking quality of the product.

To order a copy of the referenced study — Microwaveable Packaging: Trends, Technologies, Futures — 2004 to 2008, please contact Packaging Strategies or Allied Development Corp.