Remember Rotisserie Gold — KFC’s chicken product of the early 1990s, which emerged around the time that Boston Rotisserie Chicken, now Boston Market, pretty much owned the category? KFC’s initiative — a whole roaster or a half bird — was designed to shed its high-fat, fried chicken reputation to appease the new mindset of consumers who had begun to avoid fried food.

Reportedly, rotisserie chickens are sold to the tune of an estimated 800 million annually and that rate has been increasing between 5 percent and 10 percent every year over the past decade — double the rate of overall chicken growth.

Meat skewered on a spit and rotating over a flame or other heat source defines the rotisserie style of roasting. The process yields evenly cooked meat in its own juice allowing easy access for continuous basting. Rotisseries were turned by hand or by clockwork contraptions early on, but today’s sophisticated modern designs employ electric motors.

The choice of packaging may well be the most critical part of the equation in marketing rotisserie meats, which, by the way, also include other meat protein cuts such as pork and turkey.

“It’s part of the game of doing whatever you can to stand out from other marketers,” confirms Aaron Brody, chief executive officer of Brody Inc., a Duluth, Ga.-based food packaging consulting firm. “Methods include offering more functional containers that are leak-proof and extend food life.”

Vernon Row, Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride’s corporate environmental manager, discussed how the poultry industry is addressing consumer interest in sustainable packaging as part of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association’s “Green Initiatives” report.

Noting that by introducing its sustainability program in 2005, Wal-Mart, one of the poultry industry’s major customers, established the standard concerning essential environmental issues and packaging recycling. Wal-Mart’s program demonstrates how environmental issues can be addressed at the corporate level, in stores and by suppliers in a way that is also cost effective, Row said.

Although rotisserie’s popularity is on the rise, experts caution that the momentum could lose steam in the face of negative consumer experiences, which is not lost on packaging suppliers who are delivering updated designs that enhance food safety without sacrificing visual appeal.

For one thing, flexible microwavable pouches are available that are capable of handling greasy rotisserie chicken. Components include a reclosable zipper, anti-fog technology, a wide gusset for easy loading, a large window facilitating viewing of enclosed product, and propriety venting to keep chicken moist. Rotisserie offerings are expanding at supermarket delis to include turkey breast, pork tenderloin, ribs, ham and roasts prompting suppliers to create leak-resistant packaging systems featuring colorful graphics to easily identify the contents inside.

Rotisserie products

keep growing

Last year, St. Cloud, Minn.-based Gold’n Plump Poultry added two options to its line of whole chicken including Marinated Butterfly Chicken and All Natural™ Whole Rotisserie Chicken.

Butterfly Whole Chicken has long been valued by professional chefs, because of its broad cooking surface, leading to a more evenly cooked product and reduced cooking time.

Gold’n Plump’s All Natural™ Whole Rotisserie Chicken has no added salt, water, carageenan or other binding agents, which is especially important to health-conscious consumers either as a lifestyle desire or for the necessity of monitoring sodium intake for good heart health. Butterfly Whole Chicken cuts cooking time to about 45 minutes, saving both time and money for deli and foodservice operators.

Winning bag

A rotisserie package took home the gold in 2008 as a Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) achievement award winner. Made to hold rotisserie items such as chicken, the pouch selected was an Environmental & Sustainability Achievement recipient.

The flexible all-in-one package was designed to aid consumers by giving them value-added features such as a built-in handle carrying ease, a resealable zipper for reclosing and a slim profile for saving leftovers. Other winning features of the pouch include that it is microwavable and resists leaks.

Compared to rigid containers, the pouch uses 92 percent less fossil fuels, produces 84 percent less CO2 emissions and reduces solid waste by 66 percent.

Packaging innovations that ignore the value of sustainability standards along with money-saving features would not measure up to current trends and consumer demands. Transportation ranks high among the links in the supply chain given that fuel prices are rising, for one thing.

Processor connection

Many companies such as Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans Farms Inc. have taken the step of both looking for recyclable materials and educating consumers on how to recycle the packages

“On current rigid packages, we try to make certain directions are clear to the consumers as to their options for recycling,” reports Tim Lawlis, the company’s director of technical services. “[Bob Evans] has not designated one material or system over another in regards to sustainability.”

The environments in which products are often used — from freezing to broiling — can create some challenges. But making the right choice can overcome those challenges, he says.

“The key attributes would be abuse resistance and seal integrity, in order to maintain product integrity throughout the distribution chain,” Lawlis explains. “Ease of opening and graphics, especially for retail, are two other attributes that are next in line for importance.”

Lawlis adds that while commonly used in both retail and foodservice, there are somewhat different demands placed on these bags and pouches.

Freezing can be detrimental, he says, especially with retail packages, for two reasons. One is failure due to flex cracks and brittleness. The other is the relaxation of the material if the package is brought back into refrigeration for sale.

And looks are important. “Primarily graphics are the key to a good retail package along with functionality and easy opening,” Lawlis explains. “Foodservice packages must be durable, maintain their integrity and be able to carry clear coding information for traceability.”

To be sure, the green movement is spreading. The meat and poultry industry is positioning to do its part.

“I think as our industry goes forward, when it comes to right-size packaging and things of that nature, we’ll see a lot of improvements over time,” Rowe concludes. “Hopefully there will be some cost benefits from that.”