Studies indicate that case-ready meat and poultry packaging is alive and well in retail supermarkets and club stores across the nation. In fact, according to an article in Packaging World Magazine (PW), case-ready meat is continuing to take over the fresh-meat case, and some case-ready packaging systems — modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) and vacuum packaging, in particular — have been increasing in use, perhaps at the expense of other formats.

But while current studies may be an accurate indicator of the latest technology, they may not tell the whole story. Current forces, the article continues, such as the rise of sustainable packaging, consumer concern about product safety, and a growing interest in products sourced regionally, are assembling. These forces may eventually change the future face of the retail fresh-meat case.

MAP packaging refers to deep-drawn, rigid trays covered with film lidstock that are typically flushed with a mixture of gases — including carbon monoxide — to extend the product’s shelf life and red color. These are frequently referred to as “low-oxygen” packages.Overwrap trays, often called “high-oxygen” packages, refer to case-ready packaging that uses an expanded polystyrene (EPS) tray covered with a permeable, polyvinyl chloride overwrap to present the product. These trays are multipacked in a barrier master bag that is back-flushed with a mixture of gases that maintain freshness until the bags are unpacked at the retail location.Similar to overwrap-tray packaging, the article says, is a format used for fresh poultry. It consists of an EPS tray with a film overwrap that uses either a flap seal or a three-way beaded seal on the back of the package. The film for this poultry packaging is typically printed to provide attractive, point-of-sale graphics.

Regarding the types of case-ready formats used, the 2007 National Meat Case Study pointed to a rapid rate of decline for overwrap trays, while MAP and vacuum packaging gained in overall share of the market.
Mega-player momentum?

More than a year ago, Wal-Mart began testing fresh beef and pork in new overwrap-tray packaging in 76 southern U.S. stores served by its Brundidge, Ala., distribution center. The program has since spread to stores across the country, replacing the low-oxygen MAP tray package to which Wal-Mart had so publicly committed in 2001. The change, says the PW article, which represented “multi-millions of dollars at least of equipment investment” for each facility supplying meat to Wal-Mart, appeared to be a response to consumers’ desire for more traditional, back-of-the-store-style meat packaging.

The change affected Wal-Mart’s Genuine Steak House Brand USDA Choice and Select fresh-beef offerings and USDA-certified, case-ready fresh pork, and corresponded with the introduction of new cuts in the Choice beefcategory. Some material suppliers say that one of the factors that might have motivated the change is the realization that the overwrap tray is more space-efficient than the MAP tray and is less likely to result in freezer burn of the meat during storage. Others, however, saw the switch to the overwrap tray as a step backward in that its shorter shelf life once it is placed in the meat case — two to three days versus the 10 to 16 days possible with MAP packaging — inevitably leads to greater shrink rates.

MAP trays are designed to be deep to prevent the meat from making contact with the film lid, which can cause meat discoloration. The new package being employed by Wal-Mart consists of an EPS tray — black for beef; pink for pork — covered with a clear, PVC overwrap. Trays are placed in a master bag and are back-flushed with a low-oxygen, tri-gas mixture of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and a small amount of carbon monoxide.

Although there are glimpses of change — perhaps spurred by Wal-Mart’s format modification — “not much new is happening in the case-ready realm,” says Huston Keith, principal and founder of Marietta, Ga.-based Keymark Associates. “Most retailers/processors have settled into the various systems and do not seem to be making any major shifts. And while Wal-Mart pulled out of case-ready, whole-muscle beef in MAP-sealed trays and went back to masterpack systems [a significant move], it was over a year ago. I haven’t heard or seen any significant changes on the case-ready front.”

Due to the nature of its proverbial magnitude, will Wal-Mart’s change to the overwrap tray have any future affect on the category? Only time will tell.