The use of efficient and effective trays and tray sealers is essential if meat processors are to maximize food safety, minimize operating expenditures and meet the quality demands of consumers and retailers.

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp. has been upgrading its tray sealing functions to enhance the performance and presentation of its case-ready proteins, fully cooked entrees and the Compleats line of 10-ounce microwavable meals. Chad Donicht and Daniel Hirst, scientists in Hormel’s packaging department, spoke about the changing environment with National Provisioner Editor Richard Mitchell.

NP: How have trays and tray sealers evolved in recent years?

Donicht: For case-ready products, the main activity has been a move to high-impact seal heads that better control contamination and ensure a good quality seal. They bury heat and pressure into trays to help lock down the seal and push away contamination, such as purge and blood, which would previously have been on the flanges of trays.

Most case-ready products also went from being merchandised in foam overwrap to the rigid lidstock tray to maximize shelf life. The biggest task was increasing the line speeds and training employees to handle the situation. Incorporating different tray sizes, learning how to maintain the equipment and trouble shooting all take time and experience.

In addition, today’s trays are more operationally friendly. Workers in the past had to diligently wipe off trays. Now they just have to be sure to not leave pieces of meat, trim or fat on the tray so it can be sealed.

Hirst: Prior to 2006, horizontal roll stock was used for our fully cooked entrees. We then moved to vacuum skin packaging for our 17-ounce and 30-ounce formats. The challenge was identifying material structures that would withstand the cooking requirements. The film is heated and pulled down to the inside of the tray. It was difficult finding film that would constantly adhere to the tray in a uniform manner. The 30-ounce tray is deep, and it was important to not create a hole in the film by having it stretch too much. We worked with our film and tray supplier to find the right gauge of materials to overcome the problem.

NP: What improvements are further needed to strengthen operations and product merchandising?

Donicht: Recyclable trays need to be developed for case-ready meats. It is a struggle to find a recyclable tray and film combination that will seal through contamination and run well on the equipment. Basic trays have sealant layers on both the tray and film that are compatible and seal through contamination, purge and water. A sealant layer, however, cannot be put on trays that are to be recyclable. As a result, there is not a strong seal. We haven’t seen a good combination that meets our food safety requirements. We have high standards, because food safety and quality are always the top considerations.

Hirst: We’re also always looking for better materials to seal through contamination for fully cooked entrées and Compleats meals. There needs to be good peel performance for the film covering the food so the consumer can take it off with a nice, clean tear. Compleats is challenging because it is a retort and cooked at a high temperature for an extended period of time. That puts a lot of stress on the materials. The film needs to stay intact on the tray, and not all materials are compatible to the elevated temperatures that are used during the cooking process. The pool of available materials is smaller than for many other applications.

NP: How do you expect trays and tray sealers to evolve over the next few years?

Hirst: Equipment speeds will improve, and some tray structures will become more sustainable. The different trays and tray sealers already provide a lot of flexibility in the size and shapes of the protein products you can work with, and they enable us to provide a very good shelf presentation.