Tyson Beefs Up Product Packaging

by Pan Demetrakakes
and Bob Garrison
Continuing evolution presents new packaging challenges for Tyson Foods.
Although they say history repeats itself, there’s nothing that says you can’t speed up the process.
Tyson Foods, Springdale, AR, entered the ’90s as a provider of center-of-the-plate proteins: chicken, beef, pork, and seafood. Before the decade was over, however, weak poultry exports and fierce meat industry competition forced Tyson to return to its core chicken business.
Then in 2000 came the chance to bid on IPB Inc., the nation’s largest red meat processor. Tyson not only pursued the deal but completed it in 2001 for $4.7 billion.
The acquisition allowed Tyson to add IBP’s strengths to its own, on every level, said Steven Morris, director of corporate packaging design and research, during an interview late last year.
“Even above the level of packaging, there is an overriding philosophy meld,” Morris said. “The acquisition of IBP [the beef and pork or red/white meat segment] has been a unique one. IBP’s strengths were in production efficiencies, scaling, and commodity dominance. Tyson’s strengths were clearly in adding value to products, worldwide sales, and a true vision for brand marketing. Those strengths, joined together, result in an enviable position, a dominant force in the industry and a great responsibility to maintain and excel from that benchmark.”
The company is now prepared to exploit those strengths. A hand-picked group of Tyson and IBP veterans leads a new Refrigerated Processed Meats (RPM) Div., created in early 2002. With annual sales estimated at more than $500 million, the Springdale, Ark.-based group includes several IBP legacy companies’ operations and offerings in sliced lunchmeats, bacon, ham, and prepared dinner meats. Tyson also bolstered the group’s strength in 2002 by purchasing a 392,000-square-foot bacon processing plant in Omaha, NE
New markets
Lunchmeat? Bacon? Ham? Although some may wonder why Tyson is interested in these more mature grocery categories, there are many reasons. For starters, these markets were completely new to Tyson at the end of 2003.
“At the [2003] Food Marketing Institute exhibition, retail customers told us they were glad to see us entering these categories,” said Jack Dunn, the RPM Div.’s senior vice president and general manager. “They know Tyson will bring ‘new news’ in terms of better packaging and high-quality products with a poultry twist. Moreover, they know we’ll help promote and grow the processed meats category.”
Officials likewise believe they have an equally appealing consumer proposition.
“Consumers say they perceive refrigerated, further-processed meats as being ‘fresher,’ and they’re willing to pay more for refrigerated products than frozen alternatives,” noted Jeff Sandore, vice president of marketing. “They’re looking for convenient, value-added foods, and we can provide them.”
Perhaps there’s no better example than Tyson’s growing line of fully cooked dinner meats. Debuting in 2001 under the Thomas E. Wilson name, these further-processed entrees helped build a dynamic niche within the fresh meat case. The dinner meat entrées range from 16 to 20 ounces per package. Tyson has since re-branded that premium dinner meat line—featuring such varieties as Lemon Pepper Pork Roast and Seasoned Beef Sirloin Roast—under its own Tyson trademark.
Packaging synergy
The addition of so many refrigerated processed products makes it important for Tyson to take advantage of packaging technology. Synergy between poultry and red meat is just as important for packaging as for other operations.
“There are significant opportunities to cross-pollinate proven technologies and packaging materials across the protein platform,” Morris said. “Anti-microbial films, oxygen scavenging laminates, CO2 emitters, UV-light inhibitors, active packaging constructions — all will play a key role in Tyson Foods’ packaging development for the future.”
The addition of these refrigerated products is part of a larger effort by Tyson to develop a base of branded items across its four primary lines.
“This line not only features new products but new packaging concepts, some new flavors and product improvements,” Sandore noted. “We realize these are established, multi-billion dollar categories. We also know that we will see competitive pressure as we enter the market. For these reasons, we have to establish a competitive point of difference that brings real value to the consumer and the retailer.”
Product highlights include offerings in the lunchmeat, heat-and-eat dinner entrée and bacon categories. One of the most logical moves involves sliced lunchmeat, where there has not been an established chicken brand — even though chicken leads all other meats in per-capita consumption. Tyson will offer many varieties of chicken, turkey, beef, and pork lunchmeats in boxes, resealable bags and self-serve deli packages.
Saving the bacon
Finally, there’s a new bacon line with a host of new products and packaging. These range from ready-to-cook bacon offering thicker slices and better flavor (authentic smokehouse process) than competitive offerings. Elsewhere, a new pre-cooked, shelf-stable product is not only tasty and convenient, but comes in a semi-rigid plastic package with a gussetted bottom. Designed for optimal retailer convenience, the colorful bag can stand on its own, lie flat, or hang on a grocery pegboard.
As refrigerated and shelf-stable products become more prominent in Tyson’s packaging line-up, the company will continue to take advantage of progress in packaging technology, Morris said.
“Advances in barrier technologies in flexible and rigid packaging have helped preserve or extend the shelf-life of refrigerated or shelf-stable products,” he added. “Thermal processing methods such as post-pasteurization and retort have put us in a position to offer products in niches and markets unobtainable years ago. Multi-ply laminates, accompanied by downgauging in such items as bag and lid films and foam and multi-layer semi-rigid sheeting, have reduced the impact to our environment; conserved finished costs to the operator, customer, and consumer; and extended product shelf life.”
Integrating and developing the RPM division will be a key to Tyson’s continuing success.
“Whereas Tyson has been highly centralized, the value-added components of IBP were decentralized,” said Dunn, a veteran of both companies. “We thought that forming three of IBP’s independent operating companies into a value-added group would be easy. But we’re finding that this next phase is challenging as we work to develop a common culture with a common sales force and common systems.
“In some ways, however, it’s not unlike being a part of a start-up company….It’s exciting,”  he added. NP
Pan Demetrakakes is executive editor and Bob Garrison is editor-in-chief of Refrigerated and Frozen Foods magazine.
How Tyson cooks up convenience
In the cold days of November 2000, it may have been hard to visualize that a state-of-the art food processing facility would rise up from the ground in Council Bluffs, IA. Workers tried to fabricate the steel in 30-mile-per-hour winds and sub-zero temperatures for what would eventually become the Tyson Foods Inc. Cooked Meats Facility.
John Isadore, who manages the facility — and had been involved with the project from the beginning — was watching the progress. He was there in August, 2001, when the plant opened. And he is there today as the plant produces a line of highly innovative refrigerated, fully cooked meat products that are winning fans among time-starved consumers and families that want to enjoy a traditional meal with a traditional center-of-the-plate meat dish.
IBP inc. planned and constructed the plant, which initially produced products under the Thomas E. Wilson brand name. IBP was acquired by Tyson Foods in September, 2001, and the entire line was subsequently re-branded with the recently revamped Tyson colors and packaging scheme.
“We originally started with six SKUs,” Isadore noted last fall. “We are presently at fourteen SKUs and we soon will be at 18 SKUs. And I am positive there will be more.”
From its inception, the 85,000 square-foot plant was designed to produce the fully cooked dinner meats that have begun to win more space in the supermarket meat case. The refrigerated, fully cooked meats boast of quick preparation times, made possible by a durable, rigid plastic tray that can be used in both traditional ovens and microwaves.
The design of the plant, which is officially part of Tyson Refrigerated Processed Meats Inc., is matched to the product and how it is produced.
“We operate as two plants inside one building,” Isadore said. “We have a raw manufacturing side and a totally separate ready-to-eat [RTE] side.” Each side has its own employee locker room, separate restrooms, and separate lunchroom. The employees from one side do not mingle or work with the workers on the other side.”
Although the plant is designed as a flow-through operation, it is not configured in a straight line. The U-shaped operation is divided by flow-through steam ovens and chillers that run down the middle of the building, separating the two operations.
The Council Bluffs facility is designed to produce 720,000 pounds of finished product in a six-day, two-shift operation. It processes two kinds of ready-to-eat meats: pre-portioned, cooked once finished product, and large roasts that are cooked, then sliced and portioned (and are actually cooked again in a post-packaging heat-treating process).
Meat portions are hand-selected and trimmed. These portions are tenderized and placed in a cook-in pouch. The product is slow-cooked to flavor the meat to the core and to avoid temperature extremes. The pouches are chilled to remove excess heat and then placed in 30-mil white crystallized polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) “carrier” trays. Depending upon the line, the tray is wrapped with either a non-glued or pre-glued paperboard sleeve. The tray/sleeve combination then passes through a poly shrink operation that totally encases the package to give a crisp, clear, tamper-resistant/evident package. Currently nine packages are oriented in the master case and palletized. Product is stored in a deep-cooling refrigerator awaiting shipment.
 “This is a unique product because we ship a lot of air,” Isadore notes. “We double stack the pallets on the truck to get enough weight to justify the shipment. A full load is about twenty-eight thousand pounds because we cube out long before we weigh out.”
As the plant increases output to move closer to working at capacity, some challenges remain.
“Since our industry deals with animal proteins, the pieces, parts and cuts of meat always vary,” said Steven Morris, Tyson’s director of corporate packaging design and research. “We don’t stamp out cookies or gears that are homogeneous. These natural proportioned meats present their own challenges from targeting net weight to reducing give-away, to proper package fit. Often, as in the case of many of our refrigerated products, the packaging is a key part of the thermal and sterilizing process, so it is exposed to vast extremes and fluctuations in temperature, humidity, caustics, pressure, and handling abuses.”