Turning to Tubs
by sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
The popularity of rigid, resealable containers is on the rise in the lunch meat market.
Thin-sliced lunch meat has long been a convenient item for consumers to have in the refrigerator. The lunch-meat packaging, however, is quickly becoming a convenience item as well.
Several companies have turned to packaging their lunch meat in rigid, resealable tubs, and the containers’ ease of use has struck a chord among consumers.
The use of plastic resealable tubs to package lunch meat started in 2002 when Hillshire Farms began selling its Hillshire Farms Ultra-Thin Deli Select lunch meats in Gladware containers. Other large companies, such as ConAgra, Smithfield, and Oscar Mayer have added similar items, and in some cases have evolved the packaging even further.
The tubs come with several advantages, notes Huston Keith, principal of Keymark Associates, Marietta, GA.
“It’s easier to remove slices of meat from a container than a pouch and to reseal it,” he says. “The container can also be washed and reused for other foods later. But they add five to ten cents to the cost of a package, are more costly than a zippered pouch and require an extra step to fill.”
Consumers are willing to pay for the convenience of a recloseable package, says Chad Baker, assistant vice president sales, packaged meats, for Smithfield Inc., Smithfield, VA. In February of this year, Smithfield began offering four varieties of deli thin ham and turkey in the company’s resealable Sandwich Keepers containers. “Consumer demand for premium ham and turkey products in plastic containers is undeniable,” he says. “The days of cutting open a package, making a sandwich, and placing unused product in a plastic resealable bag that you pulled out of the pantry are gone. Today, we as manufacturers are responding to our consumers’ need to cut out steps.”
Container innovations
With several companies now offering the resealable containers, companies are taking steps to make their packaging stand out. Baker says that Smithfield’s Sandwich Keepers double as a traveling lunchbox when the meat has been used up. “While competitive products offer the consumer a ‘resealable tub,’ the application is limited to holding leftover soups and pastas,” he explains. “Our container was engineered to carry a sandwich to work or school.”
Oscar Mayer, Madison, WI, introduced its recloseable Stay-Fresh® trays for its deli shaved items in 2003. Darin Dugan, brand director for Oscar Mayer cold cuts, says the response from consumers has been very favorable. “Convenience continues to be a primary purchase driver for consumers of pre-packaged lunch meats,” he says. “The recloseable Stay-Fresh® tray ensures premium quality and easy storage.”
The Stay-Fresh® trays are used with Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Shaved Ham and Turkey lunch meats, including brown sugar ham, honey ham, smoked ham, oven roasted turkey, and smoked turkey. The company’s ready-to-serve bacon also uses a recloseable tray.
The look of the tray was designed to promote the product inside. “Considering customers tend to purchase with their eyes,” Dugan says, “the clear packaging showcases the meat, letting consumers see the quality and how thinly sliced the meat is.”
Dugan adds that the packaging gives flexibility to retailers in displaying the product, as the trays can be stacked or stood up on end in shelves. “Retailers recognize the need to bring innovation to the marketplace, and we are committed to partnering with them to drive growth,” he says.
The packager’s perspective
Presto Products of Appleton, WI, had offered its disposable resealable containers to consumers when ConAgra Foods began looking for new packaging for its line of Healthy Choice deli meats. Tom Winter, product manager, Fresh Lock, says that Presto was able to modify the consumer product to meet ConAgra’s industrial production needs.
“You’re taking a package that’s basically made for home use, and you’re putting it into a production situation with machinery and cold temperatures,” Winter says. “We did have to modify the composition of the containers somewhat to be able to withstand the cold temperatures and the rougher handling.”
The polypropylene containers, which are designed for refrigeration or microwaving, are available in several sizes, are available in several different sizes. The 24-ounce size, which Winter calls a soup-and-salad container, is a typical-sized lunch meat container. A 25-ounce entrée size can be used for meat-and cheese combo packages. “That’s fairly recent, but it’s also starting to take off,” he notes.
“We’re also seeing more requests now for what we call custom sizes, sizes that are more aimed specifically for the deli meat customer’s application, so it fits their product and gives a better presentation,” Winter adds.
Pactiv Corp., Lake Forest, IL, developed a line of Extended Shelf Life (ESL) containers for the food-processing industry. They are used in numerous applications, including fresh fruits and produce, but they are also being used for whole meats and ground beef. The company sees more applications in the pre-cooked meat arena, continuing the convenience food trend.
“The impetus for these trays was to increase the shelf life and have a pre-packed package available for retail stores,” says Mark Spencer, manager of new product development. “There had to be some sort of container that would hold the oxygen levels at the right amount for the time frame, and then lid-seal properly in the equipment.
“If you look at a typical package that’s wrapped at a grocery store, it would typically have a two- or three-day shelf life,” he adds. “With this ESL container, red meat and grounds can go eleven or twelve days.”
Chris Olenski, marketing manager for the retail and processing trades, says the ESL containers have several advantages over the traditional Styrofoam containers. “We can offer a deep-draw container with steep side walls, and that allows for shipping and merchandising efficiencies,” he says. “We use a polypropylene material for our container, so the container can be microwaved.”
BBQ in a tub
Of course, lunch meats are not the only types of meat products that can be found in resealable containers. Sadler’s Bar-B-Que of Henderson, TX, has been selling tub products for more than 25 years in retail and foodservice applications.
“There really is no more convenient packaging than a resealable tub,” says James Chambless, executive director, business development. “You can store the product easily in a refrigerator or freezer. You can heat the tub whether it is frozen or thawed. You can eat or serve it from the tub. You can store any leftovers in the tub and reheat them again when you are ready.
“Best of all for today’s busy consumers, there is no clean-up,” he adds. “Just dispose of the tub when the meal is over.”
Sadler’s tub products are fully cooked, restaurant-quality meat items, including barbecue pork, brisket, chicken, and original chili. The meats are naturally smoked and blended with the company’s own sauce. Sadler’s has recently improved the formulation, adding 20 percent more meat to the product.
Chambless says that while the shape of the tubs may change, he doesn’t see them disappearing any time soon. “The market has a great deal to do with dictating packaging to a responsive manufacturer like Sadler’s. The customer likes high-quality product in tubs, and that is what we provide,” he says.
Packaging possibilities
Berry Plastics, Evansville, IN, produces the tubs for Sadlers, as well as containers for other companies including Smithfield, Perdue, and Tyson. Michelle Schmitt, market analyst, notes that the rigid packaging promotes brand awareness, as many consumers use the tubs and containers for storage after the initial use.
Schmitt says meat processors are looking for specialized packaging that distinguishes them from the competition. A design using vibrant graphics with an in-mold label can easily attract a consumer’s interest.
“Many customers use outside design firms that may come up with great designs, but are unable to be molded,” she says. “Berry Plastics offers an in-house design center, where we’ll develop designs and/or work hand-in-hand with the customer to take a conceptual design to reality.”
The thermoformed round containers are also available in various sizes from four to 32 ounces. Clear, non-round packages range in size from eight to 32 ounces. “This is a great option for retail deli meats, barbecue, or other quick meals that need a resealable package,” Schmitt says.
Keith says that the future growth of the resealable container market for lunch meats depends on the success of products using them now. “Given the higher cost, packagers need to see higher revenues from more market share or higher prices.” However, he adds, “the rapid adoption by three or four brands is certainly encouraging.”
Presto Products views the resealable lunch-meat containers as something with a lot of growth potential. “We’re starting to see the lights coming on,” he says, “where people see the opportunities to use rigid packaging to give themselves the differentiation from the competition.” He adds that the tubs could expand to other lunch meat processors, as well as to other foods that require refrigeration, such as cheeses.
Smithfield’s Baker believes there are future applications for resealable tub products in lunch meat. “Premium products that appeal to feature/benefit-driven consumers will succeed in packaging of this nature. Lunch meat is a very competitive category, and price plays a considerable role in the purchasing decision. We need to maintain that balance by offering our consumers the convenience of new technology in ways that continue to deliver great value.” NP
Packaging suppliers participating in this feature include:
• Berry Plastics, phone (812) 424-2904, fax (812) 424-0128, or visit www.berryplastics.com
• Pactiv Corp., phone (888) 828-2850, fax (847) 482-4564, or visit www.pactiv.com
• Presto Products, phone (800) 265-0750, fax (920) 738-1347, fresh-lock@alcoa.com, or visit www.fresh-lock.com