Cool As Ice
By Lynn Petrak,
special projects editor
Innovative materials and high-impact graphics give convenient benefits and a fresh look to frozen meat and poultry products.
As the market for frozen meat products expands, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there has been a greater emphasis on packaging that looks hot in cool settings.
A few plain old boxes and bags may be around, but packaging for meat and poultry products sold in the retail freezer or shipped to foodservice kitchens is increasingly customer-friendly. Processors are using new packaging materials for frozen products and, in some cases, turning to existing types of materials that haven’t been utilized much in this category before. As they invest in innovative films, bags and paper-based substances as well as high-tech packaging equipment, processors have not shied away from using packages as billboards, embracing bold visuals to lure and retain buyers.
What’s driving this trend is what drives every other research & development project: the potential for capturing sales. Frozen meats and meal solutions with meat ingredients are appealing to end users for a host of reasons, chief among them convenience and taste. As such, processors must keep such items on par with other products in the marketplace.
Those that supply packaging substances and systems to processors agree that this segment is growing as consumers look for meals that are wholesome yet easy to prepare and store, from ovenable whole birds to heat-and-serve portions from chicken strips and burgers to microwaveable entrees. “The frozen market has really been our fastest growing segment,” reports Steve Meli, national accounts manager for Pactiv, Inc., a Lake Forest, Ill.-based supplier of packaging materials and accessories, including the Slide-Rite® closure. “In the freezer case and club stores, it is really taking off, because it is so convenient to get in and out of the package. And with more disposable income, convenience nowadays is more important than anything.”
Packaging equipment suppliers also indicate that there is hardly a deep freeze on frozen meat and poultry items.
“Packaging has become extremely important in the frozen food business,” says Chris Rempe, product manager for Automated Packaging Systems, Inc., Streetsboro, Ohio. “Value-added materials are being introduced that simplify food preparation by being compatible with the cooking process, and materials are now marketed based on their retail appeal and ability to attract busy customers.”
New frozen products are coming from processors of all sizes and types, from conglomerates to regional, family-owned outfits. “What is interesting is that you are seeing smaller companies, like sausage companies, now getting into products like meatballs with sauce,” says Bill Gregory, director of sales and marketing for VersaPack, a Tuxedo Park, N.Y.-based packaging supplier of pouches, rollstock and specialty packages. “For many of these companies, it’s a matter of survival for them as this category is growing.”
As frozen meat brands vie for commercial freezer space, the marketing and operations departments within processing companies understand how critical to success in the fresh meat case packaging is. As a result, processors have invested in a broader range of packaging types.
The big thaw
One notable area of new product development has been the introduction of frozen meat and poultry products that can be directly heated, without the step of thawing. Packaging technology was instrumental in the creation of such items.
One example is the line of Oven Ready frozen turkeys from Hormel Foods’ Jennie-O Turkey Store® brand. The birds are packaged in a special bag consisting of an inner-cook bag and an outer carrier bag. The outer bag, designed by Oshkosh, Wis.-based high-barrier packaging company Curwood, features an IntegraScore® vertical reclosable opening on the side along with a two-hole carrying handle and side gussets for standup display in the freezer case. The Oven Ready package has won awards from nationwide contests sponsored by the Flexible Packaging Association and DuPont.
Also garnering packaging-industry accolades is the Simply Done™ Whole Young Turkey from Cargill Meat Solutions’ Honeysuckle White brand. The cooking bag is designed to seal in flavor and includes an on-package carrying handle and high-impact rotogravure printing technology.
Beyond the oven, there have been noteworthy advances in package designs for frozen microwaveable meals that include meat and poultry. VersaPack, for instance, has developed new biodegradable trays that solve some of the issues consumers had with previous trays. According to Gregory, the new tray combines consumers’ interest in cutting down on both meal preparation and waste. “The consumer is announcing to the world that they want convenience now — they don’t want it ready in 30 minutes, but 15 minutes. If you purchase a meal with a carton with a biodegradable tray, you put it in the microwave and you’re done, and there is nothing to clean up,” he remarks. VersaPack’s most recent innovation, according to Gregory, is a new biodegradable tray for frozen foods with a hinged lid that can be printed on all sides for eye appeal and messaging.
The powerful pouch
A quick look at retail and restaurant freezers shows that resealable pouches with jazzy graphics are increasingly replacing traditional types of bags and boxes of frozen meat and poultry portions.
Several brands, in fact, now sell individually quick frozen (IQF) portions in laminated pouches with zipper, slider and press-to-close features, from large brands like Tyson to smaller prepared-foods companies that market products such as meatballs and boneless pork chops. Such packages typically include high-impact graphics and are appreciated by consumers and retailer and foodservice operators alike for their strong barrier properties and space-saving advantage.
“Being able to keep unused portions of food for later use by incorporating a reclosable feature into the package is perceived as a value to many consumers. Standup pouches provide this feature along with the ability to extend shelf life through the use of barrier materials, and they also permit better use of space in storage,” says Rempe.
Automated Packaging Systems, which offers a range of bags-in-a-roll used with the company’s automated packaging equipment, supplies meat and poultry companies with films like low-density polyethylene, linear low-density polyethylene, and a high/low density blend called Polyclean™ with no process additives, along with several co-extruded materials with barrier resistance. Most recently, the company introduced a line of SidePouch™ bags designed to operate with the company’s new SidePouch bagging system, which has been specifically engineered for food-packaging applications.
To ensure optimum quality and ease of use, closures for standup pouches remain an area of emphasis for manufacturers looking to meet the need of convenience-driven buyers. Pactiv, which developed the slider that changed the shredded cheese category in 2001, has recently teamed up with meat and poultry companies on reclosable packages, including a new line of frozen portioned poultry items from Perdue Farms. “The frozen market is kind of following the path of the cheese market, moving from press-to-close or no closure at all to the slider. It’s happening with Perdue, and the rest of the market is following,” relates Meli, adding that sliders can be used with most types of pouches and are available in at least eight different types, in addition to custom-made versions.
If such features add cost to production, the continuing development of new frozen products in ever-sophisticated packaging demonstrates that buyers continue to shell out for items that they believe fit their lifestyles. “More and more, Americans are willing to pay for convenience,” observes Rempe.
Echoes Gregory: “The manufacturers realize that there is a justification for it.”NP