Safety and Freshness Define Prepared Meat Packs

by Joanna Cosgrove, contributing writer

Product innovation is showcased by convenient consumer-friendly packaging, while processors try various sizes to see what fits.
In an age when meal preparation time is dwindling to the point of extinction, American families are increasingly in search of fast, easy and healthy entrée options. The prepared meat category — composed of items such as pre-sliced deli meats, heat-and-eat and ready-to-serve meats — seems like a perfect fit.
But from a manufacturer’s perspective, it’s a segment where finding an edge in either product or packaging is hard-sought and, usually, quickly copied.
The proliferation of prepared meats represents one of the fastest-growing segments in the meat industry, says Steve Krut, executive director, American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP). The current packages — resealable zipper-sealed bags, gas-flushed “shingle packs,” shrink-sealed trays and resealable tubs — not only create a self-serve deli experience, but they eliminate the human factor at the deli and butcher counters.
“[Prepared meats] get great reception from consumers, but [are] also regarded as a food-safety control by industry to eliminate slicing and other product handling at the retail level where cross contamination can occur,” he says. “Don’t downplay the lessening of the liability issue here. The safety implications for consumers who open and reopen those packages at home is also impressive.”
Sara Lee encompasses many key prepared meat brands such as Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean and Ball Park. According to Nancy Limback, director of package engineering for Sara Lee, the company uses pouches and rigid containers for its different products depending upon the specific consumer needs for a category. The company’s Hillshire Farm Deli Select Ultra Thin lunchmeat is packaged in reclosable, reusable and value-added Gladware containers, while some of its Sara Lee deli lunchmeats are in zippered pouches.
“Reclosable packaging provides an option of customized portion control to the consumer. This is important as the family probably doesn’t all eat together Monday through Friday, so the capability to eat a limited number of food portions over multiple time periods is desirable,” she says. “To our consumers, resealable provides the best package seal possible to extend the freshness of the product after opening — ‘little undesirable (air/contamination) gets in — little good (flavor/moisture) gets out.’”
Sara Lee, like many deli meat manufacturers, sells its lunchmeat in packages that are precisely weighed, much like they would be at the deli counter. Once a draft is sliced, it moves to a scale which verifies it is within a preset upper and lower weight limit. If it is outside those set points, it is automatically conveyed off line to be reworked. Whether the draft is within spec or not, the slicer uses the scale data to make constant adjustments to hit the exact target weight on the next draft, Limback says. The feedback loop allows Sara Lee to account for small variations in the meat that is being sliced.
Appealing, but not ‘Wow!’
Pre-made poultry and beef entrée purchases can be prompted by a variety of drivers including flavor appeal, portion control and freshness. But the No. 1 purchase driver of these items is unsurprising: convenience.
“Flavor, freshness, presentation, packaging and healthfulness all play a role, but the best way to summarize all of these swirling and sometimes conflicting demands is under the banner of convenience,” says Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations, National Meat Association (NMA).
“The consumer puts value in not having to rewrap or repackage these products after getting them home,” says Krut. “Proper packaging means less product waste and drying out, or freezer burn. The consumer can put these products directly in the freezer or refrigerator and retrieve them almost instantly ready to eat, or to heat and eat.”
But Russell contends that, despite strides made in convenience, there is still room for innovation with regard to packaging and presentation. “In prepared meat, packaging innovation has not played as large a role as it has in other food areas in the last few years. In my opinion, the big packaging innovations have been in the delivery systems that bring fresh meat to the stores,” he says. “In the arena of case-ready product, for example, we now have modified-atmosphere packaging technologies that deliver the product in an oxygen-free environment. In many cases, there is an outer package, or ‘mother bag’ as it’s often called, that is removed in the back room at the grocery store and the individually packaged trays — which allow oxygen in so that the product ‘blooms’ — are placed out on the shelves. Innovative systems such as these have dramatically increased the quality, safety and shelf life of fresh meat.”
But until more innovative packaging concepts appear, zipper seals and reusable tubs are becoming the norm. Krut says the packages are the current industry staple for a reason. “It is clearly a convenience and freshness concern, but this type of packaging also creates a visual buzz with astounding graphics and/or visibility of the product in a complementary setting,” he says.
Trends and counter-trends
For every trend in the prepared meat segment, a seemingly equal and opposite counter-trend exists. For instance, despite the American consumer’s growing penchant for super simplified meal prep, there is some disparity in the industry as to why single-serve items, such as portion-packaged deli meats, have been doomed to now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t status.
Case in point: Snack-Buds lunchmeat from Carl Buddig was packaged in an award-winning multilayer coextruded nylon/polyester ICE film structure. Snack-Buds disappeared from the market shortly after their introduction because sales didn’t pan out as planned.
Likewise was the quick departure of Land O’ Frost’s ingenious Chicago Sub Co. Snap-Apart Fresh Packs. Sold in four-count, vacuum-packed, snap-apart tubs that each contained two ounces of either Honey Ham or Smoked Ham, the product was billed to contain the perfect amount for individual sandwiches. But less than a year after its introduction, the product vanished, again due to less than stellar market reception, according to the company.
“The Land O’ Frost product seemed ideal for smaller households,” conjectures Tom Vierhile, director, Productscan Online, “and looking at the demographics, it would seem that idea would certainly take off. In the U.S., more households are being created without being linked to any population growth. Household sizes are getting smaller thanks to empty nesters, divorcees and other single consumers. Single-serving sizes are well-suited to that.”
But Vierhile also questions the target market for single-serve prepared meats. “Something like that may appeal more to a male audience, which may hit up against the competing appeal of convenience and fast-food stores.”
On a broader scale, Vierhile attributes the turnover casualty rate partly to continued Atkins Diet fallout. Prior to the peak and subsequent decline of the low-carb craze, meat manufacturers enjoyed a heyday, thanks to the uber-popular diet’s protein consumption cornerstone.
Vierhile adds that there has been decent growth in fully cooked meat and poultry products. But the market has taken some curious turns. While researching the segment, Vierhile discovered that there’s a resurgence in at-home meals which are “somewhat contributing to the softening of ultra-convenient prepared meat products.”
What’s next?
In terms of new products and packaging, Vierhile advises manufacturers not to be hindered by a “commodity mindset” because in his opinion, marketers haven’t yet taken the category as far as it’s capable of going. Packaging, coupled with savvy marketing and merchandising, can increase product visibility.
For instance, in light of the American consumer’s desire for more home-cooked quality meals, prepared meat manufacturers have come out with products like pulled pork, which connotes the quality of slow cooking but in a ready-made and conveniently packaged format. In another direction, Perdue was able to generate a substantial buzz with its precooked poultry Shortcuts by cleverly merchandising them in close proximity to pre-washed salads in the produce aisle.
A notable shift has been the emergence of low-end, value-priced prepared meat products from retailers such as Aldi and Wal-Mart, using the same kind of packaging as other brands that carry a “premium” distinction. Vierhile warns that when the trend percolates down to the value level, some of the premium appeal runs the risk of being tarnished. “When a new product first comes out, consumers are often willing to trade up, paying a premium for the package. But value-priced brands tend to drain the premium aspect right off of the product,” he says.
Vierhile projects that the future of prepared meat packaging might lie in licensing and branding — an area that seems more open when it comes to helping the segment grow. A successful example would be Deli Thins Turkey Breast, from Smithfield Foods, which prominently features a NASCAR tie-in on the front panel of its zipper seal package. “This could be especially helpful for prepared deli products,” he says. “Deli brands don’t have much intrinsic brand recognition since they are traditionally delivered behind the deli counter in a format that renders the consumer unfamiliar with the brand.”