Focusing on Foodservice

By Lisa White, contributing writer

Innovative foodservice packaging adds value, food safety, convenience and labor savings.
With the National Restaurant Association (NRA) predicting a five percent increase in foodservice sales this year, equal to four percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, it is no surprise that there has been an increased focus on packaging in this segment by meat processors.
In recent years, there have been a number of packaging innovations that have focused on enhancing ease of use, improving food safety and minimizing labor.
According to Bill Kuecker, marketing director of foodservice for Cryovac Food Packaging in Duncan, S.C., there are five drivers in the foodservice packaging segment. These include the cost and availability of labor, food safety, product consistency, flavor preservation, and cost control to reduce shrink.
“All five of these factors are driving the industry toward more value-added packaging,” Kuecker says.
In the meat industry, the most common types of packaging include individual-quick-frozen (IQF) or a bulk format, vacuum packaging and chubs for ground product.
Industry trends
Kuecker says foodservice has historically been a frozen market, but this is changing. “There is a major trend toward fresh meat, due to consumer perceptions of value and quality. This is driving a lot of the innovation from the packaging side,” he says.
Steve Hinesley, business development manager at Atlanta-based Printpack, says many in the foodservice segment are moving toward partially or fully cooking meat at central commissaries. “Foodservice is now more broadly defined, because it runs hand in hand with the central commissary movement,” he says.
Central commissaries are particularly gaining traction in retail delis, hotels and institutions. “Operations that have issues with labor and food safety would rather bring someone into the kitchen to accomplish the easier tasks, like boiling noodles for fettuccine, and then prepare the Alfredo sauce in a central commissary,” Hinesley says, adding that this could be a viable option for high-end restaurants.
Another trend in value added is single-portion packaging. “This helps make all of the meal components more intuitive,” Kuecker says. “Meat processors and foodservice operators have been using more portion packaging because it allows them to better control food costs, portioning and shrink rather than relying on those in the kitchen to make portioning decisions.”
Latest innovations
There have been a number of innovations in foodservice packaging in the restaurant/institutional and retail arenas.
While pre-marinated meats have been increasingly popular in retail, this has not been the case in foodservice. The reason is that signature or fresh marinades provide many challenges from a food-safety and quality-control standpoint.
“If you combine protein and marinade and store the product for a long period of time, the meat’s flavor and texture profile will be affected,” Kuecker says. In response to this problem, Cryovac created a marination-on-demand packaging line, which contains a signature marinade on one side of the package and the protein on the other. Marination occurs when the sauce side is squeezed, moving the liquid to the meat section.
“This new packaging addresses food safety, consistency, flavor, cost control and labor availability issues,” Kuecker explains.
Another new development in foodservice packaging is a high-temperature bag that can hold and cook raw meat, minimizing handling and maximizing food safety. According to Curt Rubinstein, manager of sales and marketing at M&Q Packaging, based in Schuylkill Haven, Pa., the meat is pumped into the bag, frozen and then shipped to foodservice operations.
“The bag is ovenable to 400 degrees. Any pathogens in the product are exposed to lethal temperatures before the meat is touched by human hands,” he says, adding that the process increases yields and enhances product quality because all of the juices are retained during cooking.
Frozen hamburger packaging in the institutional segment uses a technology similar to that of M&Q’s high-temperature bags, Rubinstein says.
“Burgers are precooked, seared and frozen at the processor level. When they get to the institutional kitchen, the bags are put on a tray unopened [and] cooked in the oven at 400 degrees, and then the tray is put in the steam table,” he explains. “Products stay in a confined environment.”
Minimal handling and food safety also were the impetus for another newer packaging line. Ken Hynes, vice president and product manager for films at Avon, Ohio-based Carroll Manufacturing & Sales (CMS), says the company’s handle bag is geared for cook-, chill- or boil-in-bag applications in foodservice and institutional operations. The heavy-gauge barrier film packaging is made of a poly nylon structure.
“This line is packaged at the plant level and reheated at foodservice facilities,” Hynes says, adding that the handle acts as a safety feature for grabbing and carrying purposes. CMS also has developed a bone-guard backing for bone-in meats constructed of abuse-resistant material that prevents punctures.
With the Philly cheesesteak trend becoming big in casual foodservice operations, including Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s, M&Q designed a meat casing that simplifies cooking the shredded beef used in these menu items.
“The meat is placed in our casing and cooked in such a way that when it is sliced and placed on the grill or cooking surface, it automatically shreds,” Rubinstein says.
Another packaging innovation typically utilized in the retail channels is moving into the takeout foodservice segment. Cryovac’s vacuum skin pack, used in the heat-and-eat retail segment, can be used with raw or precooked products in foodservice operations.
“As we go up the value chain, foodservice operators are considering this technology for their takeout business,” Kuecker says. “The packaging will provide just-in-time delivery options. This will be a dramatic efficiency shift that will impact food safety, consistency and labor.”
The packaging is compatible with steam tables pans for either back- or front-of-the-house applications.
The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s 2006 “What’s In Store” report says that convenience foods that are portable, easy to prepare or ready to eat are served at home 72 percent of the time, rather than eaten on the go. Consequently, more consumers are seeking leak-resistant microwavable packaging, explains Tara Downing, product manager at Robbie Manufacturing, based in Lenexa, Kan.
“We developed a line of flexible packaging with a zipper closure for easy closing and handle for carrying,” she adds. Food can be reheated inside the pouch. Downing says that because today’s consumers are demanding a bigger variety in prepared meals, higher packaging performance needs to be addressed.
“Important features include venting for crispy foods, enhanced graphics for display and product recognition, and large, easy-to-read graphics and nutritional information to accommodate the needs of the aging baby boomer segment.
A more simple development, yet one with major implications, is the creation of bags that can be opened without the use of knives.
“It sounds simplistic, yet, taking knives out of the equation is significant in foodservice. Many foodservice workers are injured by knives, so helping to limit their use in the kitchen is important,” Kuecker says.
Looking ahead, The Freedonia Group Packaging Industry Report 2006, predicts the demand for flexible pouches will rise 6.6 percent per annum to $5.8 billion in 2009.
Suppliers say much of the innovation in foodservice packaging will focus on added value and convenience for processors, operators and consumers.
“The major driver for foodservice packaging is an increased use of value-added foodservice products,” Kuecker says.