Meat Packaging Aims to Please

New packaging techniques for meat and poultry take consumer desires -- and fears -- seriously.

By Kate Bertrand Connolly, Packaging Editor

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For greater convenience, Wegmans has modified the structural design of the Keeps Fresh packaging, adding a pull tab to make it easier to open. The strip steaks will be the first Wegmans meat product in the easier-to-open Keeps Fresh structure; others will follow during the summer.

Just before its merger with Pilgrim's Pride, Gold Kist Inc. developed a Fridge-to-Freezer Pak for chicken for Costco stores. Designed for smaller households, the package segregates fresh chicken parts into individual vacuum-sealed pockets.
Just before its merger with Pilgrim's Pride, Gold Kist Inc. developed a Fridge-to-Freezer Pak for chicken for Costco stores. Designed for smaller households, the package segregates fresh chicken parts into individual vacuum-sealed pockets.

Pilgrim's Pride is targeting the smaller household with its Fridge-to-Freezer Pak for chicken. Introduced last year in Costco stores, the package segregates fresh chicken parts in individual vacuum-sealed pockets that can be separated, then frozen or refrigerated. The package was developed by Gold Kist Inc., which has merged with Pilgrim's Pride.

Also in the Pilgrim's Pride line-up are premium-priced, single-serving packages of fresh chicken. Each package contains either a single chicken breast or three chicken tenders. The primary package is a form-fill-seal slider bag, and the outer package is created using vacuum-cavity equipment from Multivac (, Kansas City, Mo. The products are sold refrigerated.

Organic branding challenge


Health and wellness are increasingly important drivers when it comes to meat packaging and products. Increased sales of natural and organic meats reflect the trend.

Cryovac-sponsored research, conducted by the Washington-based American Meat Institute (AMI) ( and Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI) (, shows demand for natural and organic meat is on the upswing. Of shoppers surveyed, 21.2 percent said they had purchased natural or organic meat within the past three months, up from 17.4 percent in 2006.

Additionally, the survey revealed that chicken is the most often purchased natural or organic meat, with 73.2 percent of respondents saying they had bought it in the past three months. Next most popular was natural or organic beef, with 50.7 percent saying they'd purchased it, followed by ground meat at 31 percent.

The number of natural and organic meat brands is growing quickly, as well -- so much so that consumers are sometimes confused by what they see in the meat case.

"It's up to the organic marketer to educate consumers ... and create a brand that speaks beyond organic. They need to create a compelling brand with a strong emotional connection," says Dan Mishkind, principal at Pure Design Co. (, Leverett, Mass. Pure designs packaging for natural/organic product marketers such as Dakota Beef LLC.

A University of California-Santa Cruz study of consumer attitudes about food revealed the package is the primary place to create that brand story: "81 percent of respondents said product labels were the most desirable choice for obtaining more information about food, followed by brochures or retail displays," Mishkind says. "So obviously the package has to work hard."

Wise Kosher Natural Poultry (, Brooklyn, N.Y, put its packaging to work when it rebranded its products and redesigned its packaging. Wise packages now carry a double-certified kosher and organic seal as well as a new brand name, Wise Organic Pastures. Pure Design implemented the rebranding/redesign.

Wise's chicken packaging incorporates the emotional brand story of the company's founder, homemaker Rachel Wiesenfeld, who challenged herself to bring a healthier chicken to the kosher community. Since the rebranding/repackaging, the product line has experienced 40 percent growth.

The safety imperative


Along with health and wellness, food safety is gaining mindshare among consumers. With foodborne-illness outbreaks frequently punctuating the news, it's hard not to think about the safety of the food we eat at home and away.

In a four-week period this spring, three meat packers based in Michigan, Minnesota and California recalled a total of more than 354,000 lbs. of beef. Though unrelated, all three voluntary recalls sprang from fears of possible E. coli contamination. The recalls came on the heels of foodborne-illness outbreaks related to spinach, lettuce, peanut butter and pet food.

Not surprisingly, meat packers and processors are on the lookout for packaging and processing techniques that improve food safety.

Hormel Foods Corp. (, Austin, Minn., is addressing safety plus health and wellness and even improved texture in one swoop with its TrueTaste high-pressure processing (HPP) technique. Although Hormel would not confirm it, the vendor of this process reportedly is Avure Technologies Inc., Kent, Wash.

After using HPP initially for Hormel Bread Ready sliced meats, which are sold to foodservice operators, the company chose HPP for its Natural Choice retail products when they launched last year. Consumer response to Hormel Natural Choice was so positive the company this year added several new products to the line, including sliced roast beef, carved chicken breast and Canadian bacon.

Hormel's USDA-approved HPP technology is a post-packaging, water-based pasteurization process. The vacuum-packed products are subjected to 87,000 lbs. per square inch of water pressure that inactivates pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes without harming the product's taste, texture or nutritional value.

Listeria, which can grow even under refrigeration, has been linked to many illness outbreaks caused by deli meats and cold cuts. In 2002, 12 people died and more than 50 others were sickened in a listeriosis outbreak linked to deli turkey.

The HPP process eliminates the need for shelf-life extending preservatives, a key attribute for the Hormel Natural Choice brand. "What makes the products unique is the HPP process -- being able to use our TrueTaste technology and deliver that all-natural, no-preservatives, great taste that consumers want," says Ryan Vossler, product manager for Hormel Natural Choice.

HPP pasteurization delivers an operational benefit for retailers and foodservice operators, as well, in the form of shelf life. Declining to quantify the maximum shelf life of Natural Choice products, Vossler says they deliver "much longer shelf life" than competitive items. The Hormel Foodservice Div. ( web site states HPP-treated Hormel Bread Ready meats offer refrigerated shelf life of 120 days.

Hormel was the first national manufacturer in the sliced meat category to commercialize HPP, but others are following suit.

In the all-natural meat category, Wellshire Farms (, Swedesboro, N.J., has announced it plans to use HPP for its line of 100% All Natural cold cuts, ham steaks and Canadian bacon. The company reportedly is moving to HPP for reasons of product quality, safety and security, and because the technique does not use chemicals or irradiation.

Another approach to assuring food safety and safeguarding meat's quality is active barrier packaging, such as oxygen scavenging films. This type of material removes residual oxygen from the inside of a package over the course of distribution.

Benefits include "reduced rancidity and color preservation in color-sensitive products like processed ham or rare roast beef," says Cryovac's Franzreb. "In general, you can maintain the freshness of the product throughout the entire shelf life of the product." Plus, oxygen scavenging films retard microbial growth, which provides freshness and safety advantages.

Foster Farms (, Livingston, Calif., uses an oxygen scavenging Cryovac OS Film to package premium turkey products. The turkey is packaged in a flexible pouch within a rigid plastic tub. The inner pouch is constructed using a lidding film that incorporates the oxygen scavenging material. By removing residual oxygen from the pouch, the package delivers a refrigerated shelf life of 55 days.

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