Being able to cook fresh meat and chicken inside the package, whether in a bag, pouch or tray, offers several benefits. The consumer needn't touch the product before putting it in the oven, and clean-up is easy and mess-free.
Product preparation is minimal, too. Consumers may need to remove the primary package from a sleeve, detach a label or poke a hole in the pack before popping it in the oven, but no culinary expertise is required to cook the raw protein.
Cook-in packaging concepts are proliferating globally, with a new private label entrant recently announced in South Africa: Woolworths' Easy To Cook seafood dishes. The products, which are packaged in a dual-chamber bag, are fresh salmon with soy-honey-ginger glaze and calamari with lemon-garlic butter.
Woolworths packs the bag in a tray and encloses the tray with a belly band. The sauce is visible on one side of the band, and the seafood on the other. Each package holds two servings.
The products are designed for microwave cooking, with an internal seal in the bag engineered to break shortly before the end of the cooking time so sauce and fish can intermingle. Cook time is 2-2-1/2 minutes. Sirane Ltd., Shropshire, U.K., supplies Woolworths with Sira-Cook Smart Release bags for the products.
"We call it Smart Release because it releases the sauce from one chamber to the other at the right time," explains Simon Balderson, Sirane's managing director.
With fresh fish and sauce in a single bag, the sauce tends to pick up a "fishy flavor" and the fish gets soggy he says. Keeping the fish and sauce separate until late in the cooking process protects the product's flavor, texture and appearance.
To overcome the issue of steam building up inside the bag during cooking, the Smart Release bag includes what Balderson calls a "smart venting" feature. In a microwave oven, "the pressure inside the pack does increase quite quickly," he says. The bag inflates like a pillow, and "when the pressure reaches a certain point, that vent opens. It maintains the correct pressure in the bag, and you'll get some steam puffing out."
A U.K. retailer also has used Smart Release bags for fish with sauce, and another processor uses the package for fresh asparagus spears with sauce. Although these are microwave applications, the package format also can be used in a conventional oven.
A cook-in bag for fresh but seasoned whole chickens has proven so popular for GNP Co., St. Cloud, Minn., that the company this fall launched two new flavors in its Gold'n Plump cook-in-bag product line: Mesquite and Pesto. The line also includes Lemon Pepper and Sweet Barbecue.
Packaging for Gold'n Plump chickens focuses on ease of preparation, cooking and clean-up, and the products cook in a conventional oven.
"The inner, bake-in-bag has printed instructions on it, telling the consumer which side should be faced up for cooking," says Sara Danforth, new product development manager at GNP. "The consumer places slits in the bake-in-bag prior to cooking, all without having to touch the raw product inside."
The secondary package, which is also a bag, features an easy-carry handle. "Each package is eye-catching and features a large, full-color beauty shot for appetite appeal, which shows a serving suggestion specific to the flavor," Danforth says. "Each package also contains a 'leftover' recipe, specific to that flavor, on the bottom of the bag, as well as the Gold'n Plump brand story on the back of it."
Foster Farms, Livingston, Calif., went in a different direction for its Oven Ready Entrées, which launched this May. The products, which are fresh chicken breasts in sauce, are packaged in a cook-in tray.
The Foster Farms entrées are available in four varieties — Chile Verde, Roasted Red Pepper, Zesty Thai Style and Honey Roasted Garlic — and each tray contains two American Humane Certified chicken breasts. The tray is packed in a paperboard sleeve.
To prepare the product, the consumer removes the sleeve, slits the lidding film and places the tray in a conventional oven for 30 min. The sleeve calls out "Bake in Tray" to alert consumers to the convenience benefit.
Foster Farms' crystallized polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) tray is recyclable, as is the sleeve. The film is made of PET.
Certainly convenience is a major factor in the increasing popularity of cook-in packaging for proteins. But other consumer trends are also in play.
The 2013 "Power of Meat" report, which was conducted by 210 Analytics and commissioned by the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, with sponsorship from the Cryovac brand of Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., sheds some light on those trends.
The report explains: "Shoppers' meat and poultry purchasing decisions continue to be driven by the desire to save money." At the same time, "convenience is becoming an increasingly important factor" in those decisions. Rounding it off is a low comfort level for cooking meat and poultry.
"Consumers are unsure of how to cook things, and with the rising cost of protein they don't want to try anything new without knowing that it's going to turn out right," says Shawn Harris, Sealed Air marketing director for fresh red meat.
He adds that Cryovac Oven Ease ovenable packaging addresses that issue. "Even if you overcook a little bit, [this packaging] locks the juices in, keeps things from drying out and gives a more consistent cook." Thus, consumers can "choose different cuts, different flavors [and] different recipes" than they normally would be comfortable with, including pre-seasoned or marinated proteins.
Oven Ease packaging, which comes in bag and horizontal thermoform-fill-seal formats, is compatible with fresh beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry and also with frozen seafood. Processors use various types of secondary packaging, such as netting, a wraparound label, a chipboard sleeve or a plastic-tray-plus-sleeve, with Oven Ease packaging.
In all cases, the consumer removes the protein from the secondary packaging, detaches all labels and pierces the package so it can vent during cooking. Depending on the size of the protein product — from a few ounces to a couple pounds or more — cook time may be less than 30 min., or it may be two or three hours.
Like other cook-in concepts, Oven Ease packaging offers ease of prep and clean-up. And by eliminating the need to touch raw protein, it eliminates cross contamination and boosts food safety.
This packaging approach also enables unattended cooking. Harris explains, "If it's rack of ribs, it will be done in an hour to an hour and 10 minutes. You can pick up the kids from school, run an errand or two" and be home in time to fix a salad before plating the ribs. As an added bonus, "it will fill your kitchen up with cooking aroma, and it's very inviting."
Time savings is a benefit, as well. Oven Ease packaging can "lower cooking times 10 to 25 percent, depending on the cut … and depending on what texture you want," Harris says.
Product protection, transparently
In addition to convenience, product protection and quality are playing a strong role in the packaging choices of meat packers. Toronto-based Blue Goose, an organic and natural beef, chicken and fish provider, uses vacuum skin packaging to protect and showcase its fresh protein products.
The company, which recently rebranded, uses Cryovac Darfresh vacuum skin packaging for cuts of beef, ground beef, fish fillets, whole chickens, chicken parts, sausages, wieners and more. (The company also has a line of frozen protein products, which are packaged in 100 percent recycled and recyclable cartons.)
On the vacuum skin packaging line in Blue Goose's packing facilities, a bottom film is formed into a shallow tray to hold the fresh product, and a top film molds tightly to the product. The result is a neat, clean, premium presentation for the item — and the elimination of oxygen. The latter helps keep the quality of the product at its highest level for consumer consumption.
"Darfresh packaging is different from traditional [meat] packaging you get in a store," says Johnathan Bonnell, Blue Goose's director of marketing, explaining that vacuum skin packaging protects the product from oxygen until it is opened.
Conventional, oxygen-permeable overwrap packaging "reduces the shelf life and reduces the quality," he adds. "We made a conscious decision as a company that if we spent the time to make the highest-quality product possible, we might as well apply the same quality rules and philosophy to the packaging we used to present our product to the consumer."
The revealing nature of vacuum packaging also complements Blue Goose's brand positioning. The brand's core values, Bonnell explains, are "transparency, craftsmanship and responsibility. Transparency is an important value, because consumers are confused in this category — there are so many messages out there. Being open and simple was the best way to communicate the brand."
For that communication, Blue Goose uses paperboard belly bands around the vacuum packs. The bands are printed with illustrations of the animals from which the products come. The result is a pared-down, artisanal look and feel.
The elegant, understated graphics bring the brand owner's "story to life in a really crafted way," says Tom Koukodimos, creative director at Sid Lee, Montréal, the agency that executed Blue Goose's rebranding.
The rebranding effort, which included everything from font styles to in-store signage, was sparked by Blue Goose's expansion from beef into poultry and fish as well as its geographic growth. The company had historically distributed its products only in western Canada, but Blue Goose is now in national distribution in Loblaws and Sobeys as well as British Columbian Whole Foods Market stores.
Even meat-alternative processors are borrowing from the protein-packaging vernacular. For its Wildwood organic veggie burgers and meatless meatballs and crumbles, Pulmuone Foods USA Inc., Fullerton, Calif., uses a combination of vacuum packaging and trays that let shoppers see the products.
All the Wildwood products are fresh, and they are typically sold refrigerated in the deli or dairy case. The veggie burgers are vacuum packed and then pasteurized. The meatballs and crumbles are packed using modified-atmosphere, thermoform-fill-seal equipment, with a nitrogen flush to preserve freshness.
As a well-established natural and organic food brand, Wildwood has always emphasized transparency and honesty as well as clean, chemical- and preservative-free processing. Wildwood aims to "provide a good-looking, good-tasting, appetizing product that is good for you. That's the goal," says Ivan Hayashi, category marketing and innovation manager at Pulmuone.
As an additional, underlying brand value, "We don't hide anything," he says. "We're proud of showing [our products] to you."