Meat Packaging Innovations Target Convenient Preparation And Product Quality

Processors of fresh and frozen animal proteins — including beef, pork, chicken and seafood — are looking for extra marketing muscle, and they're finding it in package formats engineered for cook-in convenience or enhanced product protection.

By Kate Bertrand Connolly, Packaging Editor

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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.

Chicken tonight

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."

foster farms oven ready
Foster Farms Oven Ready Meat

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.

Meat power

Certainly convenience is a major factor in the increasing popularity of cook-in packaging for proteins. But other consumer trends are also in play.

cryovac oven ease
Cryovac Oven Ease

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.

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