Convenience, sustainability, safety and quality drive trends in meat packaging

From touch-free packaging and recyclable shrink bags to interactive labelling and QR codes, the meat packaging is awash with new innovations.

Among commercial foods, meat is one of the most perishable. Many factors including bacterial growth, enzymatic activity and oxidation processes can influence its shelf-life. The main purpose of meat packaging has therefore been to guarantee high standards while maintaining the required characteristics for as long as possible.

Consumer demand for convenience in addition to concerns around safety and environmental impact of packaging has however created a new impetus for new product development and innovation. From touch-free packaging and recyclable shrink bags to interactive labelling and QR codes, the meat packaging is awash with new innovations.

In this edition, we bring you some of the most innovative meat packaging trends with potential to shape the future of meat packaging.

Packaging for frustration-free cooking 

Conventional packaging often requires consumers to portion meat products after purchase into bags or containers. This however takes time and in the case of raw meat may be actively distasteful to consumers.

To address this challenge, packaging meats in single-portion sizes, or cook-in packaging is emerging as a popular trend. Where it’s inappropriate or undesirable to reduce package size, pouches with a zipper seal or a tray lidded with resealable films are used instead. Consumers remove meat whenever needed, in any quantity, then simply close the package.

One of the pioneers in this trend was UK supermarket Sainsbury, which launched straight-to-pan plastic pouches, allowing customers to cook raw meats without directly touching the product. “Customers, particularly younger ones, are quite scared of touching raw meat,” Katherine Hall, Product Development Manager for Meat, Fish and Poultry at Sainsbury’s, says. “These bags allow people, especially those who are time-poor, to just ‘rip and tip’ the meat straight into the frying pan without touching it.”

By minimizing physical contact, the touch-free packaging also minimizes chances of food poisoning, a major concern for most millennials. In response to this demand for convenience, Swiss-based flexible packaging manufacturer Amcor has rolled out BePack™, a flexible packaging with an easy-to-open and reclose feature that helps retain superior flavour, freshness, and quality in convenient formats.

Alternatives to modified atmosphere packaging

Shelf life and presentation of the meat itself both have a strong impact on the “buy / do not buy” decision in store, and also on the “consume / do not consume” choice at home.

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For a long time, meat packagers used modified atmospheric packaging (MAP) to limit the potential for oxidation and microbial growth while at the same time preserving the bright red color, or “bloom,” that consumers prefer.

MAP however has its limitations. When oxygen is completely replaced, meat does not achieve the desired red colour, and when maintained in a ratio with carbon dioxide, oxidation of beef lipids and proteins occurs, with adverse effects on flavor and texture. Therefore, although MAP extended shelf life for fresh meats by up to 4 times when compared to conventional overwrapped foam tray, it was simply not enough. 

Several solutions have since been developed to replace MAP in meat packaging. Vacuum skin packaging (VSP) is one such technology that is emerging as a potential alternative. Unlike MAP, VSP removes all ambient air around the product and does not replace it with another gas or air mixture, significantly reducing or eliminating the exposure of products to oxygen. With oxygen absent, lipid and protein oxidation become significantly minimized. This extends meat shelf life by 20% when compared to conventional MAP, Accor confirms. VSP also provides a superior display option for red meats, because the film’s tight adherence to the product reduces moisture loss and preserves its attractive appearance in the showcase.

Unlike map, vsp removes all ambient air around the product and does not replace it with another gas or air mixture, significantly reducing or eliminating the exposure of products to oxygen.

Another improvement to MAP is the complete replacement of oxygen with CO2 enriched with 0.4 percent carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide binds with the meat’s myoglobin to create the rosy hue that is appealing to consumers but does not promote lipid or protein oxidation. Packaging with CO-MAP results in a shelf life superior to conventional high oxygen MAP while still maintaining the desired appearance of meat. This technology has however not been approved in Europe, limiting its widespread use.

More sustainable options come to market

Consumers want to make more responsible and sustainable choices without sacrificing product quality. More than half (54%) take sustainable packaging into consideration when selecting a product, according to Trivium Packaging’s 2021 Global Buying Green Report.  Younger consumers — those 44 years and younger — are leading the charge, with 83% reporting that they are willing to pay more for it, compared to 70% of all consumers.

The consumer-driven demand for sustainable packaging has led to an explosion of innovation in sustainable packaging. Many of these innovations focus on plastic reduction, with some like GEA’s recently launched Food Tray claiming to give meat packers 80% plastic reductions. Others like Amcor’s Eco-Tite® R and SealPac’s FlatMap have been designed for recyclability. The Eco-Tite, launched in December 2020 was touted as Europe’s first recyclable shrink bag for fresh meat and cheese. It is a timely innovation for meat packers who are also subject to EU regulations that are aiming to ensure 50 percent of all plastic packaging is recycled by 2025 and 55 percent by 2030.

As the sustainability trend continues to rage, other manufacturers are shifting their focus to completely replacing plastics from meat packaging. Finnish wood-based plastics innovator Woodly in collaboration with Wipak, developed a new type of renewable plastic made from wood cellulose. The new packaging has been embraced by food manufacturer HKScan which will reportedly use it to pack selected grilling sausages from mid-2021 in Finland. The wood-based plastic has also been reported to be suitable for fish, cold cuts, cheese and various household applications.

Another company in the plastic replacement field is CARAPAC, an Australian start-up which has developed a biodegradable alternative to plastic food packaging. CARAPAC says the new packaging made from the chitin and cellulose contained in crustacean skeletons can keep products fresh for up to 7 days or longer and could be potentially used to replace plastic in meat packaging apart from being an excellent product for fresh produce and vegetable packaging.

With sustainable packaging being in vogue, the market is expected to continue expanding even further. Market research future projects that the sustainable packaging market is projected to post a CAGR of 10.3% from 2021 to 2027 to reach US$470.3 Billion by 2027 from an estimated US$305.31 billion in 2020. We can therefore expect more packaging with sustainability claims to continue flooding the market for the near future.

Smart packaging gathers momentum

Transparency is vital to consumers, and this has only become more important since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers want to know the story of the product’s origin, steps involved in its manufacturing, logistics and its ingredients.

As a result, the use interactive labelling and QR codes on meat packaging has been on the rise. QR codes have for instance opened a new world of possibilities when it comes to the amount of information that consumers can get from packages. By scanning the digital code printed on the packaging, consumers can for instance be able to find out nutritional information, product origin and product certifications. A scan can also provide detailed cooking instructions and recipes, a welcome support as consumers have had to learn to cook more at home in the past year.

Apart from QR codes, intelligent packaging is also presenting a new window of possibilities, particularly in tackling food safety issues. In November 2020, researchers from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore unveiled to the world the e-nose, an artificial olfactory system which reportedly confirms whether meat is fit for consumption faster and more accurately than a best before date.

The e-nose consists of two parts: a barcode that changes color over time as decaying meat emits gases and a barcode reader in the form of a smartphone app powered by artificial intelligence (AI). When tested on commercially packaged chicken, fish and beef meat samples, the team found that the AI algorithm predicted the meats’ freshness level with a 98.5 percent accuracy. Professor Chen Xiaodong, co-lead author on the research notes that the e-nose can be easily integrated into packaging materials and yields results in a short time. As technology advances and AI and block-chain technologies become increasingly integrated into food processing, we can only expect proliferation of such technologies to take place at an even quicker pace in the years to come.

This feature appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Food Business Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE

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