It's all becoming clear

Packaging has gone from being a mere protector of food to being a major tool in product marketing, branding and image awareness, and it is all down to the consumer, says Keren Sall

Packaging reduction may be the word on the street, but when it comes to the consumer, what their conscience might be telling them, their wallets say the opposite. As a result we're seeing increasing innovation on the packaging front in a bid to attract the consumer pound.

Demand in meat applications is projected to increase by 4.1% annually to $3.9bn (£2.1bn) in 2009, due to an accelerating growth in meat production volume, along with an increased availability of meat cuts in smaller sizes and in a format that makes meal preparation more convenient. As such, products are using more packaging, according to a report by the Freedonia Group. Fresh and frozen markets present the best opportunities for meat packaging, but faster growth is expected in the significantly smaller ready-to-eat market.

Demand for fresh and frozen meat packaging will be supported by dietary trends favouring greater consumption as well as increasing expansion for case-ready meats, which meet market demands for meat that looks as fresh as if it were packed behind the supermarket counter.

The main factors driving packaging innovation are retailer demands, the ongoing price battle among hard discounters, and the need to meet consumer demand for more convenience.

One of the biggest developments has been the move from foam and coloured trays to clear trays. This allows consumers a better view of the product and also provides a cost saving. A general move away from meat and poultry products packed and wrapped in the back of the store towards case-ready packs has also continued, especially for poultry.

Neil Dunn, sales director of ready meals Europe for Cryovac's food packaging division Sealed Air, agrees there has been a big shift towards central packaging. He believes the following concerns and trends are impacting on meat packaging:

increasing demand for healthy food

growing demand for convenience

reduction in poultry packaging

the need to preserve quality and seal integrity

and space, as meat, surrounded as it is by gas, takes up room in vans and shops.

Different market demands require different packaging solutions: "We need to have a pack that ensures a shelf-life compatible with the supply chain," Dunn says.

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"Central packaging needs an improved shelf life. For fresh meat - specifically beef - central packaging is continuing. Retail packaging goes from tray and film towards barrier foam tray and barrier-lidding materials," he adds. At the same time producers of premium products are trying to differentiate their products in the market through innovative, better designed packages with a longer shelf-life, to ensure a fresher product and keep the leading position in the market, says Dunn. "The selection of materials, package colour, easy opening features and package recloseability are all important," he adds.

While some argue that packaging materials and machinery suppliers and retailers are driving the pace of technology, the consumer undeniably has an influence. Lifestyles are changing rapidly and nowhere is this more apparent than in the way people continue to change their eating habits. Many women now work while the number of single households has grown dramatically. As the "cash-rich, time-poor" consumer becomes more sophisticated in taste - a result of increased travel - the purchasing decision is no longer based solely on convenience but also on quality. Whether the food is consumed at home or in a restaurant, quality is key.

According to Dunn, consumers are increasingly demanding individual components for a ready meal with rice or potatoes in separate containers from the meat. They no longer want all the components in one tray, he says. They want to maintain the perception that they had some involvement in putting the meal together. The convenience stores, run by the supermarkets, are increasingly turning towards combining vacuum packing and barrier display film (BDF) to increase the shelf life of these types of products, as it increases shelf space and reduces waste. "Processors must provide choice, freshness, taste and safety. We call it quality cuisine," says Dunn. "Consumers will no longer accept meat that has dehydrated when cooked in the microwave."

For this market, Cryovac has introduced its Darfresh Microw-Vac range which boasts a unique

self-venting, steam release feature. It means there is no need for the consumer to pre-pierce the pack prior to microwaving. Other innovations include trays which are hot on the inside and cold on the outside, thereby adding an element of consumer safety.

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Of course, the underlying trend towards taking costs out of packaging is set to continue as retailers press on with their fight for market share. This means more pressure on processors to remove costs when it comes to materials and machinery packaging, especially as discounters such as Lidl and Aldi are introducing single household packs. Also composite packaging (aluminium, paper, cardboard, tin and film) is increasingly being substituted with cheaper, pure film packaging. This means film property requirements are rising.

As a result, some processors are working with chemical companies on the introduction of thinner film made from high-performance resins which offer comparable qualities.

Since the film is only a few microns thinner, it means more material on a reel and enhanced productivity as change-over times are reduced. "Typically, material down-gauging of 15-20% can be achieved without compromising mechanical properties," says Alessandra Secchi, industrial packaging manager for Cryovac EMEA. The introduction of a new range of shrinkable materials, combined with enhanced sealing technology, has opened the door to operator-free operations, productivity increases and a reduction of leakage rates, she added. Packaging has also become a key marketing tool at the point of sale, with the result that supermarkets are placing greater emphasis on appealing packaging. "The specialties of today will become the commodities of tomorrow. Processors have to keep up with the competition or die," says Terry Starkey, marketing manager at AEW Delford.

And the pressures do not end there. Ever conscious of the environmental concerns of the consumer, retailers are constantly looking for new enviro-friendly materials. "We are looking at both biodegradable and renewable materials which offer improved anti-fog appearance," explains Dunn.

Andrew Stark, marketing manager for Multivac, believes flexible packaging is becoming more popular, especially in grab-and-go markets. Consumers are looking for packaging with an artisan appearance, so manufacturers have cleverly made plastic packaging from waxed paper lending it the old-fashioned feel of a brown paper bag, he says.

Flow-wrap is increasingly taking over from thermo-forming and tray lidding as the preferred form of packaging as it offers more flexibility. "It takes 15 minutes to adjust flow-wrap tooling for packaging of any shape," says Dunn. "We have one system that suits all shapes and processes in Europe. Plus BDF makes it look like the item has just been packed at the back of the store."

Gas-flushed modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) continues to be popular. Cryovac has launched a new tray-sealing MAP system offering attractive and safe packaging for whole birds. The Chick-In system is currently only available in Waitrose. It combines Cryovac's SES321 non barrier stretch/shrink film with a new range of polypropylene barrier trays and high performance Mondini 390WB packaging equipment.

On the machinery front, the shortage of labour and a demand for accountability and traceability has led to more automation and all at lower costs. Processors want whole systems that start with cutting primals and finish with end-of-line packing.

The industry is also moving towards artificial Vision technology which offers greater levels of accuracy that defy belief.

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