A tray for all seasons

With consumers showing a much greater interest in knowing where their meat comes from, retailers have been put under increasing pressure over the past decade to be clearer about their fresh produce both in terms of traceability and the messages communicated on packaging.

When the retailers come under greater scrutiny, so do the processors and the companies that supply them. Suppliers involved in the production of trays and rigid plastic packaging, such as Sharp Interpack, which has been around the industry now for over 40 years, have already seen many changes in what major retailers and food processors look for in their packaging and that change is ongoing. Sharp Interpack sales director Bob Hayes says that these include many factors. "They are now looking for clarity, less weight without loss of integrity, fewer truck journeys, optimal palletisation, less warehouse space, packaging innovation and recycled materials, such as recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) and recycled polypropylene (rPP)," he says. "Environmental concerns have come back to the top of the agenda."

Yet advancements in food packaging, resulting from these demands, have also been a boon to the meat industry and the multiples, says Hayes. In particular, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) in APE, APET/PE and PP barrier materials offer can now breathe longer life into meat products.

"The use of MAP packaging can quadruple active shelf-life by 11-15 days for standard chilled products, depending on the product, and even 28 days with added high-barrier substrates.

There now seems to be a lot more pressure to reduce pack weights, but according to Neil Ashton, sales manager of tray sealer Packaging Automation, environmental requirements need to be balanced with supplying a good product that is green, but still effective. "While visible packaging reduction seems to be the current primary focus for media and hence public attention, it is easy to be fooled into thinking all packaging is bad. As anyone involved in food manufacturing and in particular fresh and chilled products knows, packaging is a powerful tool, not just in terms of product presentation but also as a means of preserving products, extending their shelf-life, allowing their transportation from process plant to shelf and, in some cases, allowing convenient on-the-go consumption of the contents.

"In addition, initiatives to reduce overall pack weights through thinner gauge material and the use of recycled material can be detrimental to the pack's overall strength and performance. It is paramount that new materials are fully tested prior to any commitment being made to them."

Sharp's Hayes agrees that packaging is not really the bad guy. "The media is increasingly reporting how today's consumers are influenced by where food originates and how it is sourced. While packaging was previously perceived as a necessary evil, it is now being portrayed as playing an important role in maintaining and protecting produce and rightly so."

Hayes adds that the structure of the pack, designed to withstand the rigours of packing systems and challenging logistical environments, must always be preserved, without adding to the overall weight. He claims that the design and strategic placement of the ribs plays an integral role in ensuring that durability and robustness is preserved, while giving optimal visibility to the product content.

Recently, Sharp worked with beef and lamb supplier Dunbia to create bespoke packaging for value-added meat products going into Sainsbury's. The 'two-trays-in-one' concept was created for Dunbia's slow-cooking beef shin, tomato and thyme casserole and slow-cooking lamb shoulder, mint and tomato casserole for Sainsbury's own-brand. The final effect was so good that Dunbia was awarded Sainsbury's 'Own Brand Supplier of the year 2009 Best for Innovation' for the two products.

"We also recently launched Sharplok+, a new thermoforming technology that helps to minimise the impact packaging has on the environment by eliminating the absorbent pads from some meat, poultry and fish trays," adds Hayes. "Sharplok+ is a range of pad-less meat, fish and poultry trays, which use thermoforming technology to create reservoirs, specifically designed to retain excess moisture through surface tension, thus eliminating the need for an absorbent pad. The public's desire to eat new and exciting food dishes, inspired by travel and TV chefs, is driving demand for these products."

Reduction demands

At a recent meeting with a leading retailer, says Packaging Automation's Ashton, packaging developments in particular weight reduction, recyclability and cost of packaging materials were a key topic of conversation. Alongside this, there were discussions about new concepts that offer added benefits in terms of product presentation and user-friendliness to the consumer.

"All too often, we are brought into a project once a pack concept has been presented to, and accepted by, a retailer, without due consideration of the packaging process or the choice of pack materials and their compatibility for sealing all of which we are more than happy to advise on as part of our service to the industry," says Ashton. "I believe there is great scope for retailers to work directly with packaging machinery designers at the outset of projects to help them crystallise ideas and transform them into workable concepts that can be handled efficiently in a production environment."

Alan Davey, director of innovation at container manufacturer Linpac Packaging, says that, in the past, retailers opted for standard EPS (expanded polystyrene) trays, which were colour-coded for product differentiation and used for in-store packing. Yet standard EPS trays offered limited shelf-life so, as technology evolved, retailers began to use EPS MAP packaging, which offered a longer shelf-life, coloured product differentiation and more hygienic presentation by absorbing unsightly meat juices. "This development coincided with the introduction of centralised packing systems, which reduced costs for retailers. Linpac was at the forefront of this innovation, leading the development of absorbent trays and MAP packaging," he says.

"Retailers are now looking for packaging that offers excellent product visibility and a strong environmental message. Linpac has invested heavily in production of packaging with recycled content, which offers a positive environmental message. The company doubled its production of its Rfresh PET range last year, which contains over 50% post-consumer recycled waste and offers crystal clear clarity, extended shelf-life and is suitable for MAP applications. Another popular line is Rfresh PP which contains an industry-leading level of post-consumer waste rHDPE."

Beyond the retailers, meat processors also want packaging that is cost-effective and works efficiently with their machinery, according to Davey. At Linpac, therefore, it has developed a full range of stretch and barrier films, specially designed to be compatible with Linpac's range of trays. Davey adds that the technology for offering better shelf-life has not yet reached its limits and the company is actively developing 'smart' packaging to further enhance product shelf-life.

"Retailers in the UK are now looking at extending shelf-life and using packaging with recycled content. However, many European governments are looking at implementing green taxes on packaging, based on weight, which means weight may become even more of an issue in the future. EPS is the lightest of packaging materials used, so if the taxes come into place, it may return to being the packaging material of choice."

Linpac had a successful year in 2009 as its Rfresh PET range for meat and protein products were recognised in the first European Association of Plastics Recycling and Recovery Organisations (EPRO) awards to promote recycled products in Europe.

EPRO chose Linpac's Rfresh as one of the best products containing recycled plastics, as its trays for meat use the minimum amount of polymer while maintaining strength. Winners were selected from entries received from the 13 European member countries all of which had to contain at least 50% recycled plastics, be made out of recycled, used plastics packaging and be made in Europe.

Linpac says its Rfresh PET trays offer all the qualities associated with PET, including clarity, strength and recyclability. The trays are designed to work in conjunction with the LINtop range of barrier lidding films to offer excellent production efficiency and product shelf-life and are available in depths of up to 12mm to suit most cuts of meat or poultry available in the UK. In addition to the standard range, Linpac has also launched a newly developed range specifically designed for overwrapping machines.

"Rfresh PP contains a minimum of 15% post-consumer rHDPE," adds Davey. "It is available with complementary LINtop barrier lidding film, is excellent value for money and is suitable for poultry."

In future, then, it will be interesting to see what legislation proposals will be put forward for packaging and limits to reduce weight but at present, processors and retailers can rest assured that packaging firms are working hard to ensure that this will not be a problem.




Types of packaging according to LINPAC Packaging's Alan Davey


MAP packaging "This replaces or modifies the atmosphere surrounding the product to inhibit spoilage and discolouration, increasing shelf-life and offering attractive presentation of the product to the consumer."

Skin/Vacuum packaging "This removes all the gases from the pack and makes a vacuum, which gives the product a long shelf-life. In the case of red meat, the product can appear discoloured, as the meat comes into contact with the packaging medium. This can seem unattractive to consumers as, in the UK, consumers expect their red meat to look red. However, the product in the pack will last longer and it may be simply a case of the consumer having to become accustomed to this style of pack."




Case study 1: Packaging Automation


Foodex 2010 is not far off and a number of top packaging firms will be at the event, taking place at Birmingham's NEC from 21-24 March.

Packaging Automation (PA) will be unveiling what it describes as "the future of high-speed tray heat-sealing" when it launches its range of flexible new machines at the show. Included on the company's stand will be the revolutionary Eclipse TL6 Twin Lane, which has been specifically designed for rugged reliability and high performance. The Eclipse range also includes the new SL6 Single Lane, which combines PA's engineering experience with cutting-edge technology to raise the bar for cost-effective and versatile tray heat-sealing machines.

PA adds that it is acutely aware of the need for manufacturers to minimise the impact their operations have on the environment, so the Eclipse range also offers the inside cut option and the ability to run sealing film as thin as 17 micron, which reduces film usage by 20% compared to existing tray sealers. In addition, the machine has been designed to cut energy costs by reducing the air consumption of the machine by 50%.

Sealing packs at a rate of up to 180 per minute (ppm) or 90ppm for the SL6 the Eclipse range includes an inbuilt tool-loading system, which, when combined with the lightest tools in the market, allows manual tool changes and accurate docking of electrical and gas connectors, removing the need for a mobile loading jig. The top tool comprises single-impression removable cartridges that enable continued operation during repairs and maintenance. Spare cartridges can be supplied to allow full capacity operation at all times and a complete tool changeover can be achieved within two minutes, says the firm.

Simplified operation is demonstrated by a Minimal Operator Interface, which eliminates operator errors and improves efficiency by pre-setting all machine parameters, including tool recipe settings and pack handling, at the touch of a button. For further flexibility and long-term value, the TL6 can be converted to an SL6 to accommodate 560mm pack widths on a single-lane machine.

Other key features of the Eclipse include redesigned tooling heater mats with an integrated thermocouple. Manufactured from a new waterproof material, these mats heat up to 30% faster and have a significantly longer life than materials previously used, claims the firm. And to save on critical downtime, a Pack Crush Protection system prevents smashed packs when incoming trays are not orientated properly and quick-release cutting blades allow for replacement in seconds.

Like PA's other models, the Eclipse also offers modified atmosphere with gas flushing for longer shelf-life, energy-saving features, such as automatically switching to stand-by when not in use and, for the fresh produce sector, clip-on lids can be replaced by pre-punched film, allowing pack contents to breathe.

Ideal for a wide range of foods, tray-sealed packs offer consumers and retailers convenience, protection and freshness, while PA's new Eclipse range provides manufacturers with less waste, reduced pack weight and increased productivity.




Case study 2: Sirane


Packaging solutions company Sirane will be introducing several premier packaging innovations at Foodex 2010. Sales director for food packaging, Jeremy Haydn-Davies, believes Foodex will be a catalyst for absorbent packaging for a variety of food markets, including meat.

"Foodex 2010 will also see us spring some surprises in the form of some revolutionary packaging options to the market involving all-in-one solutions and our various entries into the film packaging markets with new technologies and materials," he says. "The show will also be an excellent focal point for Sirane's expanding workforce. This year will see us building the Sirane sales teams even further with key new appointments planned throughout the year. Last year, Sirane completed a programme of appointing international sales agents in key locations such as France, northern Europe, southern Europe, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Middle East, the USA, Australia and South Africa. We now sell across all five continents and part of my future brief for Sirane food packaging will involve lifting volumes in all these geographical areas."

Founding director Simon Balderson says Sirane is preparing for a fresh uptake of its packaging innovations and a big year generally. "For some time now, we have been informing, consulting with and leading the market in terms of our absorbent food packaging and its capabilities. This 'sampling' phase is now coming to an end and turning into full-blown production demand."

Balderson adds that these new product areas include a complete range of fully compostable barrier and permeable films for meat and produce packaging. "We are developing the Sirane model of flexible response and client service and intend to drive it into new areas. Retailers, supermarkets, and packer fillers are increasingly happy to accept integrated package solutions and at Sirane we are more than happy to invest in our one-stop-packaging shop capabilities."