In the world of food manufacturing, it's not only what's inside a food package that counts. More often than not, it is the package itself that entices and creates loyalty among customers to the processor's brand.
Ultimately, packaging materials may be "throwaways," but their role in profitability, brand loyalty, product integrity and appeal is essential. All the characteristics of packaging — its ability to keep food safe; the visual appeal of color, design and graphics; the quality and type of materials used; and the ease and convenience of handling — define a brand's personality. Packaging provides a powerful communication tool that is synonymous with your brand.
There are several ways food manufacturers can rethink their packaging solutions to achieve greater profits and push their brands forward.
Green is good
In a January 2008 sustainability survey conducted by Information Resources, Inc., close to 50 percent of consumers considered at least one sustainability factor when selecting packaged goods. The sustainability factors included organic foods and eco-friendly packaging. One big trend these days is the move away from rigid packaging (cans, cardboard) to soft and flexible, such as stand-up flexible pouches. Flexible packaging takes up less space on supermarket shelves, a benefit for retailers, but it also requires less material in manufacturing, and is hence considered a "green" product.
Other environmentally responsible packaging coming on strong includes FormShrink®, a new, European-born packaging concept that combines the benefits of high-clarity, form-fitting shrink bags with the efficiencies of thermo-forming rollstock equipment. The FormShrink material is environmentally friendly, with a high-grade, PVdC-free resin formulation that is better for the environment versus the traditional PVdC barrier shrink bag. FormShrink thickness, on average, is 33 percent less than a typical shrink bag, while at the same time offering superior puncture resistance. The new packaging uses less film than the vacuum shrink bag process, meaning less waste and less material in landfills and lower material costs versus traditional methods.
Practicing food safety
Even great taste can't trump basic faith. The plethora of food scares in recent years is leaving both consumers and food marketers jittery, and those tiny bacteria — E. coli, salmonella, listeria, botulinum and a host of new pathogens — are costing huge, billion-dollar losses for food manufacturers, processors, and retailers, not to mention the human tragedy resulting from death or illness.
According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2008 report, although consumer confidence in the safety of supermarket food is on the rebound, shoppers remain cautious: only 11 percent are "completely confident" versus 15 percent in 2007.
In its 2007 Annual State of the Industry Review, FMI also rated issues that caused the most anxiety to food retailers. While the top-rated concerns over competition and energy and healthcare costs remained stable, the issue of food safety shot up 15 percent between 2006 and 2008.
The good news? Recent advances in processing and packaging can extend shelf life and improve food safety.
For example, processors can reduce the likelihood of bacterial contamination by using post-packaging surface pasteurization. A contamination problem can arise when a casing, cook-in bag, or netting is removed at the plant after the meat is cooked, but before it is repacked for retail. The meat is thus removed from a sterile environment, creating an opportunity for bacteria introduction — by anything or anyone.
Post-pasteurization bags are constructed of unique polymer blends that withstand extreme temperatures — 210° F for up to 10 minutes — making them ideally suited for the post-packaging pasteurization process. The bags become a "second skin" that, in addition to the food safety benefit, also reduces purge, thus increasing product yield.
Now, what about those leaks? Packaging is so critical to the perception of food safety that "30 percent of shoppers would increase meat case purchases even more if the packaging were leak-proof," claims the 2008 report, "The Power of Meat — an In-Depth Look at Meat Through the Shoppers' Eyes," released by the American Meat Institute (AMI) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
Some bone-in product such as ribs, steaks, and chops present a challenge; that is, bones poking through packaging materials. In the past, bone guards were employed, adding cost to the finished package, but also concealing the meat, something most shoppers surveyed say they would specifically prefer retailers and processors not to do.
Enter bone guard shrink bags. The bags provide complete puncture protection from edge to edge, without patches. The high-abuse material greatly reduces leaker rates as well as the number of re-packs needed and eliminates the labor needed to apply patches, soaker pads, and bone disks, thus improving the processor's bottom line. The bag also offers better barrier properties than those of conventional bone-in meat packaging, thus extending product shelf life.
Eating in — cost & convenience
Two issues are having a major impact on how consumers shop these days: the economy and busy lifestyles. The high cost of food has driven 71 percent of Americans to increase at-home meal preparation, while decreasing the amount they eat at restaurants, according to the FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2008 report. But we haven't gained hours in the day, so convenience is still paramount.
Food processors have an unparalleled opportunity to add value to their brands and boost profits by delivering packaged foods that helps revive the American family's meal-at-home tradition while reducing prep time in the process.
Ready to help is a new, high-performance product — a vacuum-sealing oven bag for roasting at moderate to high oven temperatures. This package is a "from-the-plant-to-the-store-to-the-home-to-the-oven" package. Consumers no longer have to spend extra time or money shopping for a separate ovenable bag, which by its nature reduces cleanup; the food is already wrapped and ready to pop in the oven. Just vent and cook. These vacuum oven bags are a printable, puncture-resistant, high-barrier film that extends the shelf life of foods and, through its ability to lock in juices, increases yields and improves flavor.
Scoring high marks in food safety, the bag is virtually leakproof, thus reducing the risk of contamination. The bag accommodates a wide range of food products, including raw and pre-cooked poultry, precooked ham, and fresh ribs. The bag is ideal for roasting in moderate to high oven temperatures.
Consumer demands for "easy" foods are paving the way for a wide variety of other creative packaging solutions. Microwavable retort pouches, which are more than just a green choice, are making a comeback from their launch in the 1970s. The pouches, in which moist foods are sealed and then cooked and sterilized in steam or hot water kettles, make foods taste better and look better, since the cooking time is much faster compared to foods in cans. New convenience products in microwavable pouches include pasta sauces and pasta/sauce combinations. The pouches, which also keep foods fresher longer, are popularly used for tuna fish, chunk chicken, meats, precooked rice, and pet foods.
Adding value in this category is about unique presentation and a combination of efficient features that make the consumer experience more favorable. To this end, food manufacturers should partner with their packaging supplier, requesting direct access to a dedicated R&D team that will work with the customers' product development and marketing teams to create tomorrow's packaging today.
The addition of the packaging manufacturer's valuable expertise moves the packaging project smoothly from original concept to final testing. The packaging team can help with graphics and can increase value by adding zippers, tear notches, or hanger holes. The manufacturer can custom tailor their pouches to fit every need, including stand-up gusseted pouches as well as metalized (gold, bronze, red, purple, etc.), boilable, heavy puncture-resistant, printed, or colored pouches.
Another opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to promote their brands is by implementing new packaging solutions for the aging baby-boomer generation. After 2010, the proportion of elderly will increase rapidly as the share of the adult population declines. With a growing 80-years-plus population, packaging will need to feature larger type for nutrition and food preparation instructions, and easy-to-manipulate opening and resealing mechanisms.
And easy-open convenience extends to the meat case, too. New FormShrink packaging for whole chickens, hams, roasts, loins, chubs of sausage or pepperoni, hot dogs, and cheese gives a skin-tight, sleek look and can offer convenience features such as easy-open tear notches—no knives or scissors needed to open the package. That adds up to more appeal in the retail case.
Another new packaging convenience for customers of any age is as simple as the grocery bag itself: handles. Handle bags began as a convenience feature on cooking bags and cook-chill bags at the processing level. For food manufacturers, the unique handle bag was a processing improvement because it was markedly easier and safer to reach into a cold-water chiller, hot-water bath, walk-in freezer, or many other holding or processing environments and grab a handle, not a small nub of plastic. For point-of-sale operations, the handle and printable surface provide innovative retail appeal since customers are able to pull product from retail cases with greater ease. It is currently a popular choice for bone-in meat products such as ribs and for sauce-with-meat products such as au jus, pulled pork, and barbeque.
The glitz factor
When it comes to packaging, looks are all-important. The more appealing the package, the more consumers transfer value to the product. Adding glitz to packaging with attractive colors, design elements, and graphics can make a manufacturer's product stand out from the competition. But what's good for pouches, labels, and boxes doesn't always transfer to the meat case.
The 2008 AMI/FMI study on "The Power of Meat" reported that, on a scale of 1 to 6, consumers rated product appearance at 4.3 when selecting meat. Consumers prefer to see the product and examine such factors as freshness and marbling. Diane Colgan, director of marketing for the Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, based in Charleston, South Carolina, agrees. "Packaging is important in revealing the attributes of the food inside. Our customers want to 'inspect' the chicken; they don't want packaging and graphics to cover it up. We also carry a lot of case-ready meats. The clear packaging promotes consumer confidence: our customers believe that our butchers have hand-selected the cuts, which they find appealing. This definitely contributes to their meat selections," she says.
Sophisticated new shrink-packaging technology results in a remarkably clear "window" for consumers to see meat and poultry products up close.
And when seeing the meat is not as important — for example, when shopping prepared, pre-cooked meats such as spiral-sliced hams — metalized pouches and films in a radiant variety of red, gold, bronze, and silver create colorful appeal from the meat case, an appeal that translates into higher price tags to consumers and, hence, higher profits for both retailers and processors. As early as 2005, market analysts Kline & Company addressed the popularity of adult health food bars — a 20 percent spike in recent years — claiming that the colorful metallic films used in packaging were responsible for their success.
Flavor wraps and edible films also add value. A different kind of packaging, though an outer wrap nonetheless, flavor wraps and edible films layer onto primal cuts a variety of savory seasonings from Cajun to Santa Fe to lemon pepper. The films are ideal for dressing up bone-in hams, chicken, turkey loin, and barbeque ribs. There are even edible films that duplicate authentic grill marks on food, without the need for grilling equipment.
Partnering with packaging experts
When it comes to protecting their bottom line, manufacturers and processors should look to packaging suppliers who can conduct an audit of their company's packaging materials, equipment, and operations. Reliable packaging experts can examine a variety of issues, including faulty seals, film transparency for visual appeal, moisture retention for product integrity, the thickness and quality of packaging sheets to resist heat or acidic ingredients and prevent punctures and leakers, and matching the size of packaging to the product to avoid waste of materials. By recommending effective packaging strategies, the specialists can help manufacturers save money and realize higher profit potential.
It's clearly a wrap: food manufacturers now can choose from a wealth of creative packaging solutions that increase food safety, enhance environmental responsibility, and offer convenience to customers — not to mention increased profits and a boost for their brands' integrity. That's brand building at its best.
For more information, visit www.cmsflavorseal.com