It’s In the Bag: Trayless Ground Beef Yields Better Sustainability, Savings, and Market Adoption

By Mike Terry
Flow Wrapped Trayless ground Beef - Waitrose

For more than a decade, European packagers, retailers, and customers have enjoyed the benefits of trayless ground beef. Better packaging sustainability, lower production and material costs, a more attractive, longer-lasting product from store to the table – these improvements have all become commonplace industry-wide across the pond.

Now it is time for Americans to do the same.

Today in the U.S., labor costs, manufacturing expenses, sustainability concerns, and vigilance over climate change are at an all-time high. Concurrently, the state of technology and logistics is making leading-edge packaging innovation possible.

Advantages brought about by new packaging advances, such as flow wrapping for ground beef, are being shared at every level of the processing and purchase cycle. As a result, it is not only a younger generation of green consumers reaping the rewards for their foresight but the previous generation of cost and quality-conscious manufacturers who have decided to act.

It starts by eliminating the most material- and resource-intensive part of standard ground beef packaging: the preformed plastic tray.


SustainabilitySustainable packaging is on everyone’s mind. Younger consumers are clamoring for less waste, more recycling, and better integration of green materials. They patronize consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies that will give it, offering $143 billion of annual spending power and invaluable brand trust.

Meanwhile, producers and retailers understand the need for more sustainable packaging and products and work diligently to make it a reality. But while sustainability’s altruism and positive global impact are ideal on paper, putting it into practice demands upfront investment and an expense that no one wants to bear readily.

Enter the worst-kept secret European packagers ever had and one that the American industry largely ignores: flow wrapping for trayless ground beef.

More streamlined and cost-effective than almost any other modern packaging application, trayless flow wrapping is unique for the number of sustainability benefits from automated packaging to the point of sale. From material and production expenditures to carbon emissions and marketing return on investment (ROI), integrating flow wrap is quickly appearing on everyone’s radar as a primary method for cutting costs and reaching lofty sustainability goals set by market trends.

Reducing Carbon Footprint

To start, sustainable flow wrapping for trayless ground beef reduces carbon footprint by removing the tray from the packaging interior and utilizing composite structured packaging films made of almost 95% recycled polypropylene plastics. This results in a 60% reduction in plastic usage per package compared to traditional trays, lidding, or overwrap.

There are also sustainability considerations concerning the underlying food supply chain and existing distribution model in the U.S. Flow wrapped trayless ground beef reduces CO2 emissions related to the transport of supplier raw material shipments by 80%. Moreover, it requires 30% less space for shipment and storage than plastic trays. That means fewer shipments, more inventory in a shorter time, decreased energy usage, and a minimized impact on the environment.

Finally, with other ground beef packaging applications such as traysealing, tray overwrap with master bag, and even chubs, the polypropylene trays, barrier lidding, and PVC overwrap is not recyclable. If producers or customers wish to utilize these applications and still recycle on a large scale, they must rely on a handful of private companies to manage it at cost.

Achieving Future Sustainability Goals

Many major U.S. producers, retailers, and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have committed to meeting aggressive, double-digit sustainability goals within two years by 2025. In that effort, they are pushing their existing packaging equipment and films to the limit of what they can accomplish regarding product protection and preservation while also incorporating more sustainable materials.

These companies are experimenting with meat packaging solutions, like flow wrapping for trayless ground beef, which provide optimized product protection but take on a thinner, less intrusive film profile. They are spending more on sustainable, high-performance films, which offer less permeability and increased shelf life.

While challenges such as downgauging continue to present challenges in that effort, there is no doubt that leading-edge companies will continue to invest more in innovation in the name of sustainability, with the industry leaders making flow wrapping their savvy first step.

Breaking into More Sustainable Markets

West Coast StatesMore than simply CPG company sustainability, the green movement is opening brand new market opportunities with young, wealthy, environmentally conscious consumers in various niche markets on America’s coasts. As a result, these consumers are rapidly emerging as the most influential drivers of sustainable packaging market trends.

In fact, cities such as Seattle, WA, Portland, OR, and San Francisco, CA, have already implemented laws and regulations concerning film packaging. These laws aim to eliminate food packaging components that don’t break down in landfills and make sustainability and reduction in polystyrene (Styrofoam) the focus.

While more traditional sections of the country like the south and Midwest may be slower to adopt these latest trends and hold firm to their familiar trays, the sustainable packaging movement continues to gain traction, especially among younger consumers, and move inwards. Once cities such as New York, NY, Chicago, IL, and Boston, MA are on board with these changes, it is only a matter of time before most influential producers and brands move to a more sustainable ground beef package.


Sustainability is a lofty and admirable goal. Every business – American or otherwise – should aim to be more sustainable in practice, not just in theory, to help preserve and safeguard the planet.

But not every customer, producer, and packager makes sustainability their focus. Capitalist manufacturing comes down to dollars and cents.

Cut Costs

Yet even in the light of profitability and a better bottom line, flow wrapped trayless ground beef packaging comes out ahead. Though traysealing with polystyrene and or overwrapped master bag may be more familiar on the American market, flow wrapped trayless ground beef is less expensive to produce, package, ship, and purchase overall.

“I don’t need promises. I need numbers.”

Absolutely. How’s this? Flow wrapped trayless ground beef packaging is 40% less expensive than traditional tray packaging.

Let that sink in.

Consider comparing flow wrap packaging to the most common form of ground meat packaging used today – tray overwrap with master bag. We can estimate the cost of a 1-lb polystyrene tray at $.05 and the PVC overwrap material at $.03 on a per-unit basis. Additionally, the allocated cost of the scavenger used in the master bag is approximately $.05 per lb. The master bag versus the flow wrap material is negligible in this scenario.

The cost of a polystyrene tray, PVC overwrap, and oxygen scavenger total approximately $.13 (conservatively). There is no need for a tray, overwrap, or oxygen scavenger with flow wrapping due to the modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). This means a lower cost per package for every package.

For example, one master bag line puts out 108,000 trays a day for 266 days. That is 28 million packages x $.13. Those savings equal $3,734,000 in savings per year on one line alone.

How do those savings sound? Wait, there is more.

Transportation & Material Savings

In addition to the production savings, flow wrapping trayless ground beef offers additional cost reduction for transportation and materials on an industrial scale. Consider the cost of transporting traditionally wrapped trays, PVC overwrap materials, and individually wrapped oxygen scavenging equipment. There is also the labor to unload, store, and eventually implement these materials. These expenses are unique to every customer; however, the savings in these areas can amount to millions of additional dollars a year for individual lines – especially when you factor in the rising costs of labor.


So, if flow wrapped trayless ground beef provides all these benefits, what is the holdup? Why don’t American packagers simply switch over and pass on their savings to all their customers?

Like any producer/customer relationship, there are challenges that must be answered and norms that must change. When it comes to ground beef in the U.S., two key issues present as opposition to the trayless ground beef revolution:

Food Supply Chain & Distribution Model

Unfortunately, there is no way to get around shipping and distribution time across our great land. The U.S. is vast, requiring days of travel time and even more effort to ensure maximum product preservation, shelf life, and quality.

For instance, Great Britain uses flow wrap packaging almost exclusively for ground beef. However, British, and even European, operations are highly concentrated. As a result, they only require approximately seven to ten days of shelf life to get ground beef to retailers.

Flow Wrapped Trayless Ground Beef - Weniger

From a packaging standpoint, they can utilize a high-oxygen (70-80%) mixture with a 20% CO2-modified atmosphere, mono film packaging for trayless ground meat. British meat packagers can rely on the amount of oxygen to preserve the bright-red color of oxymyoglobin, keeping the flow wrapped product fresh-looking and attractive to consumers.

In the United States, the distribution time is longer. Domestic markets require a minimum of 13 days for distribution. Once the ground beef arrives at the retailer, they can place it on the shelves for sale. Achieving that kind of shelf life precludes high-oxygen packaging and requires MAP using TriGas methods, which flow wrapping can provide.

Customer Perception

Even if you can solve for distribution times with flow wrapping capabilities for ground beef, that brings us to our second challenge to cost-effective, sustainable packaging: customer perception. When consumers believe change is warranted and invest their time and money to get there, old habits, preconceived notions, and cost still play significant roles in the market adoption of a “new” product.

“Will people embrace this new approach to buying ground meat in a trayless package?”

As previously mentioned, the packaging and retail industry will not spend to update products and equipment independently – even with education and a national drive towards better sustainability. They will respond, however, to customer demand. They will provide upfront capital investment for more modern flow wrap packaging equipment if the need exists.

But that can be a big “IF.”

Like mass poultry, American consumers buy what is familiar, like the over wrapped ground beef on Polystyrene trays. What is more, they shop with their senses – specifically sight and touch.

Taking Trayless Ground Beef Adoption into Their Hands

American consumers touch, lift, and examine their packaged proteins. There is room for the product to move with flow wrapped trayless ground beef. It is not tightly wrapped like tray over wrap and may turn customers off at the point of sale. There is no tray, so they are not familiar with the meat packaging. That trust and acceptance take time. That may be time retailers cannot afford.

The Importance of Consumer Psychographics

There is also psychographics that comes into play for customers when adopting new food packaging and technological innovations. These variables predispose consumers’ perceptions and concerns and ultimately affect in-store behaviors, leading them to choose the format that aligns with their identity.

For instance, along with important factors such as strong motivations to avoid food waste and managing food provisioning and handling from purchase to preparation, other psychographic variables influence purchasing decisions. These can include:

  • Safety Concerns
  • Feelings Of Disgust
  • Convenience
  • The Wish to Be a Good Family Caretaker

An unfamiliar packaging format may negatively impact these factors and slow trayless ground beef market adoption.


The other important purchasing factor we discussed is a customer’s sense of sight. Consumers buy what LOOKS good to them. So, when they are in the grocery store, they want their ground beef to look fresh, enticing, and – this is the key – RED.

The only issue there is the freshest ground beef is not red, pink, or reddish pink.

It is purple.

Thermoformed Ground Beef

In thermoformed ground beef packaging, also known as “brick packs,” there is a complete lack of oxygen inside the packaging. As a result, the ground beef retains its purple color and guarantees optimal freshness, longer shelf life, and thus a more cost-effective production approach.

However, American consumers have been slow to adopt ground beef brick packs, as the colors do not register as familiar. They are foreign and, much of the time, unwelcome until a consumer asks:

“Why is this ground meat purple?”

Optimal Color, Freshness & Taste

Flow wrapped trayless ground beef provides the best of all worlds regarding customer perception and overall savings. It is more sustainable than master bagging and traysealing, reduces material and production costs, and most importantly, gives consumers the bright pinkish-red color they crave (not necessarily need) without sacrificing quality.

The secret to these capabilities is a process called TriGassing. TriGas is a common MAP that utilizes a low-oxygen interior combination of Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide (CO2), and safe levels of Carbon Monoxide (CO) to retain ground beef’s red-pink color.

The flow wrapping process uses a gas lance to inject TriGas into the trayless ground beef packaging, then overwraps everything with film. The CO attaches to the meat’s outer myoglobin, keeping oxygen from penetrating, and the CO2 inhibits aerobic bacteria growth (the leading cause of spoilage and discoloration) to extend shelf life.

There is no tray, only MAP, meat, and proper labeling for improved marketing and regulatory compliance. That’s it.Flow Wrapped Trayless Ground Beef - Waitrose

From this process, we create a flow wrapped package that costs less, presents better, and preserves the product for weeks at a time. Experts estimate that you could flow wrap package ground beef, ship it, and display it over a 16-day period and still have the freshness, looks, quality, and safety customers want.


Flow wrapped trayless ground beef is coming to the United States. It is only a matter of time.

The allure of optimized sustainability, lower production and material costs, and ideal presentation, especially among younger eco-friendly consumers, is just too attractive to resist.

As of writing, grocery giants such as Kroger’s, Publix, Aldi, and others are completing their market research on the viability of flow wrapped ground beef. They are ready to implement just over the horizon, as these powerful market dynamics are an unstoppable driving force behind consumer spending.

At Harpak-ULMA Packaging, we are having these conversations too. Every day, our company is innovating our packaging methods and equipment offers to streamline the transition to trayless ground beef to benefit our customers, their profits, and the planet.

Talk to our experts about flow wrapped trayless ground beef, and let us get you on the ground floor as this movement gains tremendous traction on our native shores.

Want personalized advice from a packaging expert?

Producers come to us to solve their unique packaging challenges. Tell us about your project and get expert advice today.