People are busier than ever trying to carve out time for family, career, sports, and leisure. Making meals at home has gone from a marathon to a sprint, with less time to shop, cook, eat, and clean up. But consumers aren’t cutting corners when it comes to expectations.
Modern shoppers, especially GenZ and Millennials, expect fresh, delicious poultry that is safe, “clean,” without many additives, and sealed in sustainable green packaging. Additionally, they value practicality more than anything else, seeking conveniently packaged protein entrees that allow easy preparation, add value to their lives, and give them more time for the things they love.
For poultry producers, meeting that demand while maintaining food safety, extended shelf life, and a distinct presence in a competitive market, presents significant challenges. While traditional packaging, even advanced Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), offers the shelf life and sustainability consumers need, the preparation – opening, spicing, saucing, flavoring – cooking, and poultry packaging disposal remains up to the individual.
The demand for clean, quality poultry, sustainable packaging, and the inefficiencies of mass poultry production – overwrapping product and setting it on non-recyclable polystyrene (foam) trays – has breathed new life into a ready-to-eat convenience food. As a result, meat packagers are innovating traditional packaging methods and reinvigorating a popular packaging style with flavor, flexibility, and sustainability baked in: cook-in packaging.
What is Cook-in Packaging?
First patented in 1983, cook-in packaging uses a simple, yet ingenious method to ensure meat and poultry is processed, packaged, and prepared to perfection. During processing, poultry is pre-seasoned, marinated, and placed in oven and microwave-safe webbing or recyclable fiber-based trays, eliminating the need for additional plastics. A top seal is then applied to the product while a vacuum simultaneously draws out oxygen, and the poultry is packaged and made ready for transport.
Once heated, the package acts like a pressure cooker, cooking and marinating the poultry in its own spices, sauces, and juices. When the poultry reaches the right internal temperature, the top seal will automatically separate, and browning can occur.
No matter the format, the package remains sealed from the time it is packaged and sealed to when it goes into the oven, microwave, boiling water, or a sous vide. Thus, there is no need to cut the package open to prepare it and clean up, and disposal is as close as the nearest recycling bin.
A Convenient Alternative
This type of convenience, so lacking in conventional meal preparation, makes modern cook-in packaging so appealing to all generations. Its current renaissance in the meat and poultry space has the process reemerging one of the most popular cooking methods for busy professionals, families, and even seniors.
And it’s not hard to understand the earth-friendly, time-saving allure.
GenZ consumers understand that a lower risk of contamination from a perpetually sealed product means safer, higher quality overall. Millennials know convenience food is designed and packaged using modern reusable materials and processes. This means their food is meant to be eaten on the go and with minimal preparation – maximizing freshness and minimizing waste. Even seniors, who tend to veer towards the traditional in most things, are opting for smaller, easy-to-open, easy-to-cook meals, like cook-in packaged options, which don’t skimp on flavor, seasoning, or freshness.
Cook-in poultry packaging also offers improved preservation. It can be frozen and thawed without sacrificing quality. With 60% of shoppers freezing their meat during the pandemic, this feature was essential for at-home chefs already suffering from meal-prep fatigue during COVID-19. That trend in grab-and-go convenience continues to this day.
No matter how automatic the cooking process or easy the cleanup, consumers won’t even get the poultry home without an impressive appearance. People shop with their eyes.
Once again, cook-in packaging delivers on its promise of product quality, freshness, and transparency – literally. The nearly invisible, skin-tight packaging lets the customer see not only their wrapped poultry in 360 degrees but the marinades, spices, and other natural elements as well.
Additionally, because the product is better preserved over a longer shelf life, there is no risk of oxygenation, microbial growth, or discoloration. The consumer can visually verify product’s appeal and familiarity and achieve the instantaneous confidence they need to make their purchase.
Modern cook-in packaging also provides better marketing opportunities at the retail level. Today’s cook-in poultry packaging integrates sophisticated labeling and custom printed graphics for better branding. This feature allows for better nutritional data, health, and lifestyle information such as Certified Organic and non-GMO, and prominent indicators that the packaging is oven and microwave safe. Customers eventually skip the inspection and trust that their favored brand supplies all the safety, flavor, and convenience they have come to expect.
Cook-In Packaging Versatility
When seeing cook-in packaging through this consumer lens, the timely advantages become very apparent. However, convenience and enhanced appearance is only the tip of the packaging efficiency iceberg.
Producers also benefit from the unmatched versatility of cook-in packaging and can utilize it to meet modern demand. Cook-in packaging is flexible enough to process almost any poultry configuration, including breasts, thighs, and even whole roasting poultry, using nearly any of today’s top automated packaging applications, including:
- Thermoforming (TFS)
- Vacuum Skin Packaging (VSP)
- Tray Sealing and Forming
- Stretch and Shrink Packaging
- PaperSeal Cook
In addition to multiple packaging applications, cook-in packaging uses recyclable rollstock film and Crystallized Polyethylene Terephthalate (C-PET) and polypropylene (PP) containers and trays. These materials allow MAP for optimal shelf life, thermal conditioning like freezing and thawing for better preservation, and better durability and resistance to the rigors and damages of transport. By integrating solid and sustainable formats, poultry packagers enjoy less product loss, lower transportation and storage costs, and lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over time.
One such example is the British packaging solutions leader Advanta. They have developed innovative ovenable aluminum trays that are 100% recyclable for whole roaster poultry. When combined with low-plastic VSP, this peel-and-cook packaging can achieve a temperature range of -40° Celsius (-104 °F) to 400° Celsius (752°F) and can increase the shelf life of poultry products by an astonishing 300%.
Cook-in is a Win-Win
As modern consumers continue to search for convenience and quality in their poultry meal prep, demand for simplicity and sustainable packaging continues to rise. For packagers, this is an opportunity to update and integrate the best attributes of existing packaging methods, such as sustainable cook-in packaging, and provide their customers with an eating experience that builds trust, brand awareness, and a better bottom line.