Poultry packaging options are as varied as the products they preserve. As a producer, knowing where to begin when selecting options that meet your needs can be challenging. Questions of materials, transport, and shelf life must be satisfied. Packaging systems must match throughput requirements, reduce the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over time, and help you differentiate your brand and products for maximum customer impact.
It is important that you do more than simply respond and react to industry trends. You must take proactive steps to innovate your packaging process, future-proof your production, and meet the changing preferences and buying habits of a new consumer generation.
Convenience, sustainability, innovations, and reduced waste are no longer “nice to haves.” Instead, they are demands customers and investors are making across their “new food experience.” They are seeking to create a processing and packaging environment that is as good for the planet as it is for them.
To not only survive but thrive during this shift, defining your production goals for the present and future will be your essential first step. From this exercise, you can discover which poultry packaging system will put you in the best position for improved productivity, Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), customer adoption, and measurable savings.
We’ll evaluate optimal packaging solutions based on emerging trends in the poultry industry and recommendations that will help you achieve a desirable return on investment (ROI).
Sustainable Poultry Packaging
Packaging sustainability is one of the key drivers in consumer buying behavior and innovation investments. Younger companies and consumers view poultry packaging through a lens of environmental impact and take tangible steps to adopt formats that reduce overall waste and incorporate greener, eco-friendly materials.
In response to this ever-growing trend, poultry producers are turning to packaging systems that minimize carbon footprint throughout the process, incorporating recycled materials and helping to reduce overall waste from the packaging. Many are turning away from preformed plastic trays, as they use more plastics than polystyrene production and more fossil fuels to create them during forming.
Innovations in sustainable poultry packaging, such as vacuum skin packaging (VSP) on paperboard and 100% recyclable polyethylene, polypropylene, and PET trays are gaining momentum for their eco-friendly features.
But the most popular chosen alternative? The sustainable protection and preservation of thermoformed saddle pack-style poultry packaging.
Thermoformed saddle packs integrate breathable top and bottom webs of high gauge rollstock film to form a hermetic, vacuumed, leak-proof seal for optimal product preservation. This process eliminates the need for a plastic or paperboard tray entirely, cutting the landfill mass in half compared to traditional poultry packaging using overwrap and a polystyrene tray and other formats.
In addition, thermoformed saddle packs are perforated for individual portioning, reducing plastic and food waste and accommodating thermal conditioning, like freezing and thawing, without impacting the product. Freezing also minimizes the overall water activity inherent in all forms of fresh protein through MAP, preventing the freezer burn that is common in overwrapped poultry.
System Recommendation: TFS 600 Thermoformer
Poultry Packaging for Customer Convenience
As sustainability continues to drive the need for more eco-friendly poultry packaging systems, convenience is an equally important trend that continues to gain massive momentum among busy Millennials and GenZ professionals alike. More than 54% of this new generation of consumers said they are ready, willing, and able to pay more for poultry packaging that is easy-to-open, ready-to-eat, portable, and resealable. We have already seen the dramatic impact cook-in packaging has on consumers, and that trend is showing no signs of slowing down.
However, when discussing resealability in poultry production, you will be looking to the deep freeze, or pre-cooked food packaging, to create connection with your customers. All fresh poultry protein contains water. Once a package is thawed and opened, that water will purge. That purging means water activity inside the packaging and no zipper or adhesive resealing strip would be able to contain it.
Poultry’s inherent water activity makes resealable pre-cooked poultry or frozen food packaging the obvious choice when placing focus on convenience. Aside from cook-in packaging such as PaperSeal Cook, vertical form fill seal (VFFS) packaging machines with a reclosable zipper are the best option for product preservation and accessible convenience.
VFFS machines are designed for optimal flexibility, versatility, and continuous motion packing for a wide variety of poultry products. Hygienic, easy-to-use, and highly flexible when accommodating changing portion sizes and film types, VFFS equipment offers optimal vertical packaging capabilities and optimal shelf through MAP life utilizing advanced programming and sustainable materials. Combined with the latest generation of maintenance-free, advanced electronic controls, vertical bagging machines provide superior productivity, durability, and cost reduction across all aspects of frozen and pre-cooked poultry processing.
System Recommendation: VCT and VTI Vertical Packaging Machines (VFFS)
Packaging Outside the Box: Top Choices for Innovation
Changing consumer preferences and buying habits are creating a “new normal” for the modern food experience. As a result, consumers now seek out and support brands that successfully reduce overall packaging materials during processing and maintain optimal shelf life without compromising quality or flavor retention.
But many poultry producers already do this. To differentiate your product in today market, you may have to reimagine your overall packaging strategy and incorporate new forms of alternative packaging that possess the powers of preservation, but also innovate packaging exterior for a more dynamic first impression.
While these choices include the various benefits offered by both convenient cook-in packaging and vacuum skin packaging (VSP), several other options are becoming more appealing for those smaller producers who are ready to invest in the innovation pipeline:
Ideally suited to ground chicken packaging, chubs offer a unique way to pack, freeze, store, and sell poultry that is unique and appealing to customers. Producers are drawn to chub packaging because producing their lightweight, multilayer nylon, polyethylene, or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) film saves time, energy, and greenhouse gases throughout the supply chain. In addition, they require no secondary packaging, such as cartons or paperboard sleeves, and will store frozen product for up to six months without any additional packaging modifications.
As a result, producers utilize them to extend ground poultry products’ shelf life and retain flavor, significantly lower shipping and material savings, and integrate full-color graphics for maximum shelf impact. Commonly created with automatic or semi-automated vertical form-fill-seal machines, chubs provide a superior, low-cost packaging option for ground chicken packagers that allows for full sensory examination by consumers and tangible material and savings overall.
System Recommendation: Vertical Form-Fill-Seal Machines with integrated automation
While not as widely used for ground poultry as beef, brick packs are an emerging favorite in the modern packaging innovation for their transparency, leak resistance, and cost-effective storage and transport. Vacuum-sealed brick packing effectively extends shelf life and prevents product oxidation and deterioration through MAP. It also reduces portion sizes (if desired), processing plastics, and carbon footprint compared to traditional overwrap methods.
Brick packs also offer improved product marketing through a prominent, stand-alone feature: “registered” film. Typically, brick packaging uses a non-forming film for the front of the packaging, while a forming film is used for the back. Labels are then placed on both sides. With “registered” film – when the image is used as the label on the non-forming side – the image becomes up to 230% larger and can be produced at much higher quality for enhanced branding. This eliminates the need for a double-sided label and clearly communicates key attributes at shelf.
System Recommendation: Combination thermoforming (TFS) and G. Mondini Trave tray sealing and forming
Top Overall Poultry Packaging
After examining optimal system configurations for a variety of production factors, one final question remains:
“What is the top poultry packaging system available in today’s market?”
Any top packaging format must address sustainability, cost-effectiveness, convenience, innovation, marketing power, and consumer adoption. Additionally, each packaging solution brings benefits and advantages to any production line and facilitates a specific goal. It is your goal to discover what solution possesses all the qualities you need.
At first glance, the future of poultry packaging is PaperSeal®.
Innovative, sustainable, and automation-ready, PaperSeal seems to have the most to offer. PaperSeal facilitates sealed skin pack capabilities for optimal shelf life, 100% recyclable materials, and individual portions to reduce food waste. Producers also have better printing and marketing capabilities on PaperSeal, putting the 360-degree viewing window and advanced graphics to best use. It can also make poultry packaging a bit more glamorous, an idea that is rare in the industry and aids in mass customer adoption at the shelf level.
However, for all PaperSeal’s advantages, it lacks durability in a wet environment. Much of the processed and packaged poultry, even artisanal, organic, and non-GMO products, is done in a space where moisture and condensation are factors. The inside of PaperSeal packaging is coated for moisture resistance, but the outside is not. This can have an adverse effect on the packaging structure, potentially damaging it and reducing retail appeal.
For this reason and others, optimized poultry packaging belongs to thermoformed saddle pack-style poultry packaging. This is based on several essential factors:
Saddle packs eliminate the need for preformed trays, opting for more sustainable, recyclable rollstock films. Incorporating this packaging film allows for a more streamlined packaging process and longer shelf product life, removing all oxygen from the package interior, incorporating MAP (when desired), and facilitating freezing and thawing for storage and transport. As a result, this process can have a significant impact on reducing costs and overall food waste.
Moisture Resistance & Portion Control
Thermoformed packaging also integrates higher gauge rollstock films to resist moisture and condensation better than PaperSeal. This minimizes the impact on the packaging’s exterior and allows for smoother transitions from whole muscle protein processing for infeeding, secondary packaging, and palletizing. Thermoformed saddle packaging also incorporates perforations for individual portion control and preservation. This individual portioning allows enhanced thermal capabilities, material and cost savings, and unmatched customer convenience over time.
Finally, while not as graphically robust as PaperSeal, thermoforming does differentiate products to help them stand out from mass-produced poultry. Transparent thermoformed packaging allows customers to conduct a full physical product examinations. Under scrutiny, due to the vacuumed sealed nature of thermoforming, it instills surety of freshness, convenience, minimized processing, and sustainability. This tangible inspection facilitates trust and purchase nearly 81% of the time. That means improved revenue for the brand that buys into innovation.
System Recommendation: TFS 600 Thermoforming System
The Distinct Mission of Mass Poultry
In exploring and extolling the virtues of these various poultry packaging formats, it is important to remember that these innovations are NOT meant for mass poultry producers. Instead, these recommendations are intended for smaller-scale poultry producers or companies looking to differentiate themselves with committed investments into the innovation pipeline.
If that statement seems shocking or biased, it can be. However, it is important to remember mass poultry production operates with mainly one main factor in mind: cost.
While doing excellent work with sustainability and potential packaging applications like vacuum skin packaging, mass-produced poultry still relies heavily on cost as a deciding factor. Cost-effective production using polystyrene trays with a film overwrap keep costs at a minimum, both for high-volume producers and consumers buying poultry en masse. However, the requirements for modern innovation on a national scale may be too great for mass poultry to presently bear.
Redesigning mass poultry production with a customer and company commitment to wholesale change would be an uphill climb. Not only would this kind of change fly in the face of 30 years of national mass poultry processing, but it would also require time, comprehensive consumer education, full adoption of and training in a new process and product look, and millions of dollars of capital investment.
Moreover, these costs would translate to increases in product pricing by as much as $.20 per pound for poultry, potentially affecting millions of families who rely on poultry as an inexpensive means of sustenance.
Poultry Packaging Innovation Starts with One Step
For those willing to take that first step, meeting modern consumer demand with innovations in poultry packaging can show measurable increases in productivity, efficiencies, and customer adoption. Whether you are modifying your packaging operations to meet sustainability goals for the future or want to stand tall in the poultry crowd for younger, more globally conscious consumers, it is crucial to remember poultry packaging is never one size fits all.
Packaging innovation, automation, and taking the proper steps to prepare your production systems for a more sustainable future continues to show real ROI in the packaging sector. As a poultry packager, you simply need guidance and insight to choose the right initial steps to achieve your unique goals.
Contact Harpak-ULMA Packaging and let our experts lead your production down the right path.