By Rachael Porter
Poultry packaging companies have a myriad of boxes to tick – food safety, extended shelf-life, low cost, high impact, and environmentally friendly are just a few of them. And it’s the latter, with the current focus on reducing plastic use, which is focusing minds in 2018.
Retailers are looking at ways to reduce the amount of plastic used in all packaging and this could extend into the poultry sector. But many poultry processors and suppliers have already taken steps to reduce plastic use – not least by reducing the weight of packaging – during the past few years, in a bid to reduce costs.
ULMA Packaging’s Simon Millar is not sure how informed people are about the pros and cons of plastic packaging and the issues faced by the poultry sector. “There’s a definite anti-plastic agenda at the moment, but not everything could, or should, be put into non-plastic packaging. And plastic isn’t necessary the problem here – many of the customers I work with say that the issue isn’t about the plastic packaging itself, but more about recycling – too much plastic is being sent to landfill and not enough is going back into the system.”
Millar stresses that plastic is integral in maintaining and extending the shelf life of poultry products – both raw and cooked. “And it also plays a key role in reducing food waste and improving food safety. It’s a shame that plastic is being demonised and there isn’t more balance to the packaging argument.”
Any alternative packaging must meet the same shelf life and food safety levels as plastic. “That’s still the main driver for processors and, ultimately, retailers. There’s little point switching to a paper-based product or a product that contains less plastic if customers complain about leaky packaging and food that’s gone off. So, there’s a fine line to tread.
“Yes, retailers want to be seen to reducing plastic use – it’s what customers and society in general want. But it must be a considered approach and take other important factors into account. I think there also has to be some compromise,” he says.
His company develops, manufactures and installs the machinery that packages poultry, so Millar also knows that changing packaging can also impact on this section of the production chain. Systems may need to be ‘tweaked’, or new packing equipment may need to be installed – or even designed – to accommodate new packaging. And this all takes time, planning and, of course, additional investment. “So, no one is going to jump in without giving this careful consideration. And huge changes are not going to happen overnight.”
He says huge strides have already been taken to reduce plastic use, in terms of the weight or packaging, in a bid to reduce costs. “I spend time with film and tray manufacturers and I know that the weight and grade of these products has been reduced as much as possible without compromising shelf life and food safety. Specifications have been reduced, in many instances, as far as they can be. If they were pushed any further, I think performance would be lost.”
Millar’s company is all about developing new and adapting existing packing machinery to suit packaging requirements. “We do everything from film wrapping, tray sealing, thermoforming, and vertical bagging. And when the gauge of film wrap, for example, is reduced it changes its handling characteristics as well as its performance. We have to alter machines so they can work with these different graded materials. We work with the retailer and the packaging supplier to make sure that performance isn’t compromised – both along the line and on the shelf.”
He says that the search is on for a product that can be a viable and practical alternative to plastic. “But it has to be a good fit – in terms of cost and performance. And it has to be more environmentally friendly too.”
Polylactic acid (PLA) ‘plastic’ packaging is one example: “PLA is a starch-base biodegradable material, which typically composts down in a few months. It’s typically directed to landfill and by passes the recycling loop.
“It’s OK for retailers to say: ‘yes – let’s switch to this because it’s what our customers want’. But it’s not that simple. There must be a proper cost analysis and trials to ensure that shelf-life and food safety won’t be compromised. Investing in new packaging design and the packing lines that can handle it, is a big financial commitment. And what if it doesn’t work? And what if, on further investigation, it’s not really any better for the environment? I think that’s why many retailers are keeping their powder dry on this one. They are treading carefully because of the huge capital investment involved.”
The movement towards using less plastic will be retailer led – with pressure coming from their customers. “But retailers are being squeezed, as are manufacturers. So, the prospect of spending in excess of £100,000 on new packaging and new packing line equipment isn’t an attractive option. Many are just sitting tight and weighing up their options.”
Morrisons said that its plans for reducing plastic use in packaging are ‘still very much work in progress’. “We have already introduced a number measures to reduce plastic usage and we’re looking at others and we are completely open-minded about the Government’s proposals,” said a company spokesperson.
Poultry Business had a similar response from Sainsbury’s when questioned about its plans for developing poultry packaging. “We can confirm that the vast majority of our poultry packaging is widely recycled. For example, the plastic trays used for our raw and breaded chicken, and the foil trays for our bake-in-the-bag lines are recyclable,” said a company spokesperson.
“And we will continue to work hard to make our packaging as recyclable as it can be while, at the same time, ensuring that t serves its purpose of protecting our poultry through our supply chain, in our stores and in customers’ homes.”
PFF Packaging Group’s Steve Campbell says there’s not really any move towards changing packaging material at the moment. “Yes, there’s a lot of talk about plastic, but our customers know and understand that our packaging is made from recycled or recyclable plastic – or both.”
He says that change is an expensive business and so processors and retailers tend to stick with what they’ve got. “Packaging is very much a commodity and price driven.”
That said, some companies are spending money on innovation. Waitrose has recently launched some new recyclable packaging for a cooked poultry product. Dalehead Foods, a division of Tulip, has introduced paper board packaging to the fresh protein market for the first time.
The ground-breaking packs are now available on three ready-to-eat turkey meats in Waitrose stores nationwide.
The eco-friendly format is the first of its kind in the fresh protein market. Inspired by the card packs used in the sandwich market, the packaging stands out on shelf with full printing on all sides. This is vital in a category that typically allows for little differentiation on shelf, according to the company.
The innovative packaging, which carries the ‘widely recycled’ logo, is made from sustainable raw materials.
“At a time when shoppers are more conscious than ever before about the ecological footprint of their purchases, and supermarkets are looking to improve the environmental impact of their packaging, the launch is very timely,” says Tulip’s group innovation manager Matt Richards.
“It was a challenge to take the board packaging used for sandwiches and make it fit for purpose for longer shelf life goods, but by working collaboratively with packaging supplier Rapid Action Packaging and equipment supplier Proseal, as well as Waitrose, we’ve managed to create a top-quality solution.”
Not only is the packaging made from sustainable materials, it maintains shelf life, offers eye catching designs, and is consumer friendly, with easy open functionality and a window for visibility.
The new format took three years to develop as part of Tulip’s packaging strategy, which works towards developing solutions to deliver consumer convenience, freshness and on-shelf product differentiation, as well as tackling food waste and incorporating recyclable materials.
“It’s exciting to see the products on shelf after months of factory tests and consumer trials,” adds Richards. “This packaging provides a great opportunity to deliver better aesthetics and stand out on the shelf, while being mindful of the environmental impact.”
An innovative label, which aims to reduce food waste, is also causing a stir, with trials of Mimica Touch about to begin with dairy processor Arla. The label can tell the consumer if the food is fresh and safe to eat and should serve to increase the shelf life of many products, including fresh poultry, and reduce food waste.
The label reacts to changes in the packaged food and temperature changes, which break down a gelatine layer and turn its surface from smooth to ‘bumpy’. While the label is smooth, the product is still safe to eat
Developed by UK start-up company Mimica, the label will make it easier for consumers to know if a product has gone off, without relying on a use-by date. “And this should mean that less food is thrown away when it is still safe to eat,” said company director and inventor Solveiga Pakštaitė.
The product will be trialled on milk in 2018 and Pakštaitė says that, depending on the level of success, fresh meat packaging trials should start in 2019.