Sustainability is an issue of growing importance across industry sectors and the food industry is no exception. Consumer interest in the environmental impact of food, in terms of how it is produced, packaged and supplied, means that producers cannot afford to be seen to act in ways that are considered unsustainable.

Consumer preference, however, is not that simple and, as corporate environmental manager at poultry concern Pilgrim’s Pride Vernon R Rowe pointed out at last year’s US Poultry and Egg Association’s processor workshop: “earth-friendly products won’t save the environment if they don’t save people money”. 

Presenting data from an FMI-Harris poll carried out in the USA in 2007, Mr Rowe noted that 93 percent of consumers agreed with the statement that it was important for the US food industry to be more proactive in addressing environmental concerns. Alongside this he presented data illustrating that 89 percent of consumers are interested in eco-friendly products.

Communication

Clearly the interest exists, but for poultry companies to make the most of this demand, they need to fully understand the importance of terminology and labeling that communicates sustainable credentials. As far as packing is concerned, highlighting that a container is made using renewable resources, for example, will grab a consumer’s attention.

Taking a sustainable approach and communicating the right messaging may, however, not be enough to win over consumers who, despite an expressed interest, are often reluctant to spend more on packaging that is sustainable. The consumer tends to see his or her role as being in recycling, not in paying more at source.

The poultry industry, therefore, is faced with the dilemma of adopting packaging solutions that are more sustainable, without driving up cost.

A lot has already been achieved in terms of sustainable packaging. For example, the Hot N Handy (HNH) Rotisserie Pouch, manufactured by US concern Robbie Manufacturing Inc, which was developed as an alternative to the more rigid dome-style containers commonly used in some markets for rotisserie chicken.

The HNH is leak-free, compact and lightweight, has a reinforced handle and is resealable. Importantly, with regard to sustainability, production of the pouch requires 88 percent less crude oil and results in 85 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than the production of a traditional dome container. Additionally, HNHs result in a 66 percent reduction in solid waste when compared with traditional domes.

Sustainable packing innovations can do more than simply lessen environmental impact at the consumer and manufacturing level, they can also do the same for processors by saving money along the supply chain. By using a space saving product, suppliers are also able to reduce transport costs.

One truckload of HNHs, for example, is equivalent to transporting 13.5 truckloads of the same quantity of traditional dome containers. The pouches allow a 60 percent reduction in the number of boxes, whereas pouches can number 250 per case, it would take 2.5 cases to hold the equivalent in dome containers.

It is hard to ignore packaging innovations that not only meet sustainability standards, but that also save money, With unstable fuel prices, transport is one of the most crucial links in the supply chain, and any product that can reduce transportation costs has great potential.

Pressure

There may now be more sustainable packing options available to the industry, but producers should not take too long in deciding which option to choose – there is growing pressure in the market to embrace sustainability. Those companies that fail to respond may well find themselves with fewer customers.

In the US, supermarket chain Wal-Mart has embraced sustainability, but has not given up on its mission to offer the lowest prices. The chain is one of the biggest customers of the US poultry industry and so, like it or not, the industry must use packing that keeps the client happy.

In 2005, Wal-Mart introduced its Sustainability Program, which is sharply focused on suppliers. Suppliers to Wal-Mart now face an assessment of their production and distribution practices, as well as their plans to reduce their carbon emissions. Suppliers must also have “an ability to define their carbon footprint”.

Playing a big part in this focus is use of what is called a Sustainable Packaging Scorecard. This tool allows buyers from Wal-Mart, and from the Wal-Mart buyers’ club division Sam’s Club, to easily make comparisons between suppliers’ packaging practices, leading to more informed purchasing decisions.

The scorecard collects data based on eight criteria: material value, product/package ration, cube utilization, transportation, recycle content, recovery value, renewable energy, and innovation.

This examination encourages suppliers to be conscious of how they use energy and resources and their approach to sustainability.

Wal Mart’s UK division Asda announced that it would roll out the Packaging Scorecard this year. However, the UK version would be even tougher, expanding the scope of the scorecard to include raw material extraction and end of life of materials.

The poultry industry, and the food industry as a whole, can expect to see a lot more innovations in sustainable packing over the years ahead and, as Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change”.