Retail packaging is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, we take it for granted – both in terms of barely noticing it and in assuming that it performs as it should. But at the same time, we place increasingly burdensome expectations on performance and convenience criteria - and on its ‘green’ credentials.

Most of this could be directly applied to the packs populating the meat and poultry aisle. Or could it? Perhaps we are not being encouraged to look for quite as much in the way of ‘performance and convenience’ as we are with other types of packaging.

In Europe, and particularly in markets such as the UK and Germany, there may be specific reasons for this. Some suggest that the dominance of retailer own-label in this sector has helped to stifle innovation. After all, suppliers have few strong brands of their own to differentiate, so retailers feel no need to compete.

Of course, retailers can compete with each other. Like many French and Italian chains, UK supermarket Morrisons favours foamed polystyrene (PS) trays because of their associations with market-style hand-packing and freshness. In fact, the majority of foamed trays used today are no different from standard trays in the way they are packed and in the shelflife they confer.

In most cases, however, retailers have tended to converge on particular materials and formats for any given type of meat or poultry, almost as an unspoken ‘category language’.

In retail poultry markets such as the UK and discounter-dominated Germany, polypropylene (PP) is the tray material of choice. In fact, while UK chains tend to use higher-clarity polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for many red meat packs, German retail tends to rely on rapid turnover, falling back on the more affordable PP throughout the category. Innovations director at Linpac Packaging Alan Davey talks about its “fairly mediocre barrier” which confers 8-10 days of shelflife in the chill chain.

At fellow plastics packaging converter Sharp Interpack, sales director for poultry Tony Manners agrees that chicken is treated very much as a fresh product and that PP provides an adequate and cost-effective solution.

Nonetheless, in Benelux and Spain, retailer preferences are for PET. Here, as elsewhere, a colour coding system is used to help consumers, with yellow trays being used to identify chicken.

Competing pressures

According to machinery supplier Multivac, this relative lack of innovation around western Europe contrasts with the US. Says marketing manager Andrew Stark: “In North America it is quite different. While there is still retailer own-label, there are also a number of larger branded poultry producers, including Perdue and Kirkland/Foster, that are able to innovate with their packaging, and bring new formats to market faster.” This is especially the case with low-cost flexible and in-line thermoformed packs, he says.

Others would claim that European retailers are always looking for new and different packaging, especially where it potentially provides multiple benefits.

Then again, such trials as do occur with new formats rarely coalesce into market-changing trends. Plastics converters, for instance, point to moves to introduce higher-cost smoothwall foil trays, particularly for whole birds. These took off a year or two ago in the UK, but have since slowed, they claim.

When it comes to the choice of plastics for jointed poultry, the attitude of most retailers seems to be ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The role of PP in particular has been further reinforced by the budgeting pressures that consumers have come under over the past year or so. This has served to underline the importance of value packs rather than more premium options.

Environment

But if many of the basic formats are staying the same, there is pressure on suppliers to improve their environmental profile. In fact, there seem to be as many different interpretations of ‘environmental sustainability’ as there are packaging suppliers. But key concerns are likely to be: materials reduction; use of recycled content and recyclability.

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As with so many other types of packaging, the PP and PET trays for fresh meat and poultry have been subjected to a rigorous slimming-down process, justified by both environmental and cost criteria. As Manners at Sharp puts it: “For the past two years, we’ve been going through programmes with retailers to reduce the weight of our packaging, and have managed to bring those weights down by at least 25%. In terms of calliper, we’ve got down pretty much to the minimum acceptable.”

He argues that, at the height of the recession, environmental considerations took a back seat in the face of more pressing economic priorities. But now, he says, they have returned to being high on the retail agenda.

Of particular importance is the incorporation of recycled – notably post-consumer recycled (PCR) – content. New sources of recycled PET (rPET) are allowing converters to build higher percentages of recyclate into their trays, and this is handing those retailers using PET (and rPET) for their poultry a potentially strong environmental message.

There is currently no corresponding source of post-consumer rPP. But according to the managing director of Faerch Plast in the UK Joe Iannidinardo, this situation could change in the future. His company expects to be involved in large-scale trials for sorting and recycling plastics (including PP) from coloured and black trays.

But for now, in the UK at least, recycled high density polyethylene (rHDPE) from used milk polybottles is being blended with virgin PP to provide recycled content. Linpac, for instance, has upped the proportion of rHDPE in its Rfresh PP trays from 10% to 15%.

Likewise, Sharp Interpack has been increasing the amount of inclusions it uses in its PP trays. “We are working towards having 50% of the material made up of a combination of rHDPE and a mineral filler,” says Manners. The company plans to increase the proportion of this mineral filler still further.

It likes to see itself as the leader in the meat and poultry sector when it comes to using recycled content. But it emphasises that, as far as the retailers are concerned, any undertaking here has to be – first and foremost – sustainable.

Retailers and their packaging suppliers are wary about overcommitting to given proportions of PCR across food and drink packaging. The next few years are likely to see brandowners competing for the limited volumes of rPET and rHDPE in markets such as the UK.

For its part, Faerch Plast is stressing the benefits to recycling of monomaterial packs. According to Iannidinardo, the company is currently targetting the red meat sector with its PET trays. These are modified with a heatsealable layer of PET rather than the more traditional polyethylene (PE).

A new emphasis on food waste and ways of reducing it is helping to remind retailers (and, in theory, consumers) about packaging’s protective role and the ways in which it can provide portion control.

If there is dramatic innovation in the sector, it could come in the form of high-barrier thermoformed flexibles. As Multivac’s Stark explains, these offer high line speeds, low costs and reduced pack weights. They can also tackle the food waste issue by incorporating smaller portion packs inside a larger ‘mother’ bag to facilitate home freezing.

Retailers such as Marks & Spencer have gone down this route already. But perhaps in this case it is consumers who still need to be convinced that this is the sort of innovation they have been waiting for.