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The revolution and evolution of packaging in the meat industry

22 Mar 2019

The food packaging sector is one of the most technologically developed, with significant advances in recent years. However, it faces challenges to which it must respond quickly and reliably: food safety, sustainability and design will be key factors in generating valid solutions for the industry and for the consumer. By: Nina Jareño

Agrifood journalist The Spanish packaging industry has more than 2,100 companies, with around 73,500 employees. In 2016, this industry achieved its best figures in the last decade with €20 billion of turnover. The corrugated board industry is the leader in turnover, closely followed by plastic. Next come paper, metal, wood, glass and cardboard.

The industry needs to know the consumer’s wishes and link them to its technologies, while being fully aware that the packaging of the future will need to meet 6 requirements: offer health, increase consumer pleasure, be sustainable, increase practicality, offer specific products for specific sectors of population and adapt its products to different physical activities (sports, relaxation etc.).

Is there room for everyone? Yes, as long as each sector adapts to the trends we analyse here.First, food safety Whether in whole pieces, fillets, fresh products or sausages etc, the packaging of a meat product is a key element in preserving its safety. Its main function is to avoid migrations, that is, the passage of chemical compounds from the packaging to the food it contains, whether directly or indirectly. Therefore, any packaging must ensure its food safety, a requirement that both consumers and the industry itself are demanding from their suppliers.

The perishable nature of many meat products, especially fresh ones, makes it necessary to ensure certain conditions during their processing, conservation and handling to avoid and/or delay the appearance of microorganisms. The global figures published by the World Health Organization (WHO) on food contamination due to packaging (bacteria, viruses, harmful chemicals etc.) are truly shocking, indicating that every year there are 4,000 million cases of diarrhoea and more than 200 diseases appear.

In this regard, the use of active packaging and barrier packaging continue to increase. In 2014, around 1.76 million tonnes of this type of packaging were used and the forecast is for this trend to continue and grow. Why? Because companies want materials that offer ever greater protection, that improve the durability of the product and that extend their useful life in a sustainable way.The lynchpin: sustainability and biodegradable materialsSustainability is no longer just a trend, it is a requirement. As indicated by the IRI European Shopper Survey, three-quarters of consumers across Europe prefer to buy products with environmentally friendly packaging. Italians lead these preferences (with 81% of consumers who claim to buy this type of packaging), followed by the Spanish (75%) and the Greek and French (74%). Thus, looking at a shelf and in equal price conditions, the sustainability of the packaging translates into a decisive purchasing factor.

Given this situation, it is essential to use containers generated with more sustainable and biodegradable materials that take into account their entire life cycle, the energy consumed and their possible reuse or recycling. According to Mintel, plastic containers drifting in the oceans will be the catalyst that drives brands to reformulate packaging in a context that consumers can understand and act on.

One of the main problems presented by the packaging used to date are its limited biodegradability, its high costs and its recycling problems. However, there are technological solutions capable of protecting meat and, in turn, solving these problems: bio-based polymers, antimicrobial and compostable materials, bioplastics, paper fibres etc. All these materials can help to extend the shelf life of the product they contain without having to use preservatives.

To all this we can add the EU's challenge: all packaging must be reusable or easily recyclable by 2030.Real circular economyThe circular economy aims to achieve greater reuse of raw materials, and packaging is an absolutely key factor. In the case of paper, for example, the last ASPAPEL Paper Sustainability Report indicates that the rate of recycling of this material in Spanish industry in 2017 was 74% (12 points higher than the European average), the household rate was 60% and that of large stores was almost 100%.

In this context, metal food containers are the most recycled in Spanish households (86.7%), followed by paper and cardboard (81.1%) and plastic (69.7%). This indicates that the Spanish consumer is willing to recycle, but we need to make it easier for them. If we continue producing while using the same raw materials, some materials may start to disappear and, consequently, increase in price. Indeed, Research and Markets claims that the demand for recycled PET (rPET) will increase by around 7% until 2025, so the role of the circular economy is to prevent them disappearing by investigating alternatives and new solutions.

To support this data, the Forbes and Mintel report ‘Global Food and Drink Trends 2019’ states that there will be a commitment to new biodegradable materials, polyethylene and reusable packaging. In the meat sector, metal or glass containers or tin cans are not used very much, so the future focus appears to be on flexible packaging. However, cans and glass are still on the shelves thanks to some processed and prepared products with a solid position in the market.Design and convenienceIn a supermarket we find on average about 25,000 items. We dedicate, at most, a minute of our time to each of the items that we buy. Of these 60 seconds, the product only has 6 seconds to grab the attention of the consumer. If we add to this the fact that 82% of purchasing decisions are made at the point of sale, the packaging design becomes the main player in the success of a product.

But at the moment, in addition to all the technical qualities of the packaging, its design goes much further than that. We are in the era of emotional marketing, of experiences and feelings. A container needs to inquire into the buyer’s senses, connect with them and understand their desires, so it has to be customised and transmit a message.

Also, there is another element in the design that is becoming primordial: convenience. According to European Union statistics, in 2017 almost two-thirds of EU-28 households were made up of one or two people. This means that practicality, usability, functionality and comfort play a leading role, with an increase in the purchase of microwaveable, self-heating and bakeable containers, of smart packaging that can be cooled or heated without using other utensils, reclosable containers and small sizes.

On the other hand, new technologies are gaining strength, with mobile-connected packaging that offers information, promotions etc. All this leads to increasingly sophisticated and interactive proposals. In fact, in terms of printing techniques, digital is the fastest growing segment as far as design production is concerned and an annual growth of 17% is expected, reaching €13.5 billion in 2019.

Digitalisation and the Internet of Things are already playing an important role, since smart devices and packaging can already incorporate technology that automatically detects when new supplies are needed, when it is necessary to order more products, expiry dates, the ideal temperature of consumption etc. In this context, the report ‘The Future of Smart Packaging to 2021’ by Smithers Pira indicates that smart packaging is growing at a dizzying pace. The sector is valued at US$5.3 billion, has an expected growth of 8% and is forecast to reach a value of US$7.8 billion in 2021.

In this sense, the packaging industry has always been a reference in automation. Now the time has come for the total application of Industry 4.0, integrated sensors, Big Data, Block Chain and robotization.Rising typologies: skin and thermoformingThe packaging of meat products must show the product they contain well, so the technology they apply must maintain their colour, smell and texture. Combining quality with visual appeal is the goal of the packaging of the future.

In this sense, the greatest difficulties facing meat packaging are exposure to oxygen, loss of moisture due to the exudation of the meat, the development of undesirable odours and flavours and the importance of maintaining its colour. To avoid problems, the meat industry focuses on vacuum packaging and modified atmosphere.

The type of packaging that everybody is talking about is the skin pack. With this technology, during the vacuum process, the protective film - previously heated - is sealed and adapted to the shape of the food it contains, which acts like a mould, as if it were a second skin. This packaging offers high quality and protection, visibility, versatility in its forms and applications and, above all, safety, since it eliminates any layer of air.

On the other hand, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) remains on the front line. This process replaces the interior air of the container with a gas or a mixture of inert gases that protect the organoleptic and sensory characteristics of the product. To do this, nitrogen (N) is used alone or mixed with carbon dioxide (CO2) and the oxygen content is reduced to levels normally less than 1%.