Form and function

by Keith Nunes
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The trends driving food product development — convenience, food safety and sustainability — also are driving the development of new packaging applications and technologies. As food processors search for new ways to add value to their products, the package has begun to play a more integral role.

That the convenience trend is pushing product development is not a new story. In August, Packaged Facts, New York, reported that although 65% of consumers said they tried to eat healthier, 33% said they don’t have time to prepare or eat healthy meals.

And in Parade Magazine’s "What America Eats" survey, Americans have increased their reliance on convenience foods over the past two decades. Eighty-two per cent of those surveyed said they rely more on convenience foods today than they did when the first Parade survey was conducted in 1987, even though 46% of those who use convenience foods said they consider them to be more expensive than the same foods prepared from scratch at home. Despite the cost, 71% of Americans said the shift toward convenience is worth it because of the time saved in meal preparation (see Food Business News of Nov. 13, Page 12).

In the past, convenience foods had the stigma of not being nutritious, whether it was due to a reduction of nutrients from processing applications or an increase in sodium content to ensure proper shelf life.

But convenience and nutrition are the drivers behind the cook-in-the-package steaming technology that has acquired a foot-hold in the frozen foods segment with a number of companies introducing several products that require consumers to do very little when preparing the product. Last year, Birds Eye Foods introduced its Steamfresh line of products, which may go from the freezer to the microwave and be ready in five minutes. The package is a bag that fills with steam as the product cooks, and a special vent allows excess steam from the cooking process to exit the package.

A year later, The Sholl Group II, Minneapolis, launched a similar product with the introduction of its Freshtables SteamPerfect line. In addition to the convenience of cooking the vegetables in the bag, The Sholl Group II also noted that the steam-in-the-bag technology may improve product quality, because too much heat and water may cause the loss of vitamins and minerals.

In September, ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, through its Healthy Choice line, took the cook-in-the-package concept a step further with the introduction of its Cafe Steamers line of products. Rather than heat a single component of a meal, the Cafe Steamer cooks all of the components of a complete meal. The package consists of a bowl that contains the sauce, and a "steamer basket," according to the company. The basket sits above the sauce in the package and holds the meat, vegetables and pasta or rice components of the meal. Once the cooking process is complete, consumers combine the ingredients to complete the meal.

"Delivering healthful frozen entrees that taste great is a tremendous challenge that the entire frozen food category faces and is an important priority at Healthy Choice," said Bill Partyka, vice-president of Healthy Choice marketing. "Building on the strength of the steaming trend, combined with our packaging innovation, Healthy Choice Steamers has the ability to reinvigorate the category."

Adding convenience and safety

Cryovac Food Solutions, a division of Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., introduced its Marinade on Demand Package technology during the Worldwide Food Expo, held Oct. 24 to 27 in Chicago. The package design combines both fresh meat and marinade in a single package. The package features two pouches, one for the meat and the other for the marinade. The pouches are separated by a seal that must be broken in order to initiate the marination process.

Cryovac is marketing the new technology as a way for food service operators and consumers to gain more control in how long they marinate their meats. In addition, the new technology features a food safety benefit, according to the company, since fewer people are required to handle the product during processing.

To increase the level of safety, companies also are introducing a plethora of labels capable of sensing product quality to ensure product safety. Also during the Worldwide Food Expo, Food Quality Sensor International (F.Q.S.I.), Lexington, Mass., introduced SensorQ, a label that senses spoilage in fresh meat products. The label may be adhered to the inside wrap of raw meat and poultry packages. When the label is orange, it indicates the product is fresh. If the label is tan, it indicates spoilage has occurred.

"The fresh meat and poultry industry can now extend its reach directly into home refrigerators to give the added level of quality assurance so critically needed in this day and age," said Marco Bonne, president and chief executive officer of F.Q.S.I.

The sustainability factor

When Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Ark., announced its sustainability initiative this past year and its plans to reduce its packaging waste by 5%, it brought the topic of sustainability to the forefront. While convenience and safety are key drivers for food manufacturers, sustainability is a key topic and was the focus of this year’s Pack Expo conference in Las Vegas, held Oct. 15 to 17.

"The simple fact is sustainable can mean many things to many people depending on the focus a company is taking regarding this trend," said Charles D. Yuska, president and chief executive officer of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.

In his keynote presentation at Pack Expo, John A. Luke Jr., chairman of MeadWestvaco, a packaging materials and design company, addressed the challenges facing the food industry by the issue of sustainability.

"Last year, Wal-Mart made a laudable announcement about their sustainable packaging scorecard," Mr. Luke said. "It has helped to accelerate action in an area that is important to businesses and vital for the environment.

"As a result, packaging designers and decision-makers are working to comply with Wal-Mart’s standards, get ahead of government regulators and appeal to the public’s ethic of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’"

Mr. Luke reinforced the reality that while sustainability is a goal, successful packaging will attract the consumer’s attention and even offer a functional benefit beyond reducing waste.

"Wal-Mart is playing an important lead role, but I don’t believe that it is Wal-Mart’s goal to become a museum for sustainable packages — where products with 5% less packaging sit unattractively on store shelves for consumers to admire, but not purchase," he said. "In the long run, if an insufficient or poorly designed sustainable package never reaches the retailer because it fails in transit, or is never purchased by a consumer because it fails to capture attention, then there is actually nothing sustainable about it at all. It’s just waste."

Looking to the future, Mr. Luke said manufacturers must take a broad strategic approach to addressing the issues of sustainability and packaging.

"The mandate for a new way of thinking is clear and more companies are heeding this advice and making the journey from compliance to best practices," he said. "They understand that it’s not about making a smaller package. It’s about building a bigger, ever more successful, sustainable brand."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, November 27, 2007, starting on Page 28. Click here to search that archive.



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