Food-processing companies are racing to outdo each other when it comes to becoming "green" – that is, operating in a way that protects the environment in their manufacturing facilities as well as wherever their products are distributed…either in foodservice at restaurants or retail grocery stores, or at retail for in-home preparation and consumption.
According to Information Resources Inc., sustainability-driven consumers are among the top trends playing a significant role in the marketplace this year, whether that marketplace is meat and poultry products or other manufacturers or retailers. According to Mintel Global New Products Database, the number of new products with an environmentally friendly claim has grown substantially over the past five years. In 2002, only five such products were launched. But last year, there were a staggering 328 – an increase of nearly 200 percent from the year before. Chris Haack, senior research analyst at Mintel, says 57 percent of people shopping for food are now looking for "eco-friendliness."
There are many areas where meat and poultry processors have concentrated their efforts, including producing environmentally friendly products by using biodiesel fuel, an alternative fuel that comes from 100-percent renewable resources produced from meat processing plants, reducing water usage for each pound of finished product; conducting animal welfare audits; lowering greenhouse gas emissions; producing pesticide-free foods and making efforts to fight the rising costs of energy.
But many meat and poultry processing companies, and their suppliers, have had the most success in using sustainable packaging to contain their meat and poultry products – packaging being the area that is the most visible to their customers. And companies can use packaging to show their customers how they address their concerns.
Why is packaging an important part of the sustainability efforts of industry and possibly the most visible? According to Patrick Smorch, who was recently appointed director of packaging sustainability at Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific, packaging impacts every aspect of commerce. "From product protection to logistics and shelf appeal, packaging is a necessity for consumer packaged-goods companies. Even the smallest efforts at sustainability can garner big savings when you consider the effects on the entire packaging supply chain," he says.
Listing benefits on packaging
Packaging also plays an important role in telling consumers about the products inside. "For example, on our packaging for our chicken products, the customer will see the American Heart Association seal, as well as third-party certification from American Humane," says Steve Gold, vice president of sales and marketing for Murray’s Chicken, a purveyor of family farmed, naturally raised poultry that is also antibiotic- and hormone-free. Murray’s also wants its customers to know about the 49 family owned farms that act as growers for the 250,000 head-per-week operation. The company assigns each grower a verification number that allows consumers to see the farm where their chicken comes from and "meet" (on the Internet) the family that raised the product they are eating.
But that’s not all that’s new on the sustainable-packaging front with Murray’s – the company says it has become the first poultry processor to eliminate the use of polystyrene foam trays in its packaging. Polystyrene has been an inexpensive and popular choice for food packaging over the years, but it cannot be recycled and 2.5 million tons of the foam substance winds up in landfills each year. According to Gold, getting rid of the foam trays eliminates 50 percent of the non-recyclable packaging used for meat and poultry.
Besides being environmentally friendly, Gold says the packaging also offers practical benefits. "Our company’s new packaging is freezer-safe and contains a proprietary leak-resistant seal that eliminates the need to put the chicken in an additional plastic bag at the supermarket checkout counter, as well as needing to put the chicken in a freezer bag at home. The master casing, in which the chicken products are delivered from the processor to retail stores, is also being made smaller and uses less plastic."
Georgia-Pacific is one of the world’s top manufacturers and marketers of packaging, tissue, paper, pulp, building products and related chemicals. As a top supplier to the food industry, including the meat and poultry processing segment, the company has played a leading role in reducing the amount of fiber in packaging to achieve environmental-sustainability goals. It has done this as part of its participation in the Wal-Mart Packaging Scorecard, which has become a standard for supppliers to the retail giant. The program enables packaging suppliers to evaluate the sustainability of their packaging, based on greenhouse gas emissions, material value, ratio of product servings to packaging, recycled content, innovation, renewable energy used to manufacture, recovery value of raw materials and emissions that are related to product and transportation. If carried out, all of these factors can have a positive effect on the environment.
Georgia-Pacific’s Smorch says the Wal-Mart scorecard helps suppliers evaluate their packaging innovations, the environmental standards they use, their energy efficiency and materials that they use. He says perishable food companies, primarily meat, poultry and seafood processors, as well as growers and shippers of produce, challenged the corrugated industry to develop recyclable corrugated boxes to meet these demands.
"To meet market demands, Georgia-Pacific developed Greenshield, a family of recyclable corrugated solutions with a proprietary moisture-resistant coating," Smorch says. "This package delivers 100-percent recyclability, tested strength and cost benefits to the supply chain. Over the past year, Georgia-Pacific has tested this solution in the poultry industry and successfully shipped more than 3 millionpounds of deli chicken in the recyclable package. According to Smorch, Greenshield allows suppliers to respond to retailers’ demands for less non-recyclable wax boxes, as well as allowing them to stand out in the marketplace at a competitive cost.
What Smorch calls "product-topackage ratio" also plays a major role in making packaging both more environmentally friendly and cost efficient to the packaging supplier and poultry or meat processor. "Analyzing the product-to-package ratio helps identify sources aging for a given product is one way to improve the product-to-package ratio," Smorch says.
How is overall fiber in corrugated boxes reduced? Fiber reduction can be achieved in several ways, Smorch says. "By improving the package design, using lower-fiber corrugated board and lower-weight material. Reducing material from unnecessary gaps between the product and package can be a minor change that adds up to real savings over the course of time," Smorch points out. "Additionally, not all packages require box flaps to meet at closure. And leaving slight gaps can help minimize corrugated use. Package redesigns involve more investment, but should not be dismissed as they offer key opportunities to reduce fiber and increase sustainability," he says.
Smorch emphasizes how important it is that fiber-based packaging materials of inefficiency," he says. "The goal is to use the least amount of packaging required to safely transport a product through the supply chain and to consumers. Identifying and implementing ideas that reduce the amount of pack- come from renewable resources. "There is also strong demand for recovered materials, which reduces the need to focus on what to do with the material once it is recovered. Instead, we should focus on things like how to increase the already high-recovery rate and make sure people are managing forests in a way that ensures we will have abundant, healthy and diverse forests in the future," he says.
What’s the future of packaging sustainability? "We continue to develop products like Greenshield that are intended to be a fully recyclable alternative to waxed corrugated boxes, which cannot be recycled." He also points to the importance of taking waste out of the system, coupling a new box-design alternative with a more efficient way to automatically form and fill the case, and allowing more products on the truck. These types of solutions are tailor-made to meet the needs of very complex packaging supply-chain needs."
Committed to sustainable business practices
Shawnee Mission, Kan.-based Seaboard Foods, which has plants in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Colorado and Utah, is one of the growing number of red-meat processing companies committed to sustainable business practices, including its packaging. "More of our customers have taken notice of our sustainable practices, and they place a high value on the commitment that we have to such practices," says Rod Brenneman, president and CEO of Seaboard Foods.
Brenneman says the company has asked its packaging suppliers to share its commitment to sustainable business practices. "Earlier this year, as part of our overall review of sustainable business practices, we asked each packaging supplier to provide us with information about their practices that contribute to environmental sustainability," Brenneman says. "We’re proud to say that our packaging suppliers all have comprehensive environmental stewardship programs."
The company is also taking action in carrying out packaging in a way that contributes to sustainability. "In our plants, we collect and bale nearly all recyclable corrugate and send it to an off-site recycling center," Brenneman notes. He says many of the company’s boxes are machineglued, which reduces overall waste after opening by Seaboard’s customers because these boxes do not require strapping.
"We are also developing an environmental-management system [EMS] for our Guymon (Okla.) pork-processing plant that will be similar to the comprehensive EMS we have in place on all our farms," Brenneman says. "We anticipate finding opportunities to enhance our sustainable-business operations throughout the Guymon plant, including our packaging," he says.
Currently, the plant uses pork fat, a byproduct produced there, as the feedstock for biodiesel, thus helping the community by creating new business opportunities for Guymon and the state of Oklahoma.
Goals of sustainability
Sustainability practices are conducted by companies with basically three goals in mind, according to Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of member services for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a trade association with 1,500 members, most of whom are food wholesalers and retailers. Sustainability goals of the companies include the long-term well-being of the environment, society in general – and not to be forgotten – enhancing the bottom line.
In order to help its members and other companies, including meat and poultry processors, FMI hosted a Food Industry Sustainability Summit this past month in Minneapolis. Von Zastrow, one of the presenters at the event, said the goal of the meeting for industry was to address the challenges of sustainability, learn sustainability best practices and to create successful strategies that both benefit the environment and make business sense.
She told attendees that sustainability has become a top priority for the association. A year-and-a-half ago, FMI set up a task force made up of its wholesaler and retailer members, including 19 companies and 27 individuals. The idea of the task force was to identify and address sustainability issues that were important. One of those issues was – and remains – packaging. The Food Industry Sustainability Summit featured two speakers on packaging, including Dwight Schmidt, executive director of the American Fibre Box Association, and Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
"And the most critical part of packaging for food products is recyclability," von Zastrow said. "What has traditionally been used in packaging are cardboard boxes, which have a wax coating, and for food items, these can become wet. For that reason, there are many new products for packaging that have now become available; there are many new innovations out there now. And at our task-force meeting earlier this year, many of these new innovations were discussed."
Addressing high-priority issues
At the conference, von Zastrow said her trade association is addressing a number of high-priority issues when it comes to helping members use new packaging techniques to help customers see company sustainability efforts in action. They include package recycling. But another important packaging issue involves minimizing the amount of packaging used for food items, whenever possible.
Reducing the amount of packaging is an important step in sustainability, especially from the standpoint of company customers.
Is there anything in particular that is pushing sustainability, in general, and packaging efforts toward sustainability along?
"Yes, there are a lot of drivers that are involved in this," she answers. "The media, consumers themselves, government and educational institutions, including both schools and colleges. Of course, there was Al Gore’s environmentally focused film, "An Inconvenient Truth." National Geographic released a guide to sustainability a few months ago. The climate change is real, impacting the price and supply of food, and that is affecting how much money food processors and retailers want to spend on packaging food. The government is driving this issue with new regulations, as well as concerns about plastic bags and litter," she says.
And then there is the buying public. "On the part of consumers, there is an increasing interest in buying food products, including meat and poultry products, based on packaging. By that, I don’t mean packaging that is decorative or that comes in a certain style. What I really mean is purchasing products that have less in the way of packaging…period…in fact, as little packaging as possible," von Zastrow says. "And as retailers, we’re trying to figure out how our companies can make their operations more renewable and friendlier to the environment. The containers and packages that our food products come in are getting a lot of our attention."