According to Alan Davey, director of innovation at Linpac Packaging, a key challenge for the meat and poultry industry is the distance products sometimes have to travel between the processor, retailer and consumer.
With the protein sector in Europe, for example, forecast to grow by 7% between 2008 and 2016, from 8.28bn kg to 8.8bn kg, food packaging manufacturers are working harder than ever to address issues such as damage to goods, food spoilage and waste, which are "a major cause for concern" for manufacturers, processors and supermarkets, he said.
The packaging needs to be fit-for-purpose in terms of protecting, preserving and presenting food to the highest standard, Davey added.
"Indeed, research by the Morrison School of Agribusiness and Resource Management in Arizona found that consumers were willing to pay more for meat which has a brighter red appearance. Appearance is one of the most important characteristics by which consumers judge the quality of red meat, so it has to be packed in such a way that this is retained for as long as possible."
Shelf-life is affected by four main factors: the initial bacterial population on the meat, temperature, time and atmosphere. "Bacterial growth and, in the case of red meat, oxidation of the red oxymyoglobin pigment are the main spoilage mechanisms that limit the shelf-life of raw meat and poultry," explained Davey. Therefore suitable packaging for cuts of meat going to the end-consumer include: overwrapped trays, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and vacuum skin packaging (VSP).
Both MAP and VSP extend shelf-life compared to overwrapped meat, he said. "In MAP the gain is measured in a few days, but extension in VSP can be three to four weeks. This is crucial for retailers as it brings improved inventory and order management, supply chain efficiency and a reduction in in-store food waste."
While VSP has been slower in winning favour with consumers, it is growing rapidly within the UK meat industry, for example, "because of the extended shelf-life it offers, enabling products to be transported for longer distances, suiting the global supply chain structure", he said.
"As consumer demand across the world continues to shift towards the ready availability of fresh and chilled meat and poultry, the pressure on the packaging industry to develop products which extend shelf-life and keep meat fresher for even longer is growing."