Aaron L. Brody

The perimeter of every retail grocery in the United States is chilly: the refrigerated foods department generates the highest margins and growth rates among all foods gracing retail food establishments. Chilled foods—ranging from fresh ingredients such as backroom-cut red meat through minimally processed and packaged entrees and side dishes, produce, cheese, and cured meats—have surged into the leadership position among foods.

Master bag of case-ready lamb.

As unequivocally asserted in my April 2002 Packaging section, reduced temperature above freezing was, is, and will continue to be the largest, most rapidly growing, and most profitable segment of the retail packaged food sectors.

Chilled Foods in America Today
According to a Nielsen study presented at an American Meat Institute/Food Marketing Institute conference in March 2004 at which I was the keynote speaker, refrigerated foods represent 42% of the grocery food volume, dairy 17%, produce 5%, and packaged processed meat about 6%. This report stated that packaged processed meat grew 6% annually from 1999 to 2003, entrees 23%, and case-ready fresh red meat 27%—all many times faster than all supermarket products. An amazing datum point in the study results was the proportion of sales attributable to new products: 76% of volume in the meat department.

The uneven growth within meat departments has been the subject of major study and grocer/packer initiatives during the early years of this millennium, with a future definitive outcome still quite blurred. Meat remains enmeshed in a maze of conflicting nutritional, safety, environmental, consumer acceptance, and economic opinions—from aggressive opponents as well as apathetic advocates. And the marketing, quality retention, and packaging of meats remain a combination of throwback to the days of free-standing butcher shops—some of which are still extant—to sophisticated modified atmosphere coupled with active packaging.

Are we headed for a new era of fresh meat preservation technologies with precisely defined controlled shelf life, or toward more minimally processed ready-to-heat-and-eat foods with meat enhancements? Or is fresh raw meat a relic that will slowly fade into oblivion as the packers and retailers discount the overt desires of target consumers?

The AMI/FMI conference also featured results of research into the retail meat situation by Cryovac, one of the world pioneers in meat packaging. Meat represents about 12% of retail grocery volume, nearly $50 billion. Typical retail meat departments occupy more than 100 linear feet in supermarkets and discount stores, of which two-thirds is for fresh meat and one-quarter for processed (i.e., cured) meat. The fresh meat section is divided into one-third each beef, pork, and poultry.

Nearly 20% of intact cuts of red meat (beef) and more than half of the ground beef are prepared and packaged off-premises, i.e., are case ready, meaning that they are packaged in a centralized facility and shipped to supermarkets for display in refrigerated display cases. Since Wal-Mart represents about 25% of total retail grocery sales and uses 100% case-ready beef; the “other” 75% of grocery volume stores offer 14% of their intact cuts and 36% of their ground beef in case-ready format. More than 85% of poultry and 40% of fresh pork is centrally packaged, suggesting that their growth might be ascribed in large measure to central packaging and associated marketing.

According to Karl Deily of Cryovac (phone 864-433-2712), packaging for case-ready beef is a subject of much interest among packers, grocers, and package converters: For intact cuts of meat, 85% use expanded polystyrene (implying master pack), 5% barrier expanded polystyrene, 5–10% rigid barrier trays; and the remainder no tray (implying barrier flexible packaging). For ground beef, 50+% use expanded polystyrene, 15% barrier polystyrene, 5–10% rigid barrier, and 30% no tray (implying chub flexible package).

What Is Case-Ready Fresh Red Meat?
The idea of cutting and packaging fresh meat in retail outlets paralleled greengrocers, service delicatessens, cheese shops, and home milk and bread delivery (remember the glass bottles of milk frozen on the doorstep?)—all but one gone to nostalgia. The leftover is beef. No data support a transient thought that the per capita beef consumption decline is perhaps correlated to a stubborn resistance to central packaging and marketing.

The overly simplified list of case-ready meat packages above hints at the current multiplicities of challenges, among which are shelf life, distribution temperature, color, initial microbiological loads, pathogenic microorganisms, HACCP, atmospheres, channels, beef grades, economics, consumer demand, packaging technologies, and headspace, just for starters.

The term case-ready (also called centralized packaged) means that instead of cutting and packaging red meat in backrooms of retail grocery establishments, these operations are performed in relatively efficient factories overseen by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Until the late 20th century, red meat was delivered to retailers as hazardous hanging carcasses. There was active resistance by butchers, meat managers, and supermarket owners to proposals to convert red meat to primal cuts in (oxygen) barrier bags, which, under refrigeration, could offer six weeks of shelf life, while simultaneously tenderizing the contents through natural proteolytic enzymatic action. Much bone and fat were eliminated by the introduction of knife-ready primal cuts packaged in barrier bags, thus reducing the distribution (and scrap recovery) costs despite the increased packaging costs. Microbiological spoilage was markedly reduced by the combination of better sanitation, temperature control, separation from the air, plus reduced oxygen. Eventually, about 20 years ago, virtually all beef and pork was distributed to retailers in barrier bags.

Beginning in the early 1960s, case-ready red meat was proposed: move all manufacturing out of retail store backrooms where sanitation, safety, and economics are deficient. And another major driver for case-ready beef is reduction of the potential for Escherichia coli O157:H7 contamination, (although no incidents from backroom operations have been reported). Despite the multitude of advantages of centralized packaging—and its successes with fresh poultry—the notion of case-ready fresh beef continues to be overtly resisted.

Among the benefits of case-ready meats are longer shelf life, reduced pathogenic microbiological risk, lower capital and variable costs, fewer price markdowns, fewer out-of-stock situations, and ability to brand the products, implying increased profits. Countering this reasoning are citations concerning loss of butcher employment, inferior quality to fresh-cut meat, consumer confidence in backroom butchers, store differentiation, and just plain inertia (“We have always done it this way”), failing to note that backroom cutting and packaging were born only during the 1960s.

When Wal-Mart converted all its fresh red meat sourcing to case-ready about five years ago, many experts predicted herd mentality: the complete conversion of all grocers out of back rooms. This revolution has not occurred for a variety of reasons, some real and some imagined. Supermarkets do not want to imitate their late-arriving and enormous competitor; the big guy is using pumped select-grade beef and we are using higher quality; no retailer knows its true economics; and just plain inertia (again, “We have always done it this way”), failing to note that the big guy began only “yesterday.”

Today’s Issues
One of my contentions is that part of the challenge is that there are too many unknowns, not that any technology/innovation is not fraught with some mystery at the outset. How much shelf life is required or desired? Some suggest more than a month, others less than a week. The proponents of more than a month seem to reside among those suppliers who claim that their technology delivers these times for intact cuts. The short-timers imply that their systems are built on rapid inventory turnover. Then there is the question of red color. “The consumer demands red color!” shout the anti-case-ready beefers. Which consumer?—the traditionalist, or the youngster who wants it quick and ready? And how does that consumer define red?

And on and on the arguments go. The consumer demands a package that looks like the contained product was cut and wrapped a few moments ago in the backroom, thus supporting the current expanded polystyrene or its visual surrogate, solid plastic that appears to be expanded polystyrene but really is polypropylene or polyester.

Then there is the unending discussion of the problems of the distribution system: temperature at 40+°F is too high, and the cost of reduction to 32°F is too much.

Less than one year ago, the “answer” was ionizing radiation, even though discussion was heard about electron beam vs gamma radiation. Perhaps in another era, this technology, which can help, may be revived, but for the moment it is shelved.

Many Technologies Being Offered
All of which brings me to my core thesis: too many technologies are being offered, without any objective measures as to the merits and/or deficiencies of each. Why, with all of the expenditures on “research” at so many of our universities, haven’t a few dollars been found to enumerate and evaluate the too-many past, present, and future case-ready red meat technologies and their underlying science? Opinions abound, but comprehensive facts and analyses are not discernible.

More than 60 different case-ready red meat technologies have been identified, with more appearing or proposed each year. More than a dozen are in commercial use today, with one rationale being that each has a role to play in a specific situation. Ten of the current technologies for the ever-elusive beef sector—the largest remaining portion that has not converted into case ready—are given a brief overview below:
Barrier bags for primal and sub-primal cuts that are largely for backroom cutting, but which are offered often to consumers for their own home use; reduced oxygen interior with purple color visible through the transparent “skin” bag.

Chub packaging for ground beef only. Types available include coarsely ground beef for further grinding and repackaging in retail backrooms; and completely ground beef pressure stuffed under reduced oxygen in opaque flexible materials to hide the myoglobin purple color.

Master (“mother”) bag containing several packages of meat on conventional expanded polystyrene trays overwrapped with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) film. Types available include outer preformed non-barrier pouch, which relies on temperature control during distribution; outer preformed barrier bag with internal elevated carbon dioxide atmosphere; outer bag from roll stock; and outer preformed barrier bag with greatly reduced (near-zero) oxygen within the package.

Barrier expanded polystyrene trays heat sealed with flexible barrier structure, with internal atmosphere of elevated oxygen to retain oxymyoglobin red color plus elevated carbon dioxide to suppress microbiological growth, and a large headspace to assure presence of the desired gas combination during distribution.

Solid barrier trays with elevated oxygen/carbon dioxide atmosphere. Variations include polypropylene/ethylene vinyl alcohol/polypropylene lamination trays with acute draft-angle sidewalls to more efficiently fit display cabinets, heat sealed with flexible barrier structure; and crystallized polyester trays with acute draft-angle sidewalls, heat sealed with flexible barrier structure.

Expanded polystyrene tray (conventional) wrapped with PVC film within a sealed barrier pouch under reduced oxygen, with oxygen scavenger opened at retail level to expose the PVC-packaged product to air to rebloom (restore the oxymyoglobin red color).

Barrier expanded polystyrene tray with internal reduced oxygen. The closure is a two-ply flexible material heat sealed to the tray. At retail, the top barrier ply of flexible material is removed, leaving the inner ply of oxygen-permeable film to expose the product to air to rebloom. A variation is a peelable seal on a vacuum-skin package (top film conforming to the shape of the meat) with a two-ply top-formed closure material, the outer ply of which is removed at retail level to expose the product to air to rebloom.

Vacuum barrier skin package exhibiting the purple myoglobin color of meat.

Conventional expanded polystyrene tray in opaque flexible pouch.

Microbiological data suggest a shelf life of four days for ground beef to more than one month for the several reduced-oxygen alternatives, all under refrigeration, of course. Elevated-oxygen variants suffer from oxidation of meat fat, with the time depending very much on the distribution temperature. And, obviously, elevated oxygen to retain oxymyoglobin red color suffers from oxidation to the undesirable brown metmyoglobin color.

No system is perfect; none eliminates pathogenic microbiological risk. All require excellent distribution temperature to retard microbiological growth. All require inventory control. All require some packaging that is more expensive than simple expanded polystyrene overwrapped with PVC film. None, even among those in research and/or development stages, suggest long shelf life that might relieve any distribution-channel member of vigilance.

But most do afford the distribution chain the ability to deliver case-ready red meat.

Which technologies are the most widely used? From the data above, chub packaging for ground beef remains an old but still venerable method. High oxygen in one of the barrier tray structures plus heat-sealed barrier flexible structure closure is used by the largest retailer and by many others, especially for ground beef. Master bags with air atmospheres are hardly uncommon, with tight temperature/distribution control as a major preservation mechanism. Master bags with internal elevated carbon dioxide atmospheres are in commerce. Peelable membranes for rebloom and carbon monoxide are in relatively limited commercial use.

The many different packaging options implemented suggest greater microbiological safety—attributable to the better controls required to support the packaging systems. Packaging, processing, and distribution are inextricably linked: sanitation and temperature control are indispensable for high or low oxygen or air packaging, barrier or non-barrier, individual or master packaging.

A Complex Concept
One disturbing aspect to the rhetoric surrounding the case-ready red meat situation is the misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance being communicated. Objectivity stemming from independent and detached professionals is not a hallmark of the march into case-ready red meat. Too much of the field appears to belong to hucksters and opportunists, a situation that might become hazardous to consumers’ health.

Microbiological safety remains a concern, as it always will in an environment in which, temperature control is the almost final sole barrier to adverse microbiological consequences. Our commercial channel members must address this issue to bring case-ready fresh red meat to a full commercial scale, or else the competition between fresh and minimally processed, partially prepared, ready-to-heat-and-eat products will render moot all of what I have stated above.

The real issue is that case-ready meats do not follow the relatively simple single-technology model of our past but rather represent a complex of interacting science that must be studied and implemented as a whole. This concept transcends product and packaging and pushes the scientist into the “abstract” realm of marketing and the marketer into the perilous universes of microbiology, biochemistry, and film permeability. The sooner each begins to grasp the issues beyond the narrow self-interest range, the sooner we shall be able to convert to case-ready or launch into more consumer friendly formats.

Contributing Editor
President and CEO,
Packaging/Brody, Inc., Duluth, Ga.
[email protected]