Meat packers today are faced with unprecedented challenges, with everything from labor to cost pressures impacting the productivity and profitability of their businesses.

“Now more than ever, consumers are demanding sustainable packaging, but they are not willing to pay more,” said Melanie Bandari, senior marketing manager for Oshkosh, Wis.-based Amcor. “To survive and compete, packers are being challenged to think in new ways to address the challenges related to bone-in products without sacrificing performance, durability, or shelf-life.”

Ryan Spencer, product marketing manager for Multivac Inc., Kansas City, Mo., noted there are more suppliers moving into MAP trays for bone-in steaks to avoid the sharp bones in constant contact with film, which reduces the chance for leakers.

“For whole muscle products, the status quo of using thicker bone guard bags and bone protection sheets is the go-to solution,” he said. “The material science has improved year after year when it comes to the shrink bags most commonly used with bone-in whole muscle products. There are now bags available which offer very clear transparency, excellent shrink properties all while being even more puncture resistant than before.”

Latest trends in meat packaging

Rob Taylor, director, strategic marketing of protein for Chicago-based TC Transcontinental Packaging, said the greatest challenge processors need to address in today’s market with both domestic customers and the growing export market, is to provide excellent bone puncture protection and barrier, while presenting the most visually appealing product possible on the retail shelf.

“As meat packers and their customers continue to demand better performance and improved appearance, we’ve fine-tuned our Clearshield shrink bags and tubestock to allow us to recommend to our customers a variety of bone-in specifications, providing the perfect combination of optics, shrink, barrier and puncture resistance for the specific application or end user,” he said.

TC Transcontinental Packaging also recently introduced the TC AB490 In Line Autobagger machines, which allow customers to create their own Clearshield bone-in bags on demand, and directly on their packing lines, to whatever length and quantity they need, while also printing EST/SH instructions, logos and date/time stamps to improve traceability.

“This provides a much greater degree of control over bag sizing, while minimizing on hand inventories,” Taylor said. “Many pallets of premade shrink bags can now be replaced with rolls of tubestock.”

In June 2023, Amcor Flexibles North America announced the acquisition of an advanced, turnkey protein automated packaging solution.

“Amcor Moda Packaging is an end-to-end packaging solution that encompasses primary packaging, equipment, onsite technical service, and parts to deliver improved first-time quality, reduced labor requirements and reduced packaging spend,” Bandari said. “The equipment has an open control system, allowing the equipment to connect into existing plant maintenance systems for remote monitoring along with widely available replacement parts.”

The Amcor Moda Bag creates a bag on-demand with variable length and print capabilities. In the past, beef processors needed to carry bags in multiple lengths and grades, with up to 15 unique bag SKUs for each width. With the Amcor Moda Bag, inventory can be consolidated into one rollstock width where length and grade are customized on demand. This change not only reduces packaging costs 30% on bone-in material, but inventory requirements are reduced by up to 40%.

The type of bone-in packaging solution varies depending on the item being packed. That’s why Amcor partners with packers to ensure they are in the right packaging type and size to maximize cost and production efficiencies.

“Amcor offers high abuse bone-in tubestock products to pair with on-demand Moda and other bagging equipment,” Bandari said. “Tubestock maintains all the features of a traditional bag while simplifying inventory and allowing for flexibility in operations. Utilizing bone-in tubestock can also reduce packaging costs 30%. Continuous tubestock can be sized and sealed to fit every product at the touch of a button.”

Flexible meat packaging solutions

Reiser provides thermoform/fill/seal packaging machines to produce vacuum, modified atmosphere, and vacuum skin packages, as well as tray sealers to produce lid-only, modified atmosphere, and vacuum skin packages using pre-formed trays.

“We also provide stretch film wrapping machines to overwrap fresh meat in pre-formed trays,” said Mike McCann, packaging specialist for the Canton, Mass.-based company. “And we provide vacuum chamber packaging machines to produce vacuum packages. All of these machine types are available in a range of model sizes to meet all production requirements.”

This range of packaging solutions allows Reiser’s customers to select the package format that makes the most sense for their product and their business.

“Working with our customer center affords processors the opportunity to investigate thoroughly their various options without gambling on the purchase of a dedicated line that may not even be able to handle their product,” McCann said. “A single packaging machine must be able to easily produce a wide range of package sizes and shapes and even package styles — vacuum, MAP and vacuum skin packs.”

McCann noted that skin packing can be very appealing in high-end applications, where price points and eye appeal are critical.

“It certainly has a place in catching the eye of the consumer,” he said. “The look of the clear skin film tightly adhering to the product shape, lack of wrinkles or creases in the package for purge to evidence itself, and just letting the product show itself off, can make the difference in which product the consumer selects from the meat case. Products with hard or sharp edges such as bone-in meats or shellfish, along with high profile products above the package flange, can all be securely packaged.”

Skin packaging also offers the longest shelf life for fresh meat and poultry, nearly double that of a conventional MAP package. Everyone benefits from longer shelf life: retailers will reduce their shrink, consumers will reduce their food waste, and processors will be able to enter new, distant markets with their products.

Spencer said that while the basic principles of bone-in packaging are the same, the execution is getting better year after year, with less punctures from the sharp points of the bone, less leakers and more opportunities to capitalize on automation.