As meal kits play a bigger role in retailers’ prepared food offerings, more are turning to vacuum packaging to keep foods in kits fresher longer and to save space.
Meal kits are definitely a growing category for San Rafael, California-based vacuum packaging supplier Pac Machinery, says Bob Goldberg, the company’s marketing director.
Pac Machinery recently sold a Clamco 4C Combo sealer to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for use in making Meals, Ready-to-Eat products (MREs). The pre-packaged meals are used by the agency in emergency and disaster situations, Goldberg says.
In addition, Pac Machinery automatic baggers are used to package small, premeasured quantities of spices and herbs for do-it-yourself meal kits, he says.
“Meal kits are a fast-growing business and are thus good for us,” Goldberg says. Millennial and Gen Z love of convenience is among the reasons driving the growth. “I think meal kits are attractive to young people who appreciate tasty meals but hate to step outside their door and visit the marketplace,” he says. “Delivered to the door appeals to them.”
Meal kits are also on an upward trajectory for Charlotte, North Carolina-based Sealed Air, says Karl Deily, the company’s president of Food Care.
Sealed Air prides itself on the solutions it develops for its meal kit customers, Deily says. Recently, for example, one of the company’s online meal kit customers was having a problem with leaking meat packages, resulting in upset consumers and costly refunds. “Our team audited their supply chain data and discovered that some leakers were caused by packaging while others were caused by issues such as supplier equipment setup, overfilling or abuse from other products during shipments,” Deily says.
Sealed Air helped the customer identify a packaging solution that reduced waste and improved profitability. Now, they’re working with them to improve packing and reduce box size. “Without the right data, and without asking the right questions during our audit, we could not have traced the problem back to the source.”
Vacuum packaging technology is a good fit for prepared foods sections, Deily says, because it reduces packaging size, which in turn reduces shipping complexity and costs. As a result, retailers can rotate their stock less often and store more product in their refrigerators, maximizing labor.
“Retailers are pressured to keep up with consumer demands for meal variety, seasonal menu selections, and protein options that are aligned with their personal preferences,” Deily says. “Vacuum skin packaging allows retailers and meal-kit subscription services alike to include a variety of food types while ensuring proper protection and food safety.”
And because vacuum skin packaging removes the oxygen altogether, it can also provide significant shelf-life extension, Deily says. In one example, food supplier Don KRC doubled their products’ shelf life to 28 days and reduced food waste by using Sealed Air’s Cryovac® Darfresh vacuum packaging solutions. Additionally, the extended shelf life enabled the product to ship nationwide.
In the U.S., the meal subscription market is expected to grow to more than $10 billion by 2020, Deily says. And even though food e-commerce is a fast-growing sector, he says, it's still an unregulated space. “For example, there are no temperature regulations in place for meal kit subscription services or any other shipped or delivered food products,” he says. “We’re working with companies to address these challenges of food safety and temperature control as well as other key challenges like quality, packaging design, and sustainability.
Instore demand rising
In addition to selling machines used to make meal kits, Pac Machinery sells many wrappers for foods including granola bars, crackers and even individual hot dog buns, Goldberg says.
And in the instore deli realm, the company makes a tabletop tray sealer that’s perfect for small quantities of sliced meats and cheeses and other deli products, he says. Back-of-the-house vegetable prep also can benefit from Pac Machinery products. “Our side sealers, L-bar sealers and shrink tunnels are being used more often for wrapping cucumbers, red and green peppers” and other vegetables, Goldberg says.
Instore demand is growing, he says, “especially for tabletop tray sealers where small quantities of meat and cheese can be pre-packaged for extended shelf life in convenient, portion-size packages.”
Pac Machinery’s vacuum packing portfolio includes a broad range of both vacuum chamber sealers and nozzle-style sealers, Goldberg says. “Chamber machines, of all sizes, are great for things like meat, cheese and prepared fish products,” he says. “Nozzle-style sealers are used for everything from coffee bags as small as one pound to bulk nut bags as large as 40 pounds.”
All Pac Machinery vacuum machines, Goldberg says, are capable of gas flushing —typically with nitrogen —to extend shelf life. And many of the company’s vacuum machines can achieve in-package residual oxygen levels of less than 1 percent.
One of the things that separates Pac Machinery from its competitors when it comes to packaging equipment for grocery deli and prepared foods departments, Goldberg says, is a commitment to working with individual customers to configure packaging systems for very specific applications.
“Many of our products are highly customized and our application engineers are a valuable asset to our customers,” he says. “We offer integration expertise for placing a packaging solution into a larger ecosystem of food prep equipment.”
Stacey Couch, market development director for retail for Sealed Air Food Care North America, says Sealed Air has numerous back-of-house solutions including Cryovac® Grip & Tear® bags for cheese logs and loaves of slicing meat, which allows for a knife- free opening to reduce cross contamination and knife injuries.
In addition, the company’s Cryovac® FlexPrep™ helps portion controlled disbursement of condiments with improved yield economics. And its retail solutions also include cheese bags for individual pieces (with and without Grip and Tear features), Vacuum Skin Pack for smoked meat, and Multi-Seal FlexLOC packaging for meats and cheeses.
For the prepared foods section, Sealed Air’s Cryovac® Simple Steps® microwaveable packaging allows for a cleaner label and higher quality product with great product visibility and even heating. And its line of ovenable bags and rollstock film allows customers to put prepared foods (trimmed and seasoned) straight into the oven or crock pot for quicker cooking and easier clean up.
“We have a history of innovation and a wealth of industry knowledge and expertise that allows us to offer the total solution approach —from market insights to package development, to equipment sales and support, to optimizing operations to run more efficiently, and to the perfect package to help extend shelf life and food quality,” Couch says.