For most of us, talk of ‘win-win situations’ is an automatic turn-off. But a recent update on poultry packaging saw Asda resolutely refuse to use the phrase when – for once – the retailer would have been quite justified in doing so. This is a win-win worthy of attention.
When Asda launched its Butcher’s Selection fresh meat range in 2011, performance and consumer perceptions about poultry were lagging behind other types of meat, said packaging development manager Mark Armstrong. This was at about the time when the discount retailers started to turn up the competitive heat on the big four.
“We needed something that would drive purchase frequency,” said Armstrong. “We needed a step-change.” When Asda carried out in-store interviews and focus groups in order to assess its options, the question of convenience surfaced as a central concern. “We had an opportunity to make life simpler for our consumers and to totally rethink our packaging,” he added. “The idea that emerged was a straight-to-the-oven pack format.”
Armstrong explained: “Our supply partner Faccenda challenged its packaging and machinery suppliers.” Underlying this challenge was the requirement for the pack to withstand temperatures of 200°C.
There followed a six-month process of materials testing and development. Film converter FFP Packaging Solutions, which hosted a seminar in June at which Armstrong spoke, worked with equipment manufacturer Ulma Packaging, its own suppliers and food contact testing specialist Smithers Pira.
Concerns (Return to top)
“Inks were a major concern to us,” said Craig Jameson, FFP’s technical director. “We had to carry out our own research project with Smithers Pira to get the inks approved. The ink suppliers insist that it is the entire pack which must comply [with regulations], not just the inks. We had to adapt some of them in the process.”
Laminating adhesives were also a concern, since most products on the market are not suitable for high temperatures. “Aliphatic isocyanate chemistry is typically used, and known to be safe, at high temperatures,” said Jameson.
But as an adhesive, it is more costly and cross-linking takes significantly longer. Curing takes place in a 40°C ‘hot room’ for five days. FFP recently invested in new capacity in order to help meet demand for these films.
From Asda’s perspective, sufficient progress had been made by May 2012 for the retailer to run in-store trials. “These were essential to assess the supply and packaging durability, in-store processes and merchandising,” Armstrong said. “Our success criterion at that stage was simply not to lose customers.”
Asda need not have worried. After the September 2013 launch, the initial range of seven flavour combinations notched up £3.4M of sales in the first eight weeks on-shelf, and £25M in the first year. The retailer is predicting an 85% increase in sales value between the first full year and the second.
The chain is, of course, not the only one to have won over consumers with its ovenable format. But what about that second ‘win’?
Fight against campylobacter (Return to top)
The fight against campylobacter in chicken has been rumbling on for years. In parallel with efforts to eradicate (or even reduce) its presence between farm and factory have come initiatives to optimise packaging and educate consumers in order to minimise cross-contamination.
The previous industry standard of shrink-wrapped whole birds did not eliminate leaks or the risk of cross-contamination.
On the other hand, because Asda uses a foil tray inside the flow-wrap, the pack combination uses much more material than shrink film alone. But while packaging reduction is still on the retailers’ agenda, the use of materials to reduce food waste and promote food safety is now viewed far more sympathetically.
“If you can genuinely contain the product until it has been fully cooked, that’s a huge advantage,” said Jameson. And that is what this format does, tying in with Food Standards Agency campaigns on better chicken-handling hygiene in the home.
Asda’s flavoured roast-in-the-bag range currently accounts for some 35% of its whole chicken sales. But Armstrong told our sister title Food Manufacture that this initial emphasis on convenience and growing the market would soon move into new territory. Along with other retailers such as Co-operative Food and Marks & Spencer, Asda was planning to extend the pack style to standard whole birds, he said. In this case, the driver was the control of campylobacter.
Meanwhile, ovenable polyester film has also been used for red meat and fish. With chicken, the wrapper (which is pierced before going in the oven) can be opened in the last stages of roasting to allow browning. The same approach could be applied to beef, said Armstrong.
Du Pont Teijin, which supplies the base polyester for FFP to convert, said it is working with Faerch Plast on an ovenable combination of a polymer tray and skin packaging.