When Gressingham Foods made the decision last September to put two new duck products in oven ready packs, it was just the latest firm to adopt a style of packaging that has become one of the major packaging trends of the past two years. The duck processor joined the ranks of all the major own-label fresh chicken suppliers, plus pork giant Cranswick and beef processor Hilton Foods in offering products that consumers take from the fridge and put straight in the oven without having to unwrap them or touch the meat.
"The new roast in the bag products take away many of the negative elements of cooking a roast meal and make it a simple and quick meal to prepare," Gressingham Foods marketing director Steve Curzon says of the whole duck and duck crown products.
"Duck is a treat meat, more of a weekend product, and there are a lot of consumers who would like to have a go but are worried about making an expensive mistake," Curzon says. "Cook in a bag has helped attract consumers who are not as confident as some. You also get a more succulent end product because the juices stay in the bird."
"Cleanliness of the oven is another real benefit. All roasting meats render out, but duck renders out more so retaining the juices in the bag means it is easier to clean up afterwards." In addition you also get a slightly longer shelf life, Curzon explains, one to two days extra, "which means the retailer has longer to sell the product through its distribution channels and significantly reduce waste. On a category like duck which is not an everyday product, this is a real benefit to the trade. Waste has been cut by almost half."
The benefits of ovenable packaging are very clear, says Martin Hardwidge, marketing manager of FFPPackaging Solutions. So far, since 2014, over 92 million Estercook ovenable packs have been supplied by FFPPackaging Solutions, usually on a reel and spread across chicken, fish, pork and beef products, with just over 100 designs, Hardwidgereveals.Another benefit, Hardwidgesays, is that the cost to manufacturers of the ovenable polyester packaging is not significantly higher than conventional wrap.
"There is a very small additional on-cost for the packaging materials," he says. However manufacturers do need to invest in specific equipment to pack meat in this way, which will be an additional cost they need to consider.
Ovenable trays and wraps are just one example of how meat packaging is becoming more convenient, and is adapting to suit consumers' lifestyles, which are increasingly time-poor, and require more flexible products to cater for smaller households and families that eat at different times. Before introducing oven-ready packaging, Gressingham Foods also made major changes to its packaging of duck portions, introducing Darfresh vacuum packing in 2014, which Curzon says has improved both the look and the shelf life of the products.
"There has been a slight additional cost, but relative to the cost of the product it is small overall and the upside has outweighed that," he says. In the 52 weeks to 3 January 2016, sales of duck grew 15% to £52m, something Curzon attributes in part to the better packaging as well as advertising on Classic FM, voiced by actor Hugh Bonneville and promotions such as Tesco's recent aisle end Gressingham duck crown in an ovenable bag for £5. "We have seen an increased number of people buying duck, with penetration up 250,000 in the past year," he says.
As The Freedonia Group explains in the executive summary of its 2015 'Meat, Poultry and Seafood Packaging' report into the global meat packaging sector: "Demographic trends such as smaller household sizes, an expanding elderly population, and high numbers of households where all adults work will strengthen demand for single portion and other smaller-sized products, as well as various convenience-oriented products."
As meat prices rise, it is important for consumers to feel they are getting value for money, and the right packaging plays an important role in this. "The expanded presence of smaller sized items, especially in meat, will reflect efforts by processors and retailers to hold down selling prices in the face of record high beef and pork prices," the Freedonia Group report states.
Curzon also notes this shift. "There has been a growth in smaller roasting joints more generally and semi-prepared meats, with herbs or butter, reflecting fragmented eating in the home and smaller households," he says. "We are also seeing a blurring of the lines between primary and added value meats and more part-cooked meat, such as pulled pork, which just needs reheating, again driven by the need for convenience."
Examples of added-value smaller packs include Tesco's 400g Lamb Shank in Minted Gravy, which serves one, which is vacuum packed and covered in a printed cardboard sleeve; Gressingham's 450g spatchcock poussin with salt and pepper; Sainsbury's 240g cooked roast chicken fillets; and Waitrose Essential's single pork fillet pack, average weight 420g.
This drive towards greater convenience is spurring real innovation in packaging. So what are the major developments? According to Mintel's Global Packaging Trends 2016 report, consumers are demanding more information about what they are buying but seeking less on-pack clutter that confuses their purchasing decisions.
"Clear and concise information about ingredients, functional product attributes, or even convenience and safety must be communicated with total transparency - a key responsibility brands and consumers are placing squarely on packaging," writes global packaging director David Luttenberger in the report. "Looking ahead, the concepts of clean labelling and clear on-pack communication are set to converge."
This can already be seen on numerous products including Waitrose's Easy-to-Cook Cajun chicken breasts. On the front of the pack is an eye-catching union flag, clearly showing that the meat is British. The marinated chicken breasts are in a foil tray with a plastic overwrap, and printed on the card label is the clear and simple message 'Easy to cook in 35 minutes' immediately appealing to time-pressed consumers who want a product with plenty of flavour. There are no other conflicting or complicated grabs for attention.
Another example is the Charlie Bigham premium range of meals, which takes clean labelling to a whole new level, featuring an ingredients list more like the kind found on a restaurant menu than a conventional ready meal. On the back of the lasagne pack, it reads 'Slow cooked beef and pork ragu, handmade with red wine and oregano, layered with fresh egg pasta and topped with our creamy bechamel sauce. Delicious with garlic bread and a green salad.' The white front of pack simply reads 'Charlie Bigham's lasagne. Perfect for two. Serve with a wink.' Luttenberger says the key to using on-pack communication effectively is to first understand what turns consumers on or off in a specific category, and then highlight one or two specific product attributes in prominent, front-of-pack positions.
According to Mintel's Red Meat, UK, 2015 report, all-natural ingredients would prompt four in ten buyers to spend more on processed red meat products, and a majority of buyers would be willing to pay more for processed red meat with a high meat content, standing out as the most appealing quality to spend more on.
"The key to clean, decluttered design that informs, motivates and drives purchasing decisions is to first know what's important to the consumer rather than what's important to the brand," says Luttenberger. "Trust, confidence, and even consideration for repurchase begin with enlightening purchasing decisions versus an overwhelming shopping experience."
Consumers are increasingly accepting new forms of packaging for meat products as well, he explains. No longer is flexible packaging, specifically pouches, considered a compromise. Pouches are used by brands such as Look What We Found and sports nutrition firm Performance Meals, as well as by several baby food manufacturers including Ella's Kitchen. "Presently, 32% of consumers associate flexible packaging with being modern, and brands are tapping into flexibles' nearly unparalleled decoration and marketing opportunities," Luttenberger says.
But will flexible packaging, especially stand-up pouches, ever become truly mainstream for meat products and prepared meals? Bodybuilding brand Performance Meals packages its products in stand-up pouches and on the front of its Indian style beef with red lentils it advertises the fact than meat packaged in pouches means there is "No Fridge Needed" and it is ready to eat. But for more mainstream consumers, is this kind of benefit meaningful?
Luttenberger believes in 2016 more brands will be looking to pouches to capture consumers' attention, but says the truly innovative brands will be looking to the next generation of rigid flexible hybrids that offer functional and environmental benefits alongside great shelf presence, he says, taking inspiration from other fmcg sectors.
The Freedonia Group also agrees with this analysis, looking ahead to how the packaging landscape will shift by 2019.
"Flexible packaging demand growth will outpace that of rigid packaging, reflecting performance and sustainability advantages, which will promote above average increases for pouches and high barrier films.
"Vacuum pouches will see expanded usage with fresh, frozen, and processed items, while stand-up pouches will make further in-roads into folding carton applications based on advantages including large billboard space, light weight, and reduced material use," the Freedonia report states.
There is still huge potential for rigid packaging too, especially when leaps in technology allow it to become more environmentally friendly, as evidenced by the announcement by Quinn Packaging, the Irish plastic packaging company based in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, that it is to invest over €3 million in a new PET sheet extrusion line.
The investment by Quinn Packaging is part of the company's strategy to become a major player in the rigid food packaging market and will provide additional capacity to further develop its PET sheet and meat tray business when the machine is fully commissioned in mid-2016.
The investment represents a major investment of Quinn Industrial Holdings the company which acquired both the Quinn Packaging and Construction Industry Supply businesses in December 2014. QIHL has created 74 new jobs in that period and announced further investment in its lorry fleet, recently taking delivery of phase one of a major capital investment programme to replenish the 140-strong Quinn haulage fleet.
Mark McKenna, general manager of Quinn Packaging has emphasised the importance of the investment as part of a long term growth strategy: "This investment in Quinn Packaging will allow the company to further develop its presence within the rigid food packaging sector and represents a commitment to our customers and employees.
"We believe that the extra investment being made in the Vacurema recycling system as part of the new extrusion line will give us a competitive advantage over many of our competitors by allowing us to replace virgin polymer material with recycled material and still produce a higher quality sheet."
Digital package printing is another trend set to continue to make waves. The flexibility of digital printing allowed Coca-Cola to run its hugely successful 'Share a Coke' campaign featuring packs customised with the UK's most popular names. "For the meat industry, taking advantage of digital or inkjet technologies could be a boon to bottom lines when trialling new varieties, blends, or even new product lines, especially when speed to market and budgets are a concern," Luttenberger says.
"Many brand owners today see digital as a printing process that is suited only for special promo runs or for personalisation and customisation. There are tremendous cost and time advantages to digital...for either rigid or flexible packaging, and without sacrificing print quality."
This rapidly changing technology means manufacturers have big decisions to make about the kind of packaging equipment they choose to invest in. Rob Allen is divisional manager for Interfood Technology's Packing Solutions and he says there are increasing levels of automation in many manufacturer's packaging processes, driven by a combination several reasons.
"The degree of automation in end-of-line packaging is undoubtedly increasing," says Allen. "One of the main drivers for this is cost. There is also the precision and consistency that automation offers, as well as the potential to provide a more controlled environment - an important factor as food hygiene and traceability become ever more critical. The move towards reducing the handling of raw meat is also leading to more automation in meat processing plants."
Machines that combine X-Ray or metal detection, with integrated checkweighing, are becoming an increasingly common feature in end-of-line packaging operations, Allen says. Products need to be inspected at the end of the processing line before being transferred to automatic case-packing systems which place the individual packs into cases for display on supermarket shelves.
"The supermarkets are adopting specific codes of practice to help ensure the goods supplied to them meet best practice. For example, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have adopted their own code of practice and a new issue of the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety, Issue 7 was published in January 2015 which is now regarded as the industry standard," Allen explains.
"So, when looking to invest in machinery to help automate the packaging process, one of the first things to do is check that it meets the specific requirements of the retailers that you are supplying now or in the future. Protection of the consumer from potential product contamination is, quite rightly, key for all those involved in the food supply chain so having the means to automate that process and immediately alert you to any potential issues is invaluable."
Another factor in the decision to automate is to consider how the new machine is going to fit into your existing production line. "This might sound pretty obvious," says Allen, "but with the increasing automation of lines comes a potential complexity in ensuring that the line efficiency is optimised. Investing in packaging automation can ultimately provide significant cost savings but if you make the wrong choice it can be a costly error. You need to consider how your new machine will synchronise with your existing production line equipment."
In fact, the whole meat packaging sector is expected to grow steadily over the coming years, boosted by growing demand for meat overall, and in particular for conveniently packaged products. The Freedonia Group believes poultry packaging applications will log the fastest advances between 2015 to 2019, propelled by accelerated production growth and rising consumption based on poultry's lower cost and more favourable nutritional profile than beef and pork.
Similarly, Future Marketing Insights, in its forthcoming report into the global meat packaging market, predicts single digit growth through the whole of the coming decade to 2025. This growth is attributed to the increased production of meat in the global market and an increase in demand of convenience products due to consumers' lack of time.
"The major trends of global meat packaging market are demand for smaller packaging size, new packaging material development and increased awareness towards environmental issues," the report summary states.
With this positive outlook, it seems likely the sector will continue to become more innovative in the years to come, developing new products such as oven ready bags, that improve both appearance and shelf life, and offer greater convenience to consumers.