Meat packaging seminar discusses state of industry

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Meat, Meat industry, Vacuum

A seminar on meat packaging automation was held this month at
Packforum, packaging materials supplier Cryovac’s permanent
customer-care centre near Paris. The programme addressed new
challenges in meat packaging including market trends, technical
developments, new processes and packaging solutions.

“We know from experience that meat processing and packaging automation increases product safety, process flexibility, yield control and profitability,”​ said François-Xavier Meric, business manager packaging systems for Cryovac Europe.

European Market Dynamics

Trends in cattle slaughtering were identified at the seminar. A major driver here is increased concentration, while industry fragmentation has become the key in the pigmeat market with growth mainly driven by farmers. The context is one of retailer concentration and internationalisation, retail-driven supply chain rationalisation and increasing concentration of slaughter groups.

“Whether the trends will add or destroy value depends on you,”​ said Andrew Cookson, managing director of GIRAG France, a strategic consultancy focusing on food market research.

Indeed, all slaughterers and primary processors are under great pressures, such as increasing demands for convenience, valorisation through differentiation, zero risk, hard discount and own labels. “Without the appropriate packaging, at all levels, none of this is possible,”​ said Cookson.

Geographical Snapshots

In Spain and Portugal, the main theme has been vertical integration, moving directly from carcass to shelf-ready finished products. “The largest and most advanced European meat consumer unit plants are probably in Spain and Portugal,”​ said Lidano de Cesari, sales manager Cryovac Italy. He then illustrated his point with Spanish leading retailer Mercadona, which relies on tray lidding, vacuum skin packaging and thermoforming to supply a great number of supermarkets.

This, said de Cesari, is the result of fruitful cooperation between industry, retailers and packaging specialists.

In Italy, the second largest European beef market, rationalisation and concentration of retail is relatively recent but the number of small, medium and large packaging lines has multiplied in recent years. “The industry is in the process of investing heavily into state of the art packaging technologies,”​ said Cesari. “But there has been no sign of a complete Case-Ready beef program involving a major retailer yet.”

In Central Europe, investment in the meat industry has doubled in the past two years, while employment has dropped by 20 per cent. Meat consumption is at European levels for pork and poultry, but much lower for beef, especially in Poland. Raw material, processing and labour costs are much lower than in the rest of Europe, with average meat prices 50 per cent cheaper.

“The growth of retail calls for increased packaging capacities, higher speed, bigger volumes, reliable deliveries and traceability,”​ said Jerzy Badowski, market & retail development manager Cryovac Poland.

In the UK, the benefits of vacuum packing primal meat cuts have been known for many years and there is a high level of primal pack penetration. The current packaging, however, remains labour intensive, despite the acute labour availability issues. The objective in this country is to reduce the total pack cost per kg of meat, through reduced labour costs, optimised materials and increased use of packaging systems.

“Introducing automation in both industrial and consumer unit packaging systems resolves many issues, from greater flexibility to improved planning and stock building, better response to promotions, enhanced product flow and space optimisation,”​ said Neil Dunn, sales manager Cryovac UK. “In fact, packaging automation in industrial units delivers far more than pack cost reduction, as it allows better control and quality, but also reactivity of Case Ready plants supplied with those vacuum packed primals.”

Automation Drivers

The world demand for protein meat will increase as a result of population growth, economic development, the price of protein, increased convenience and changing consumer behaviours. On the international trade front, protein meat is becoming a commodity with a uniform global price.

The world’s lowest cost producers set the price, with cheap labour costs and currency exchange rates driving the cost base. As a result, the meat industry is pressured by lower margins, increased international trade and demands for consistent quality and food safety.

Retailers are gaining in power as an increasing percentage of all protein is being sold by a decreasing number of retailers. They are demanding own label products, just-in-time deliveries, reduction in the number of suppliers, compliance with consumer demands and pressure on prices and margins.

“Only 1 per cent of the food industry is using robotics,”​ said Steve Flack of P2I Consulting in the UK. “Yet increasing absenteeism, labour rates and recruitment issues must foster innovative thinking to drive labour costs out, pay back the zero food inflation and deliver the profit and shareholder value expectations. The way forward lies in robotics and automation, through a tri-part relationship between raw material supplier, packaging equipment manufacturer and retailer.”

Hygiene and Product Safety

“Primary responsibility lies with food business operators who must provide food chain information for reliable traceability, undertake an assessment of risks and facilitate inspection/verification by the competent authority,”​ said Ronald Dwinger, European Commission, director general of health and consumer protection.

“Packers must also conform with the new regulations, especially with regard to hygiene, labelling, storage and transport. All this has one objective in mind: the safety of consumers.”

Packaging Benefits

Vacuum packaging of meat brings numerous technical benefits, said Isabelle Moëvi Legrand from the French Meat Research Institute.

“Combining barrier materials with the vacuum process, good hygiene and chilled temperatures results in shelf-life extension, product quality improvement and reduced weight and drip loss,”​ she said.

In addition, organoleptic characteristics are improved thanks to meat ageing. The vacuum process darkens the colour, a reversible process at pack opening, but it slows down the development of bacteria of the meat, thus allowing longer storage and optimised performance.

Meat Processing and Traceability

“Traceability is about protecting one of your most precious assets, your brand and that of your customers,”​ said Johan Enevoldsen from Scanvaegt, a food processing technical specialist in Denmark. The main part of the European meat industry is implementing product marking and labelling on a batch level to allow traceability.

“Correctly implemented, traceability and food safety systems can be turned into financial benefits.”​ To allow this, it is critical that suppliers work together on entire lines with combined data collection instead of individual machines.

The Packaging Future

According to John Koke, director of global automation for Cryovac North America, the future points toward efficiency and smart capabilities, namely packaging solutions that are flexible, integrated and trace ready, with remote monitoring, diagnostics and service. Flexibility comes with automatic packaging systems, which are able to dispense and load products of variable types and sizes into varied packages. Integrated lines focus on the entire line instead of traditional islands, aiming to minimise product handling with product separation and orientation from start to finish.

“Links must be established with the upstream and downstream systems, as well as with the central IT platform to allow real time data collection and continuous tracking,”​ said Koke.

Finally, remote monitoring of critical system performance indicators allow corrective action before failure as well as automatic maintenance advice. Future packaging automation will resolve many current issues and more, resulting in unparalleled productivity, performance and profitability.

Fresh meat packaging is clearly a well-established market in some parts of Europe, where distribution has moved from traditional butchery to modern retail. In other parts, this market is only emerging, growing in parallel with retail organisations. But everywhere, product safety, traceability, labour intensity and profitability are the key preoccupations.

The Cryovac​ event attracted participants representing 17 companies from nine different countries, including Russia and Poland, with a strong representation from Italy and Mexico.

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