By Tom Kerchiss, RK Print Coat Instruments

Great care is taken with the packaging of meat, meat by-products and packaged fish; items that have a short shelf life and command premium prices.  Various processes and technologies are employed along the way in order to move products as quickly and safely as possible from the distribution and retail network and into the shoppers’ basket.
Many of these products are vacuum packed or are contained in retortable packs or in some other form of modified atmosphere packaging.  Many of these items are sold at dedicated deli-counters or in chilled cabinets.

The safety and storability of these products depends in large measure on the hygienic quality of the raw materials and on the proven packaging technologies employed to contain, protect and display these products. Although vacuum packed and modified atmosphere packaging is generally associated with various multi-layer plastic films particularly where deli and set weight old cut products are being marketed, many products utilise other materials and are freshly frozen for display in the retail frozen food aisle or alternatively are packed in thermoformed trays with decorative cardboard sleeves.

There are many reasons for variations in packaging. Packaging is being used more and more to project a positive marketing image with the emphasis on regional or national culinary culture.

Products sold as special and representing food from a particular region such as Milano salami may attract the browsing consumer if the pack sports for example an illustration showing the Duomo di Milano (Milan’s Cathedral) or something that is particularly emblematic of the region.

In a past marketing exercise it was shown that lamb that sported the Welsh national flag together with track and trace information such as the farm where the lamb originated from sold in far larger quantities than products that just stated that the lamb came from somewhere in Wales.

Packaging for cold cuts, deli or fish items is critical and whether the pack is foil/cardboard sleeve containers, vacuum packaging, gusseted pouches or something else it must support product quality and mark the product out as being special. This is a product sector that encourages the consumer to be adventurous in selection; it also encourages the brand owner, graphic designer and converter to be equally adventurous in terms of colour reproduction and graphic design.

While its true that the packaging must look good the pack must be highly efficient at protecting subtle flavours, combating the risk of spoilage and protecting the public from any risk to health. 

The principle spoilage mechanism associated with fish products centres around microbial growth and spoilage due to oxidation. Fish is very perishable due to factors such as high water content and the presence of self-digesting enzymes that trigger the production of off-flavours. The rancidifying and oxidation of the unsaturated fats in fish oil causes unpleasant flavours and aromas and is particularly problematic.

Staying with fish products for the moment, modified atmosphere packaging is still one of the most suitable technologies for the packing of a product with such delicate flavours. Many companies are now either investigating or are utilising some form of active packaging or smart packaging solution to provide additional quality safe guards and additional protection for both the consumer and brand.  

Smart and active or intelligent packaging is still in its infancy and it would be reasonable to say that in many cases the large scale commercial promise that these technologies offer are still to be realised. The ability to provide a consumer with pertinent information including such information as when a product is running low and when use by dates are about to be breached is interesting. Anti-microbial packaging, a form of active packaging in which the pack itself retards or inhibits the growth of micro organisms that may be present either in the food or the packaging material also holds out great promise and various bioactive agents are already available and in use to some extent.

It is still the case that many of the materials used to encase and protect products such as cold cuts and other meats that are sold over the counter are plastic films. These films are of a flexible nature, offer high mechanical strength yet is light in weight and provide good sealing capabilities and barrier resistance. Biofilms are currently the subject of much research but progress is being made in areas such as active packaging and in modifying existing polymers, 

For both aesthetic and practical reasons good barrier resistance against oxygen and evaporation is high on the agenda.  Oxygen scavengers are the most widely used active packaging technology. Air needs to be excluded from meat packaging because oxygen facilities the growth of aerobic microbes; turning the red colour of meat to an unpalatable grey or green. Not only is this unattractive it also means that oxidation and rancidity of fats is or has taken place. Even though oxygen sensitive foods can be packed in modified atmosphere packaging or vacuum packs, it does not remove it completely. Oxygen scavengers will remove any oxygen residues that remain.

Light is of major concern. Prolonged exposure of meat and other light sensitive products, as in the case of oxygen also causes colour change, rancidity and oxygen. For really light sensitive products or those that are going to be exposed to strong light the product can be packed in either an opaque or coloured film. A decorative printed self-adhesive overlay or printed card can aid in reducing light exposure; at the same time enhancing brand perception due to the inclusion of logo, bright colours and product information.

Packaging and the method chosen to display information is influenced by processing requirements and the need to provide customer safety assurance. Packaging for salami, pate, sausages, expensive cuts of meat and cold cuts are displayed and sold often in plastic Because the filmic materials are often clear they enable the consumer to view the product full face on. 

Pack decoration is limited in these circumstances and may be reduced to a self-adhesive label and product card.  There are however, a number of ways that brand owners, marketers and packaging technologists have taken to make the appearance of meat products look more appealing, especially as according to a recent survey, many consumers like the taste of meat but are turned off by the sight of fresh meat stacked on a counter.     

One way of displaying food is to take the approach used for products such as ready-meals that we’ve mentioned earlier in terms of packaging material options. Currently sold to great effect in supermarkets, the brand owner can utilize a combination of foil container and full colour decorative paperboard slipcovers.

This method can be ideal for the marketing of foods with sauces but due to the short shelf life is restricted to freezers and chiller cabinets. Another method of packing products, which provides good display options, is the single/duo serve pouches.

Reduced material usage and space saving stackability are amongst the benefits that pouches provide. They allow for a visually different approach with regard to graphics, decoration and shaping.  Pouches, the bigger ones can be designed to stand on a gusseted base, and are valuable in the preservation and marketing of an enormous variety of semi-solid goods such as meat and fish in sauces.

 Incorporating a membrane of alu-foil, often just 6.35 micron thick within the laminate can convert a simple pouch into what is in effect an aseptic or sterilizable filled flat can, occupying only a fraction of the space and a mere fraction of the weight of a conventional metal can.

What is evident is that there is no single packaging solution that meets every requirement, flexible packaging, paperboard; tins, thermoformed and vacuum-packed trays have their place.  Colour is a critical element for the products on display; whether the item is connoisseur salami or a lobster the package must look as inviting as possible. 

Printers and converters must reproduce colour to a high standard whilst processing elements and materials need to be chosen with care taking into account the different performance properties necessary for this demanding product sector.

Colour communication devices such as the K Printing Proofer enable users to produce a consistent product, one that meets agreed colour standards. With the K Printing Proofer high quality proofs can be outputted in an instant using gravure, gravure-offset or flexo inks. With this device both wet and dry laminated samples can be produced on the machine using the gravure print head with RK Print Coat Instruments own K-Lam laminating accessories.

Two or more inks can be printed simultaneously for comparison purposes and registration is included for overprinting. Any flexible substrate including films, board, aluminium foil, PVC, etc., can be printed or laminated on this device.

Products such as fish, cold cuts and other highly perishable products are subject to much research and development and quality control, and it should be noted that with on going research into active and smart packaging and the formulation of new films and packaging concepts many of the characteristics of a selected packaging material need determining. Sometimes the inks, coatings and consumables show some degree of incompatibility.

Quality control, product monitoring and development tools such as the Rotary Koater, a pilot coating, printing and laminating system can play an important role in determining product viability and commercial feasibility. The VCM, a bespoke high tech counterpart to the Rotary Koater is aimed at customers with known and often quite complex processing requirements.   

RK Print Coat Instruments Ltd
Litlington, Royston, Hertfordshire SG8 0QZ

Source: RK Print Coat Instruments Ltd