U.S. consumers don't like the looks of gray beef on grocers' shelves.
That, plus cost issues, are slowing retail grocers' transition from traditional packaging to more sophisticated modified atmosphere packaging, known as MAP.
The MAP niche is potentially very attractive. Major film and sheet manufacturers can set prices that include the added value of high-end barrier products, a contrast to their margin-challenging struggles in commodity markets.
But meat packaging is undergoing a ``slow incremental change,'' because retailers have not been willing to pay for MAP, Lloyd Widom, packaging analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. in New York, said by telephone.
MAP is a packaging method that uses special mixtures of gases and barrier materials to change the ambient atmosphere influencing a product. MAP has existed for years in Europe and may account for 30 percent of the market in the United Kingdom.
Widom said commercializing MAP no longer is a simple question of technology.
MAP requires a heavy capital investment in supermarkets and product preparation, he said. Markets ``still have to maintain both worlds ... until an entire [case-ready] program can be supplied'' for chicken, beef and pork.
Meanwhile, retailers ``must pay a premium for new packaging and space — reconfiguring meat departments — and money for the butcher,'' Widom said.
MAP ``can be a significant opportunity for grocers to manage their inventories better,'' said Douglas Groh, a packaging and container industry analyst with Merrill Lynch Capital Markets in New York.
Chicken processors decades ago adopted case-ready practices now used for fresh meat. Boneless, skinless turkey breasts were merchandised in MAP long before the concept entered the red meat world.
In the United States, the MAP concept is a mere fledgling, albeit one with enormous market potential. Typically, blown or cast coextruded films encase processed or red meat, maintaining a deoxygenated blue or gray coloring until the meat is placed on display.
Some merchants have tried to convince customers that blue means an extended life for the meat, but the buying public here vastly prefers a red color.
Still, trends are driving grocers toward case-ready and MAP for meat:
Longer shelf life means less food waste. Traditionally wrapped ground beef may last three to four days, but beef in MAP can get about 14 days before the sell-by date.
Grocers can cut in-store labor and still stock MAP meat for round-the-clock sales and three-day weekends. Gas-flushed MAP permits grocers to sell uncooked fresh meat, marinated varieties and ready-made meals for quick preparation at home.
A central meat packer using MAP may cut steps in the distribution chain. The process prevents localized surface contamination, guards against salmonella or E. coli bacteria and minimizes a grocer's food-safety liabilities.
Consolidation is a driver. Emerging grocery powerhouses Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co. ``are looking to gain as many efficiencies'' as possible, said Earl Hatley, food-area market manager with AlliedSignal Inc.'s Specialty Films unit in Morristown, N.J.
These retailers will use new trends to package and sell product at a lower cost to the ultimate consumer, he said.
Cryovac is ``the global leader in fresh-meat packaging'' with a larger volume of processed food and case wrapping product in Europe than in the United States, Widom said. Sealed Air Corp. is restructuring the Duncan, S.C.-based division after acquiring Cryovac on March 31 from W.R. Grace & Co.
Tenneco Inc.'s specialty packaging unit is another player in the MAP market. The Lake Forest, Ill.-based operation is considered the core and future of Tenneco's packaging business even through a restructuring that the corporation may announce within a few weeks.
Veal packer Berliner & Marx Inc. of South Bend, Ind., is field-evaluating Tenneco's new ActiveTech case-ready packaging system, said Dan Carr, vice president for Tenneco's processor packaging business.
In the Tenneco system, a standard breathable-film-overwrap meat package is encapsulated in a flexible barrier film with a patented absorbing technology.
As stock is needed, a store employee removes the product from the polyolefin bag, applies a date label and places the merchandise in the meat case. The barrier retards microbial growth, extending shelf life. Once the barrier is removed, the meat's color reblooms.
Tenneco will demonstrate the low-oxygen red-meat packaging system at the American Meat Institute's annual convention and innovation showcase, being held Sept. 17-20 in Philadelphia.
AlliedSignal is interested in MAP lidding material, and is developing ``a combination of nylon and other materials'' that it plans to have in the market by the end of the year, Hatley said.
AlliedSignal makes nylon-based films for converters to print and laminate in two, three or four plies for packaging film structures.
Food companies use MAP to expand and differentiate lines of prepared or semiprepared quick-cook items, said Jim Mullen, manager of new business development with Klockner-Pentaplast of America Inc. in Gordonsville, Va.
In the United States, we've seen a gradual change toward more convenience foods in recent years, Mullen said. Brand-name suppliers want, for example, ``to promote a series of products rather than one item and seek effective visual packaging to enlarge their sales to a broader audience.''
Changes are faster in Europe, where decorative styles distinguish food packages.
``Our European operations have more MAP,'' Mullen said. Klockner Werke AG of Duisburg, Germany, is the parent company.
Rock-Tenn Co.'s plastic packaging division currently is expanding its stock MAP tray line for case-ready meats, fish and produce, said Bill Kimble, vice president of sales. Launched in 1996, the line is useful for bulk items and smaller portions.
Atlanta's Rock-Tenn, a major maker of packaging and paperboard, thermoforms plastic packaging and extruded roll stock at facilities in Franklin Park, Ill., and Conyers, Ga.
``Use of MAP is increasing for meat, bakery and some cracker products,'' and the concept is gaining acceptance in the United States, said Frank Kitchel, director of marketing with Evalca in Lisle, Ill. Evalca is a major supplier of ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer resins. More than 80 percent of his firm's global capacity goes into food applications.
Retail grocers show a ``great deal of interest in case-ready meats, whether in gas-flush system or MAP [in a] master pack,'' said Rick Cheri, manager of consumer-ready meats for Taylor Packing Co. in Wyalusing, Pa.
The slowly growing application requires beef packers and processors to invest significantly in equipment from manufacturers such as Robert Reiser & Co. of Canton, Mass., and Ilapak Inc. of Newtown, Pa., Cheri said. Taylor Packing produces 3 million pounds of ground beef weekly along with a full line of boxed beef.
``Developing barrier films offers most film and sheet producers a chance to `price to value' rather than `price to market,''' said Peter J. Schmitt, a consultant with Montesino Associates in Wilmington, Del.
``In a true commodity market, the price is determined by the supply-demand ratio,'' he said. ``Processors end up being passive observers of the struggle between resin capacity and demand for film and sheet, [and] it becomes very difficult to foster long-term profitable growth.''
Adding barrier to a product allows a processor to price to the value created by the barrier, Schmitt said.
``Rather than being a mere converter, the producer now truly adds value and therefore price and profitability.''
Creating a strategy is important, Schmitt said, citing ``the need to evaluate new technologies that enhance barrier.'' These include coextrusion, coating and laminating processes and use of polymers with inherently higher barrier properties.