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Attractive packaging a must for chilled applications

Attractive packaging is needed for fish, cold cuts and the like, writes Tom Kerchiss, managing director at RK PrintCoat 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 shoppers’ baskets.

Often sold through dedicated deli counters or in chilled cabinets, many of these products are vacuum packed or are contained in retortable packs or in some other form of modified atmosphere packaging. 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 them. Although vacuum packed and modified atmosphere packaging is generally associated with various multilayer plastic films, many products utilize 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.

Variations in packaging

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 specialty and representing food from a particular region, such as Milano salami, may attract the browsing consumer if the pack sports an illustration showing the Duomo di Milano.

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 color reproduction and graphic design.

While it’s true that the packaging must look good, the pack must be highly efficient at protecting subtle flavors, combating the risk of spoilage and protecting the public from any risk to health. The principle spoilage mechanism associated with fish products centers 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-flavors. The rancidifying and oxidation of the unsaturated fats in fish oil causes unpleasant flavors and aromas and is particularly problematic. Modified atmosphere packaging is still one of the most suitable technologies for the packing of a product with such delicate flavors. Smart and active packaging also have a role to play (see boxout).

Performance

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 flexible, offer high mechanical strength, yet are lightweight 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 color 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.

Light is also a major concern. Prolonged exposure of meat and other light sensitive products also causes color 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 colored film. A decorative printed self-adhesive overlay or printed card can aid in reducing light exposure, and provide branding opportunities.

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. 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 to go 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. The brand owner can utilize a combination of foil container and full color 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 single/duo serve pouches. Reduced material usage and space saving stackability are among the benefits that pouches provide. They allow for a visually different approach with regard to graphics, decoration and shaping.

Incorporating a membrane of aluminum 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.

Color

Whichever option is chosen, color 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 color 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.

Color communication devices, such as RK PrintCoat’s K Printing Proofer, enable users to produce a consistent product that meets agreed color standards. High quality proofs can be outputted using gravure, gravure-offset or flexo inks. Both wet and dry laminated samples can be produced. Two or more inks can be printed simultaneously for comparison purposes and registration is included for overprinting. Any flexible substrate, including films, board, aluminum foil and PVC, can be printed or laminated.

In addition, ongoing research into active and smart packaging and the formulation of new films and packaging concepts means 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, can play an important role in determining product viability and commercial feasibility.

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