Packaging Systems for Meat — Wholesale and Retail


(1) To discuss the implications of boxed beef on where beef is now slaughtered.

(2) To identify common trademarks, materials, processes and equipment used to package meat.

(3) To describe advantages and disadvantages of various packaging systems.

Reading material: Principles of Meat Science (3rd Edition), chapter 9, page 220 to 221, chapter 10, pages 253 to 260.

The Boxed Beef Revolution

Boxed beef began in the 1960’s and caused a major revolution in where beef is now slaughtered (from Chicago, New York, Kansas City, etc., to Amarillo, Plainview, Friona, etc.)

IBP Cattle-Pak – Seven-box style of boxed beef where there were two boxes of rounds, two boxes of loins, two boxes of chucks, and one box that contained both ribs that were sold as a unit.

Eventually boxed beef shifted from primals (e.g., round, loin, rib, and chuck) to subprimals (e.g., inside round, eye of round, bottom round, top sirloin butt, strip loin, tenderloin, ribeye, chuck roll, clod).

Pioneers in boxed beef — Tyson-IBP, JBS-Swift, Cargill. By their dominance in boxed beef, this has allowed these three companies to control around 75% of the fed beef slaughter and 85% of the boxed beef production in the United States. Today, virtually of all beef produced is boxed.

The pioneer in packaging

Cryovac®, a division of Sealed Air®, was instrumental in developing both the packaging materials and equipment for boxed beef to happen. Cryovac®-brand food packaging is the dominate supplier in the food industry today.

Sealed Air® Cryovac® Food Brand Packaging

Wholesale packaging systems

Vacuum packaging

  • For fresh beef, pork, and lamb, most are vacuum packaged using heat-shrink packages.
  • Heat-shrink packages, as the name implies, have the ability to shrink around the product when exposed to heat, either by air (400°F) or by water (200°F).
  • Non-heat-shrink packages, as they name implies, do not have the ability to shrink once they have been manufactured. These are most commonly used for processed products such as jerky, cheese, etc. 

Heat shrinking

  • Help bag conform to the surface of meat to reduce flex cracks
  • Helps eliminate pockets where purge can accumulate
  • Thickens bag to add to puncture resistance
  • Improves oxygen barrier properties

Leading bags for beef, pork, and lamb wholesale packaging

Cryovac® brand barrier bags – Uses layers such as Saran® or other oxygen-barrier materials to provide low oxygen transmission rate (OTR) and low moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR) allowing excellent shelf life.

Cryovac® brand abuse resistance bags – One of the most notable is the Cryovac® bone guard bags used for bone-in products such as beef ribeyes, bone-in, pork spare ribs, and pork back ribs.

Vacuum packaging equipment

  • Small-scale systems use single- or double-chamber heat-seal vacuum packaging machines
  • Large-scale systems use multiple rotary-style vacuum-chamber machines such as the Cryovac® 8600.

Retail packaging

Traditional packaging at retail

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) overwrapped plastic foam trays – This is the historic way that most beef, pork, and lamb has been packaged for the retail marketplace.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) overwrapped rigid plastic trays – Plastic rigid trays offer recycling options for the tray.

Case-ready packaging

Case-ready packaging is where meat is prepared and packaged in a central location and is boxed and delivered to the retail store. The packaged meat then is placed in retail display cases just like any other grocery item.

Walmart has led the growth in case-ready packaged meat.

Systems used for case-ready packaging

Master packaged PVC-overwrapped steaks/roasts – Groups of PVC-overwrapped steaks or roasts are placed in a large plastic bag, the air is drawn out, and is back-flushed with a mixture of three gases:

  • 60.0% nitrogen – serves as a filler gas
  • 39.6% carbon dioxide – serves to inhibit spoilage bacteria growth
  • 0.4% carbon monoxide – serves to maintain color

Vacuum skin packaging (VSP) – Individual steaks, chops, roasts are placed on rigid or semi-rigid low-profile or flat trays and are vacuum packaged with roll-stock machine where the top film forms over the contour of the cut.

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) – Individual steaks, chops, roasts are placed in rigid high-profile trays, air is evacuated, and package is backflushed with mixtures of gases before sealing with top film (lid):

  • Hi-Ox system
    • 80% oxygen – serves to maintain bright red color
    • 20% carbon dioxide – serves to inhibit spoilage bacteria growth
  • Low-Ox system
    • 75% nitrogen – serves as a filler gas
    • 25% carbon dioxide – serves to inhibit spoilage bacteria growth

Ground beef packaging

PVC-overwrapped packages – Used widely where bench trimmings and/or chubs of coarse-ground trimmings are run through a meat grinder in the backroom of the retail store.

Although the shelf-life is shorter than other forms of packaging, the bright red color of the PVC-overwrapped ground beef is very attractive.

Chub packages – Tubes of 1-, 2-, 5- or 10-pounds of ground beef that range in lean:fat ratios (e.g., 70% lean:30% fat; 80% lean:20% fat; 96% lean:4% fat) and source (e.g., ground beef, ground round, ground sirloin, ground chuck).

Brick packages – Cubes of one-pound packages that are vacuum packaged with roll-stock machine. Cavity formed in the bottom film, product placed in the cavity, vacuum packaged and covered with top film. After labeling, package is displayed with the bottom film on top and the top film on bottom.

Foodservice packaging

Roll-stock vacuum packaging – Cavity is formed in the bottom film, steaks are placed in the cavity, vacuum is formed, and top film is sealed.

Review of Material — What the student should know:

(1) Terminology associated with packaging.

(2) Leaders in packaging equipment and technology.

(3) Who is marketing different types of prepackaged products.

(4) The different types of vacuum or modified atmosphere packaging systems.

Links to related sites on the Internet

Cryovac — Sealed Air Corporation

J.W. Savell, revised March, 2021

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