Many retailers envisioning the supermarket of the future are convinced
that the fresh meat department will shift from a manufacturing and
packaging department with some selling to a merchandising department
with some trimming and repackaging. Prepackaged meats, ready for the
display case, will play a big role in the transition. One company
that's giving the concept a big push is Colorado Boxed Beef,
Auburndale, FL, specifically with its case-ready, prepackaged ground
beef. Through its senior vice president of finance and marketing, Steve
Saterbo, CBB has invested in packaging materials from as far away as
England and Japan along with new machine technology. Both create a
prepackaged product with more than double the shelf life of most ground
beef packaged at store level. CBB is a $700-million distributor of
meats to retail and foodservice outlets in the Southeast. It projects
that its ground beef program will reach $25 million in sales during its
next fiscal year. After attending a packaging exposition in Europe a
few years ago, Saterbo came away convinced that case-ready was "the way
the industry is going to go." Developing a successful program at CBB,
however, has not been easy. "We've done more R&D over the last few
years than I want to talk about," says Saterbo.
The firm even acquired
its own supermarket in Groveland, FL, to test its case-ready beef
program. "It was a good way to learn," says Saterbo of the now-closed
store. "A tough experience, but valuable." The company's first efforts
involved whole-muscle cuts of veal and lamb. But management quickly
learned that the sales volume of those items was too low to return an
acceptable profit. So about two years ago they refocused on high-volume
ground beef and now run five ground beef packaging lines seven days a
week. Packed in 1-, 2-, 3- and 5-lb weights, meat is formulated in five
fat-to-lean ratios. How Kroger buys A key
customer is Cincinnati-based Kroger's Atlanta division, which includes
more than 150 stores. Individual stores send their ground beef
requirements to division headquarters. That office sends the total
order, five or six times weekly, to CBB via an EDI (electronic data
The next day, CBB fulfills the order and by about
7:00 p.m. the product is on its way. By 6:00 a.m. on Day 2 it reaches a
central warehouse in Atlanta, where it's dispersed to individual
stores, reaching them that same day or early on Day 3. Also, on a
weekly basis, Kroger specifies the retail price per pound so CBB's
plant can print and apply price labels. In turn this means that when
the order arrives, the meat merchandisers need only open the shippers
and stock the trays in the refrigerated meat display. CBB codes each
price label with a seven-day sell-by date. Though the actual shelf life
is ten days, says Saterbo, "That still gives the consumer three days in
which to use the meat," he says. "It's important not to stretch your
sell-by date to ten days. If you do, you leave no leeway for the
consumer." Shelf life is that long thanks to high-barrier packaging
materials and modified atmosphere packaging.
Each tray is backflushed
with an 80/20 mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide
retards spoilage and the oxygen permits the meat to retain its bright
red color. Continuous improvement Methods have evolved rapidly at CBB in just two short years. Take machines, for instance.
"We used to take ground beef from the portioners and hand load it into
trays," says processing plant manager Ed Baxter. "Now on our three
high-speed lines we automatically load trays with beef." Materials have
evolved, too, and they'll likely continue to do so. For now, at least,
Saterbo is pleased with the preformed trays he gets from LinPac
Plastics/Filmco (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and the lidding material that
comes from two sources: Cryovac (Duncan, SC) and Packaging Partners,
Ltd. (Franklin, WI). Details on the makeup of the Cryovac material are
unavailable from that converter. The other lidstock, says its supplier,
is a seven-layer coextrusion called FreshWrap(TM) that's made in Japan.
It has an oxygen transmission rate of 0.1 cc/100 sq"/24 hours.
Packaging Partners vice chairman Grover Foote declines to identify the
Japanese converter that supplies the film. His firm has exclusive
rights to market the material in Canada and the U.S. Although regularly
used in Europe, especially in England, the material is just now making
its mark here. Foote estimates some 15 applications are commercial in
the U.S. Foote describes the lidding material as "essentially"
nylon/ethylene vinyl alcohol/nylon/metallocene PE. Nylon gives the
material toughness and puncture resistance and EVOH is for gas barrier.
The inside layer of metallocene ensures seal strength. The material is
coextruded to a thickness of 2 mils, then biaxially oriented in-line to
a thickness of 1 mil. Orientation enhances barrier properties of the
EVOH component, says Foote. It also gives the material memory, so when
it's applied to a food tray it stays taut and wrinkle-free. And by way of England...
While the multilayer lidstock from Packaging Partners hails from Japan,
the LinPac tray used by CBB originates in England. Considering that
such imports are typically more costly than materials sourced
domestically, it seems odd they'd be used for ground beef, which is
notorious for razor-thin profit margins.
The oddity is explained by the
simple fact that these materials work well for CBB. Seal integrity,
barrier properties, anti-fog properties, and other key performance
characteristics are consistently on target. If such reliability
requires imports, so be it, say Baxter and Saterbo, though both
anticipate that domestic sources, maybe even plants run by the current
suppliers, will be established in the next six months or so. While the
LinPac tray is fabricated in the U.S., its barrier properties come from
a five-layer coextruded film from Sidlaw Packaging (Hawkfield Way,
Bristol, England). Called Baricol XPS45, the 45-micron (1.75-mil) film
consists of polyethylene/ tie/EVOH/tie/proprietary sealant. The film is
said to exhibit an oxygen transmission rate of 0.66 cc/sq m/24 hours.
This film is shipped to LinPac's manufacturing plant in Wilson, NC.
It's laminated to expanded polystyrene sheet that's produced there.
Thermoforming follows. No details on the barrier characteristics of the
finished tray were available. A key feature to the LinPac tray is its
flange. According to Baxter, other barrier foam trays have a much wider
flange so that the lidding material has plenty of surface area to grab
on to when it's heat-sealed to the tray. But the wider flange makes the
tray look different than conventional meat trays that are packed
in-store. That was an issue since many consumers tend to believe
products are fresher when packaged in-store.
The seal integrity of the
lidding film to the 1/8" flange, Baxter says, has been perfectly
acceptable. "Shelf life, burst strength, and other tests we've done
have shown us this tray is up to the task," says Baxter. Another
advantage of the tray is nearly vertical sidewalls. "The angle of the
sidewall on other barrier foam trays is quite gradual," says Baxter.
"With this nearly straight up-and-down design, you can put a pound of
beef in a tray occupying twenty percent less space in the refrigerated
case. And a smaller tray costs less, too." Rotary-style MAP system
In CBB's plant, the newest development on the machinery side is the
installation last fall of a rotary-style evacuation/backflush/lidding
system from MAPfresh Inc. (Hilton Head, SC). The other four lines all
have in-line systems. Baxter says it's a little early to pronounce
final judgment on rotary vs in-line systems. But he does appreciate the
speed of the rotary machine , which is rated at 70 packs/min. "We have
it on cruise control at sixty-two packages per minute," says Baxter.
Baxter also values the heavy-duty construction of the rotary machine ,
and that power is supplied primarily by servo motors. "You have fewer
moving parts than with a chain-and-sprocket system," says Baxter. "Over
time, the rotary machines may prove a better way to go. It may prove
more durable." MAPfresh's Guy Foulkes says his firm has 16 patents on
the T-300 machine running at CBB.
It's an intermittent-motion machine
whose rotary platform is divided into four identical sections or
carriers. Each carrier has cavities that hold trays of meat and take
them through the gas-flushing and lidding process. Different sets of
cavity tooling make it possible to hold as many as five 1-lb trays in
each carrier. Carriers hold fewer trays when larger portions are being
packed. So far CBB has used the T-300 exclusively for 1-lb trays. The
beginning of the operation is automatic tray denesting by a Model 112
Portion-To-Pack system from Waldrup (Houston, TX). It uses rotary
shafts to cleanly separate the bottom tray from its nested stack. Then
a vacuum pick-up head reaches up, grabs the tray, and places it in a
lugged conveyor. This conveyor has a 90o direction turn on its
discharge end. Meanwhile, a vacuum stuffer/ portioner volumetrically
dispenses 1-lb loaves of ground beef onto a declining belt conveyor.
The conveyor is timed with the conveyor that delivers a tray just below
the end of the belt carrying the meat. A loaf on the belt triggers a
photocell that releases a tray to be in position for the meat to drop
into it. The filled trays are conveyed toward the T-300 machine from
MAPfresh. A "channelizer," or swing gate, directs the single-file trays
out to one of five positions. When all five positions are filled, the
five trays are pushed forward until they drop into the five cavities on
the carrier plate.
Once meat trays are securely in the carrier, the
table rotates first to an unused position, and then to the
evacuation/backflush/lidding station. In the fourth and final station
of the rotation, lidded trays are automatically lifted from their
cavities and sent down a roller conveyor to labeling. Two labelers
The first of two pressure-sensitive blow-down labelers on the line is
an older model that was moved over from another line. It applies a
paper pressure-sensitive label carrying the required nutrition
statement, fat/lean ratio, and cut of meat (sirloin, chuck, etc.).
"We've adopted a color-coding scheme on these labels that even our
private-label customers are initiating," says Baxter. "It helps the
shopper. If you like ground chuck, you get used to looking for an
orange label. For ground round, it's blue." The second labeler,
supplied by Bizerba (Piscataway, NJ), is a Model GS 7000
thermal-transfer weigh/ price unit that blows down a pressure-sensitive
label carrying price per pound and unit price. Preprinted on this label
are safe handling instructions. Between the two labelers is a metal
detector from Advanced Detection (Milwaukee, WI).
Exiting the second
labeler, packages drop onto a circular accumulation table. Three
operators hand-pack finished packages of ground beef into corrugated
shippers. The box size has been standardized for all tray sizes. It
holds 18 1-lb, 12 2-lb, eight 3-lb, four 5-lb or 12 trays of patties.
This shipper will be replaced soon, says Baxter, by a reusable plastic
tote. Case labeling is done by hand using labels printed by a nearby
thermal-transfer printer. Palletizing is done by hand, and the cases
are stacked 10-high. Pallets go into a holding cooler, where
temperatures are kept between 31o and 34oF. Product is shipped that
night on one of CBB's 80 refrigerated tractor/trailers. Temperatures,
says Saterbo, never go above 40oF. Now that CBB has established its
case-ready ground beef program, will whole-muscle meats be next? Both
Saterbo and Baxter indicate the answer is likely yes, though neither
specifies a time frame. But if they do expand beyond ground beef and
are successful with it, a contributing factor is sure to be their
willingness to experiment. "We're always open to trying new materials
and machines," says Baxter. "That's how we got to where we're at."