New vacuum-skin packaging keeps meat safe for Superior Farms

Linda Casey

March 11, 2015

13 Min Read
New vacuum-skin packaging keeps meat safe for Superior Farms

Superior Farms Inc. specializes in high-quality lamb products and has served retailers and foodservice operators since its founding in 1963. The employee-owned company has grown significantly with offices in Boston, Denver, and Davis and Dixon, CA. But its growth has always been impeded by one fact: Lamb is a challenging product to sell in the U.S.

“Lamb has traditionally been the slowest moving item in the meat counter,” remarks Greg Feinberg, president of Aisle 9, the packaging design and development agency who helped Superior Farms launch its newest product line. Nancy Mamann, vp of the agency, adds, “In fact, lamb accounts for less than 2 percent of total meat sales.”

A study commissioned by the American Lamb Board, sought to find out why lamb doesn’t move as quickly as other meat products. The study looked at the purchasing habits of men and women between the ages of 21 and 54. The study found that only one in eight respondents has prepared lamb within the past three months and as little as one in five reported that they ate lamb but did not prepare lamb in their home. One of the purchasing barriers cited was the perception that lamb can be difficult to prepare.

To overcome this purchasing barrier, Superior Farms has developed a line of lamb products named Mediterranean Grill. The product line comprises pre-seasoned, pre-marinated lamb products, including leg of lamb, beef and lamb kabobs, lamb skewers and lamb leg steaks. Aisle 9 was brought in to help Superior Farms draw attention to the new product line and educate consumers with packaging that went beyond the traditional tray and stretch wrap.

Captivating consumers’ attention
“With only a small section of the meat case dedicated to lamb, we were looking for a packaging solution that would be dynamic and attract attention,” Angela Gentry, marketing manager for Superior Farms recalls.

“Superior Farms came to us with the idea that if they could offer a pre-seasoned, pre-marinated series of SKUs to the consumer, they could boost lamb sales,” Mamann explains. “And we then went to work on overcoming that challenge of how do we bring this front and center?”

“The meat counter is a unique part of a store,” says Feinberg. “The meat counter has always been a very traditional and staid part of the store, and it offers very little opportunity to differentiate your brand. This is unlike aisles where you can have more signage and point-of-purchase displays and other ways to grab attention to a product.

“There were other aspects that we looked at when designing that go beyond the look and feel,” he adds. “I know from my experience in the packaging industry that I found too many times that [other agencies’] designs looked great but were totally nonfunctional. It was just not workable, or it was too expensive. This is almost like a concept car, where it looks great but you can never put the car on the road.
“You have to look at the structure and the graphics equally,” he remarks. “Issues such as: ‘What ships easiest?’ ‘What’s most economical to build?’ ‘How is it packed out?’ ‘How do we palletize it correctly?’ and ‘How does it fit within the meat counter?’ These are all things that we account for in our design process.”

Proofs and prototypes
Explaining how the package format was decided upon, Mamann says, “Our process started from the ideation of what the client wants to bring to market, to best structure and best design and best application, and where does it need to go so we can chose the best print supplier that’s in our arsenal of vendors.”

It recommended package printer, Warneke Paper Box Co., which took the initial designs files and refined them using EskoArtwork’s ArtiosCAD.

The software has dedicated structural design tools specifically for packaging professionals, product development, virtual prototyping and manufacturing. It integrates graphic design files into CAD design files and features three-dimensional (3D) design tools to enable quick folding of the final folded design for even complex designs with curved creases. Fold angles and matching of multiple design elements can be controlled for quality control inspection of folds, tucks, flaps, inserts and fitments.

The software can be used to visualize the assembly and folding sequence of designs, create assembly instructions and assembly animation movies, and create 3D models of primary products, such as cans, bottles, glasses and bags. It also can automatically calculate sheet layouts that have minimum production costs and quickly create die boards and coating blankets from a sheet layout for flat and rotary dies.

ArtiosCAD also has a full relational database that enables easy and flexible searching for design criteria, and easy creation of reports that automate formatting based on the items and information required, including 3D thumbnails, and bill of material reports that can be generated on multi-part design projects with the click of a button.

After the designs are refined in ArtiosCAD, prototypes are digitally manufactured using a flatbed plotter. After the structure prototype is approved, Warneke moves the ArtiosCAD files into its ArtPro and Nexus systems, also from EskoArtwork. Packaging preproduction editor software ArtPro gives Warneke’s prepress operators color separation tools within an environment of color predictability. It also utilizes high-level trapping algorithms in its Instant Trapper and PowerTrapper tools. Nexus is a modular workflow system with four core modules: NexusImport, NexusProcessor, Nexus PDF Processor and NexusRIP, which automates front-end and raster image processing tasks. From this system, operators output plates to the printer’s Creo, now a part of Kodak’s Graphic Communications Group, Spectrum computer-to-plate and proofing system.  

The Trendsetter Spectrum system comprises a semi-automatic Trendsetter platesetter equipped with a digital halftone color proofing option. This enables wet and dry plates as well as contract colors proofs to be imaged on the same machine using SquareSpot technology, which can reproduce intricate features as well as fine highlight and shadow details with high repeatability. Using the same input file, resolution, screen ruling, screen angles and spot function, as well as the same imaging system and drum to image plates and proofs also helps eliminate surprises when jobs are placed on press.

In addition to the multiple hard proofs made in the prepress stage, Aisle 9 also conducted press-side proofing as the job was lithographically printed on SBS board. Warnecke used a Speedmaster CD 102 press from Heidelberg USA Inc. to print and aqueous coat the sleeves. Being a full-size press, the CD 102 accepts sheets up to 28.35 in × 40.16 in. in a wide range of thicknesses, from 0.0012 to 0.039 in. Presses can be built in two to 10 printing units configurations integrating up to two coating units and two drying units; Warneke’s CD 102 is a 6-color press that includes an inline coater.
Printed sheets are die cut using a SP106PER high-speed sheetfed cutter from Bobst Group North America Inc. It boasts a throughput of 12,000 sheets/hr and has an ultra-high-precision Power Register sheet-feed system. After die-cutting, printed sheets are glued by a Bobst Domino 110M-II-Matic computer controlled automated gluing system into finished paperboard sleeves. Sleeves are shipped to Superior Lamb’s meatpacking facilities in Dixon and Denver.

From skins to sleeves
The meatpacking lines in California and Colorado are similar; the Denver line is detailed here. Paperboard sleeves are received as glued flats, which are manually erected by workers. Workers also manually apply an expiry sticker to each erected sleeve. The sleeves then are stacked and staged near a Glue Machinery Corp. Shot Pot hot melt glue system.

Another set of workers hand-trims marinated, vacuum tumbled lamb into semi-rigid PVC trays. These trays are supplied by Packall Packaging Inc. as a semi-rigid forming web of black PVC laminated to a high barrier EVOH sealant with an easy open feature.

To cover the trays, Superior Lamb uses from vacuum skin packaging (VSP) film from Curwood, a Bemis Co. Inc. “Superior Farms had already chosen the packaging format for the product,” remarks Brian J. Conrad, marketing manager for Curwood. “However, we helped them improve the format with our vacuum skin packaging film. The key features of our skin film are the ability to resist bone punctures, extend shelf life, hold the product in place and protect the meat during distribution, and the clarity of the film to allow the consumer to see the product.

“Our skin film also allowed Superior Farms to remove a boneguard cloth they were using to cover the bones,” he adds. “Removing the boneguard cloth saves them the cost of the boneguard cloth and the labor to apply it. The package not only saves on material going to the landfill, it also looks better as a result. So retailers receive a package that is case ready, which means no additional labor is required to package the product for sale to the consumer. Also, the barrier vacuum packaging extends the display life of the product compared to expanded polystyrene (EPS) trays with PVC overwrap.”

The skin packaging is applied to the trays using a Multivac Inc. R275, which wraps the top shrink web around the product like a second skin before heat-sealing the bottom and top web together.

The machine first evacuates the air in the chamber and the web of filled trays. The top web then absorbs heat from a dome within the machine and becomes formable. Air is flowed gently to relax the web and drop the material over the lamb and the bottom web. The dome then opens enabling the top web to shrink skin-tight around all product and tray contours. This results in the top and bottom webs being heat sealed to the very edges of the packaging.

The total surface sealing also prevents juice migration and guards against freezer burn if consumers choose to freeze the lamb after purchase. This is done with high productivity as the R275 can accommodate up to two rows of packages in depths up to 50 mm and heights up to 95 mm.

Jerry Hirsh, manager of marketing communications for Multivac, says the top web also enhances the visibility of textures in fresh meat products. This is especially noticeable in products such as Superior Lambs, which are preseasoned.

In addition to the merchandising and shelf-life benefits, Hirsh says that the vastness of the seal helps prevent meat waste and returns. “In the meat business particularly, there can be a lot of returns from retailers because of what the meat industry calls ‘leakers’ or packages with bad seals,” he explains.
Certainly, the large seal area was part of the packaging’s appeal for Dave Lipsitt, technology development manager for Superior Farms. “Everywhere that there isn’t product, there’s a seal,” he remarks.

After being skin-packed, product is conveyed to the hot-melt adhesive application station via Dorner Mgf. Corp 7400 series conveyors. These sanitary conveyers are mounted on a continuous TIG-welded 304 stainless-steel frame and can handle loads up to 20 lbs/sq ft.

At the hot-melt adhesive station, line operators use a Shot Pot hot-melt system to apply a bead of adhesive to the inside of each paperboard sleeve. Onto this bead of adhesive, operators manually place a skin-packed tray, but in a more ergonomic and efficient way than hand gluing.

“Dave Lipsitt called about hand-gluing applications,” recalls Pierce Covert, president of Glue Machinery Corp. “We mentioned our Shot Pot system, which they could use to apply a bead of adhesive on the carton flaps, fold and compress it very quickly.

“Compared to manual handguns, the Shot Pot system is substantially more expensive,” he adds. “But our experience has shown that the cartoning is much more precise; the cost of the glue is much less; and the assembly process is three to four times faster than using a handgun system. It will never be as fast as a high speed cartoner, but for a thousand dollars and the labor of one operator, the actual gluing process still only takes seconds. And this equipment is extremely simple to operate and maintain.”

Part of the system’s high productivity and precision, Covert says, is due to the low-pressure of which the adhesive is dispensed. This, he explains, enables operators to apply a range of low- to medium-viscosity hot melt adhesives at low pressure. Actuation of a foot switch triggers a solenoid in the unit that pressurizes the tank. Pressurized adhesive then quickly flows past the check valve subassembly attached to the bottom of the melt tank and through a nozzle tip.

The Shot Pot has a 3.5-lb capacity, Teflon-lined hot-melt tank and is capable of 3- to 5-lb/hour melt rates depending on the adhesive. It has a thermostatically adjustable temperature controller and a removable melt grid in the bottom of the tank. Power and compressed air requirements are 120 VAC, 800 watts and 30 to 90 psi, respectively. It has a small footprint at 17-in. h x 15-in. w x 16-in d.

After skin-packed product is adhered to sleeves, it is checked using an Ishida WPL-5000 to ensure that no underweight packages are sent to retailers. The WPL-5000 is a compact machine, which is supplied by Heat and Control Inc. in the U.S., and built from stainless steel that enables tool-less removal of conveyors for easy cleaning. The machine dynamically checks the weight of each Mediterranean Grill package as it is being conveyed from the hot-melt station to the metal detector.

The checkweigher has a 10.4-in. color touch panel for ease of operation and an icon-based error message system. The machine also has high-speed labeling features, which Superior Farms is not using for this product line. These features include top- and under-labeling at speeds up to 10 in./sec.

Metal detection is done by a Goring Kerr machine (the brand and metal detector technology is now fully integrated into Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.) before workers manually pack product into cases.

The corrugated two-color cases, which are supplied by xpedx, a div. of Intl Paper. Made from SFI-certified fiber, the boxes are single-wall constructed and edge-crush tested at 40 lbs/sq in. with a gross weight limit of 80 lbs.

Operators use a 3M taper to close the cases before applying a p-s finished goods label. Product pallets are built manually and then held in a chiller for 24 hours before shipment.

Reorders rolling in
The product is distributed to major retailers and their distribution centers across the U.S. at a price point of less than $10 per package. At time of publication, Superior Lamb reports that Mediterranean Grill has been picked up by several Walmart DCs, Shaw’s Supermarkets on the East Coast, Brookshire’s Food and Pharmacy stores in Texas, Albertsons in Southern California; and Raley’s, Save Mart Supermarkets and Lucky Supermarkets in Northern California.

“Everyone had slow orders at first, but now we’ve got some really great success stories,” remarks Gentry. “We’re getting reorders from all of those major retailers. So it’s really exciting for us because I think that the new packaging can definitely draw in new customers who don’t normally buy lamb and show them how delicious it can really be.”

Aisle 9, 310/857-1060.
3M, 888/364-3577.
Bobst Group North America Inc., 973/226-8000.
Curwood, a Bemis Co. Inc., 800/544-4672.
Dorner Mfg. Corp., 800/397-8664.
EskoArtwork, 937/454-1721.
Glue Machinery Corp., 888/202-2468.
Heat and Control Inc., 800/227-5980.
Heidelberg USA Inc., 770/419-6600.
Kodak Graphic Communications Group, 866/563-2533.
Multivac Inc., 816/891-0555.
Packall Packaging Inc., 800/965-3314.
Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., 800/678-5599.
Warneke Paper Box Co., 800/437-8588.
xpedx, a div. of Intl Paper, 513/965-2900.


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