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 interchange) link. 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 machine 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."