Brainstorm: Processing In Cold Environments

The Food Manufacturing Brainstorm features industry experts sharing their perspectives on issues critical to the overall food industry marketplace. In the July/August issue, we ask: What is the most important consideration for manufacturers processing in cold or frozen environments?

The Food Manufacturing Brainstorm features industry experts sharing their perspectives on issues critical to the overall food industry marketplace. In the July/August issue, we ask: What is the most important consideration for manufacturers processing in cold or frozen environments?


Dennis Buehring, National Sales Manager, Nercon Eng. & Mfg., Inc.

Define the scope of the project including size, speed, durability, maintenance and labor impact. Examine those considerations and requirements within the specific temperatures required for handling the product. The temperature requirements on all or part of the production line have the greatest impact on how equipment used to process in cold environments needs to be engineered, from the layout to the level of automation.

Be aware that equipment that processes in cold environments is more likely to experience shortened life cycles due to the stress of extreme temperatures. It is imperative to ensure that all equipment components and lubricants used in cold environments are manufactured to specifications designed to meet the unique challenges of processing in cold and frozen environments. Heavy-duty motors and bearings built to withstand aggressive temperatures often feature a higher up-front price tag, but their use can save manufacturers valuable downtime and the lost revenue that accompanies it.

Walker Stockley, Marketing Director of Fresh Red Meat, Sealed Air Cryovac Food Packaging

Within the meat industry, the packaging environment is always cold in order to reduce bacteria growth and preserve product integrity. Therefore, the equipment and the packaging materials both have to withstand the rigors of a cold environment, typically around 40 °F or lower. This can be hard on the equipment, requiring constant lubrication and designs with sanitation considerations as well. Stainless steel construction is used so that equipment is free of rust and wash-down approved. Equipment also should provide for the protection of electrical components, and automatic oiling of wear parts. Cryovac brand equipment takes those considerations into all of the food packaging equipment designs, and also conducts testing in cold room environments to ensure proper operation.

Manufacturers must also consider packaging materials to use in cold or frozen environments. Beyond the equipment, the packaging materials sould be designed to resist flex-cracking in cold environments and properly seal and set in cold conditions as well. Many times, the finished package is sent through a freezing tunnel (brine chill, forced air, carbon dioxide or nitrogen) to either crust freeze or totally freeze a meat or processed food item. The greatest challenge is not the freezing but handling of the frozen package. Once frozen, the package is most susceptible to flex-cracking or the potential of the frozen product itself damaging the package if dropped or abused. Packaging materials must be evaluated in simulation exercises to ensure specifications are adequate for the application. If not, then material abuse resistance can be adjusted, or thickness increased to compensate. One example is shrink bags for the frozen turkey market, where good hot water shrink properties are necessary for a tight appearance, but the product is frozen hard and protected until most are sold during the holiday season.

Frozen products are also the most difficult to handle at the consumer level. In some situations, it is necessary to remove the packaging material prior to thawing and further processing. For this situation grip-and-tear bags can be used to mitigate consumer inconvenience. These bags can also be tinted blue to easily show the end user when all of the plastic has been removed from product, as in the case of boneless pork loins for export. This new packaging material — in combination with vacuum packaging and heat seal closure of shrink bags — can provide enhanced protection to frozen meats, whether for domestic or export trade, and with knifeless opening of the bag.

Mike Stuckey, Marketing Director, MeadwestVaco Food Packaging

The cold and frozen supply chain is a challenging environment because the product and its packaging can go through many different cycles of freezing and thawing before ultimately reaching the end consumer. For manufacturers processing in cold and frozen environments, it’s essential that packaging is made of high-quality, moisture-resistant materials that are able to withstand the rigors of the freeze-thaw cycle. While some manufacturers opt for coated-recycled board (CRB) because of its lower initial costs, studies have shown that due to its lower quality, recycled fiber does not hold up as well through the cold chain as certain paperboards made from virgin fibers. After five freeze-thaw cycles, CRB retained only 27 percent of its original strength, while MWV’s Custom Kote, made from renewably sourced virgin fibers, retained 46 percent of its original strength, according to a Michigan State University study. Lower quality packaging like CRB is also more likely to become twisted or damaged in packaging plants on the filling line, resulting in wasted product and costly delays.

Because moisture is a constant factor in shipping and transporting in the cold chain, packaging materials that retain strength under harsh conditions are critical to preventing unsaleables. In retail markets around the world, unsaleables account for billions of dollars in lost revenue every year. Consumer research studies in the U.S. have shown that 75 percent of shoppers reject packaged products that are ripped, torn, dented or scratched. And if the last item on the shelf is damaged, 29 percent may choose another brand. Packaging is, in essence, a billboard of a brand. If the package shows signs of damage, it reflects negatively on the brand and can impact brand loyalty. For competitive shoppers, “brand you trust” perception drops from 73 percent to 41 percent with even slight damage to a product’s package. Further, with just slight damage, 25 percent of the most brand-loyal shoppers question the safety of a product.

The look and feel of packaging also has an impact on what ends up in shopping carts. A recent study conducted by MWV and Moskowitz Jacobs Inc., an independent research firm, found that consumers were up to 18 percent more likely to buy products in cartons made with high-quality paperboard versus lower quality Solid Unbleached Sulfate (SUS) and CRB. Additionally, the study showed that consumers were willing to spend up to 12 percent more for their favorite food product when it came in better packaging, as the superior surface consistency and better ink holdout of higher quality paperboard materials were perceived by consumers to have higher quality graphics.

Through gathering these consumer insights, MWV has learned that choosing the right packaging for the cold chain is not only important for ensuring adequate packaging strength, but also impacts perception of brand quality, safety and cost.