More Sustainable Packaging Solutions for Ground Beef

Consumer demand is driving the food industry to reassess its sustainability practices. Everything from environmentally responsible farming methods to providing consumers with supply chain transparency are now on the table. Consumers increasingly want to know the impact their eating habits have on the environment and how to lessen that impact through their purchases.

The Minnesota Beef Council is focused on illustrating sustainability improvements in the industry and researched consumer perceptions on ground beef packaging. Last year, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) in partnership with Dr. Claire Sand of Packaging Technology and Research (PTR) published a report titled “More Sustainable Packaging Solutions to Improve Consumer Confidence in Ground Beef.” Beef Checkoff dollars funded the project.

“Packaging used currently by the ground beef industry has been around for a while,” says John Schafer, the research council chair for the Minnesota Beef Council and AURI board member. “So, that was a logical starting place to see what the current situation is and what opportunities there might be, then let the research determine what practices are more sustainable than perceived to be.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, cattle production is the second largest livestock sector in the state. Last assessed in 2017, it provided 26,945 jobs to the state with an output impact of $4.2 billion. Minnesota’s beef production engages other economic sectors outside of agriculture such as manufacturing, transportation and insurance. In short, beef has a large impact in Minnesota.

The primary objective of this research project was to improve consumer confidence in beef through identification and refinement of more sustainable packaging solutions. By altering a product’s packaging, there is potential for reducing its environmental impact, reducing food waste and better illustrating the emphasis the industry overall is placing on sustainable practices.

“The beef industry has made significant improvements in terms of its environmental footprint,” says Jason Robinson, business development director for AURI’s food team. “These more sustainable packaging options are really meant to improve consumer confidence by creating a tangible and visual connection between the beef industry’s environmental footprint improvements and the product that is on the shelf today.”

The Minnesota Beef Council has been a key stakeholder for AURI since its establishment by the Minnesota Legislature in 1989. To initiate the project, AURI responded to an open research call for proposals. After some preliminary research into current projects conducted on packaging options for beef, AURI submitted a proposal for two phases of research.

The new report covers the first phase of research and focuses on consumer perceptions of a package’s sustainability factors versus quantitative life cycle analysis of the package. Plans for a second phase hope to dive deeper into the packaging’s correlation to food waste.

Research Methodology and COVID Pivot

This research project employed three methods: concept development, consumer evaluation and environmental impact profiling of the packaging concepts. The team’s plan was to develop multiple packaging concepts for ground beef that would undergo both in-person consumer review and qualitative analysis of its environmental impact. Consumer feedback would take place at AURI’s new Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Laboratory in Marshall, Minn. This would allow a sample of Minnesota consumers to physically examine and interact with the packaging prototypes.

Like much of the world, the project was forced to pivot in response to the COVID19 pandemic. The platform Howspace, a digital social learning collaboration tool, was used to conduct remote consumer reviews.

Concept development of the more sustainable packaging started with an understanding of prior research. The concepts sought to align with what is already known about ground beef consumers and sustainability practices. The project team consulted two primary pieces of research: the “Ground Beef Package Design Analysis” report supplied by the Minnesota Beef Council and a literature review of consumer testing and research associated with consumer views on sustainable packaging. Considerations include recycle-ready systems, sustainable sourcing of bioderived recyclable material, and the reuse and minimizing of packaging.

“More sustainable packaging for the meat industry is viewed entirely differently than in any other industry or produce,” says Dr. Claire Sand. “And that’s because the needs of the product and sometimes the value of the product come into play.”

Dr. Claire Sand and PTR brought experience with prior meat category project work. Because beef is a higher value product the sustainability of the packaging must balance against its ability to preserve shelf life. For this reason, researchers developed packaging concepts with consideration of the value chain’s needs from production to consumer as well as sustainability attributes, including sourcing and disposal options. Finally, a global review of meat packaging enabled an applicability assessment of these solutions to ground beef packaging.

In total, AURI and PTR developed six packaging options for testing. These concepts included (1) paper tray with paper-plastic overwrap, (2) clear tray with mesh overwrap, (3) chub-in-a-box, (4) chub with paper-plastic overwrap, (5) card with a skin pack and (6) a minimized plastic bag. Assessment also included the common expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) tray package that many providers currently use. Additionally, researchers examined elements such as assorted colors and a “freshness indicator,” an example of intelligent packaging, used to better communicate the ground beef’s remaining shelf life.

Participants evaluated digital renderings of the packaging concepts across several metrics to gauge their perception of eco-friendliness. The digital platform then used artificial intelligence to help the researchers correlate the feedback.

In total, 25 Minnesota consumers participated in the study. The demographics were 80 percent female and 20 percent male with the average age of 54. All participants indicated an interest in more sustainable food packaging during screening. Over half of the respondents used ground beef on a weekly basis.

The final element of the research involved environmental impact profiling, or life cycle assessment, which assesses the packaging concepts’ environmental impact to compare with the current EPS trays. This assessment also took into consideration technical feasibility as well as the logistical needs of the packaging to fit within a value chain.

“The methodology focused on marrying the quantifiable environmental impact through life cycle analysis with consumer perceptions to arrive at the recommendations outlined in the report,” says Robinson. The life cycle assessment provided a quantitative analysis of the packaging’s environmental impact from its source to end life. Researchers assessed the different packaging solutions from raw materials to end of life destination, whether that be recycling or landfill. Metrics included climate change, water use volume and land use impact.

More Sustainable Options

Results indicated consumers felt all six packaging concepts created for this research were more eco friendly than the current overwrapped EPS tray package, an opinion the life cycle assessment contradicts. However, the EPS tray option actually ranked as one of the best among the more sustainable approaches due to the lower amount of plastic utilized for it.

“So, there is a big opportunity to take the existing package, which is one of the more sustainable options because it’s a lot of air, and just communicate that to consumers in a meaningful way. That was a big ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Dr. Sand.

This realization put into stark contrast the difference between consumer perceptions versus the science. Only two of the packaging concepts had a lower environmental impact than the EPS tray: the chub with paper-plastic overwrap and the minimized plastic bag. While neither are recyclable, the reduction in plastic means the packaging is more sustainable over its life cycle by requiring fewer resources from creation to disposal.

When presented with uncolored versions of package concepts meant to mimic a natural-looking kraft paper, 83 percent of consumers considered this packaging as the most sustainable versus other colors assessed. The presence of a “freshness indicator” went over very well with consumers, with participants stating they would pay an average of $1.00 more for the “freshness indicator” for one pound of ground beef. It is understood that the indicator connects with consumers to improve food safety, thus reducing food waste.

Overall, consumer perception of the more sustainable packaging options did not align with the actual environmental impact. The report provides recommendations to the beef industry to bridge this gap between perception and reality. Actionable steps include using elements like the kraft paper color to improve consumer perception of packaging’s sustainability, incorporating recycled paper as part of the existing overwrap for chub packaging, and advocating for curbside recycling of polystyrene.

“The important part of the research – like any other research project – is to show the reality of the sustainable packaging crossed with the consumer perspective,” says Kelly Schmidt, chief executive officer for the Minnesota Beef Council. “We need to look at all aspects of the product to gain more understanding of how beef plays a role in a more sustainable market. The more we learn, the more we can be strategic about how we move forward.”

According to John Schafer, more sustainable packaging is the future. While this research is specific for ground beef, takeaways from the report could be insightful to other industries and products.

“This project focused on reducing food waste, specifically of ground beef, but I think in the entire food industry sustainability and packaging are going to get a lot of attention,” says Schafer. “Can it be simplified? Can it improve shelf life? Are there ways we can reduce the amount of packaging used? Are there ways that packaging can be better recycled? Are there ways, for example, some of the plastic can be compostable that would naturally degrade? I see a tremendous number of opportunities in this area. I am fairly confident that within the next 10-15 years there will be a lot of innovation in food packaging.”

Read the full report on more sustainable packaging solutions for ground beef at www.auri.org.

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