Frozen food packaging began in the 1920s when Clarence Birdseye developed methods for quick-freezing foods. Through my 37 years in the packaging industry, I have witnessed many changes in the frozen food industry, including the types of package styles and materials used. Most changes have been spurred by improved technology, but today we are facing a whole new set of challenges. One constant issue that has never fully been resolved is the price challenge. In fact, it has become even more of an issue considering strong private label price competition as well as the ever-growing e-commerce marketplace and consumer demand for more sustainable materials.
Changes over time have been the types of package styles used, the types of materials used and the functions that the package serve. These changes were brought on by the evolving eating habits of consumers who are “on the go” and looking for convenience. We have gone from basic pillow-style bags with one vegetable that consumers would cook on the stove top to stand-up pouches containing mixed vegetables, potentially sauced to entire meals in a bag. Shoppers have been conditioned to expect their frozen vegetables and fruits available all year round, not just during the growing season. Consumers also want microwave cooking capabilities with resealable features on the bags and at a low price.
As the structural designs used in frozen food packaging have changed, the function of the package has evolved. With the rise in microwave cooking, the design of the package has changed and has taken on a significantly larger function in the preparation of frozen foods. One of the original packages used with our Green Giant vegetables is our BIB line. Initially the BIB stood for Boil in Bag, but now with the use of steam release technology the BIB stands for Bag in Box. The bag/pouch was originally a plain unprinted bag designed to be placed in boiling water. Now the bag is preprinted with steam release technology built into the film to allow for microwave cooking.
The change in the pouch design was required for microwave cooking. This package change or evolution can be categorized as improved technology. The frozen food industry, as with other industries today, has to stay current with new technologies that offer convenience to consumers.
Another change in the use of plastics in the frozen food industry is lidding film for frozen meals. Previously, the consumer had to cut slits in the top film, remove the film and stir, and then hope the food temperature was sufficient or end up cooking the product longer. Today with the use of refined lidding stock materials and differing perforation patterns for different products in the same package, we no longer have to cut slits, remove the top film and stir, and reheat. Some lidding films can even be resealable.
There are also new challenges to address, including working with e-commerce business and sustainability demands. The ecommerce business has not hit full force in the frozen food industry, but it needs to be addressed quickly as more people shop from home, and multiple companies are providing delivery and pick-up services. The other challenge currently being addressed is sustainability. There are a few things being implemented to minimize our carbon footprint, including right-sizing our packages and the light-weighting of films, but more and more, companies are pledging to use totally recyclable materials by 2025. While larger companies have research and development groups working on sustainable films, others don’t have the budget or manpower to pivot that quickly.
One project I was recently involved with was the use of a plastic tray to hold a prepared vegetable side dish. This dish in the tray weights approximately 1 lb. and is to be microwaved for a few minutes. However, because of the various microwave wattage strengths, the consumer could be cooking the package from 5 to 8 minutes. To cook the product thoroughly, the required temperature has to be reached, and the function of the lidding stock is to provide enough heat from the internal steam pressure to heat the product. It took several rounds of lab testing to show we had to increase the thickness of the tray to meet our required overall results. I understand sustainability and packaging reduction which cuts packaging costs, but how many consumer complaints does that cause? There is a fine line between sustainability, cost savings and customer satisfaction.
When looking to be sustainable in your frozen foods area, work with your film suppliers and be aware of what is occurring in the marketplace. While many in the industry are participating in multiple sustainability task forces, the question remains at what price can companies afford to move to a recyclable plastic-film material? The current challenge is that the industry does not have enough recycled plastic film to provide a cost-efficient material to all food companies, and at this point the recycling is front of store at only limited locations. As we move toward the future, the evolution of the frozen food packaging space will continue as will the challenges and solutions.