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Photo of ground beef on packaging tray

Clarity on Consumer Preferences Emerges in Study on Sustainable Ground Beef Packaging

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) and the Minnesota Beef Council (MBC) recently partnered on research centering around how ground beef packaging affects consumer perceptions of environmental impact.

The research partners set out to identify the most effective way to communicate messages about sustainable packaging of ground beef to prevent food waste. The study also analyzed how these findings can be of value in telling the story of the beef industry’s sustainability goals to consumers. The study attempted to identify the type of packaging that would most likely reduce food waste but also appeal to retail shoppers.

Kelly Schmidt, MBC’s executive director, says the results indicate that a disconnect exists between what consumers think is good for the environment and the actual environmental impact of different packaging materials.

“So how do we fix that? I think there are some labeling considerations and improved messaging that could result from this feedback,” Schmidt says. “Consumers know we are delivering a safe product, and as producers, we want to deliver ground beef in a way that matches consumer expectations as well as likes and dislikes.”

Achieving this goal is the second phase of a project AURI and MBC began in 2019. This continued analysis will hopefully increase consumer confidence in purchasing beef products and demonstrate the beef industry’s leadership in improving sustainability efforts.

To begin the analysis, AURI convened a series of focus groups at the product evaluation and sensory laboratory it operates at the Southwest Minnesota State University campus in Marshall, Minnesota. Dr. Claire Sand, a food packaging consultant, partnered with AURI and MBC on the project.

The participants were presented with packaged ground beef in a series of different prototypes and messaging stickers. The meat packaging featured elements like resealability, portioning, reduction in plastic, alternative packaging formats, and alternative packaging materials. The packaging prototypes were then given messaging that described the benefits of factors like shelf-life, disposal, and sourcing. The participants in the focus group then ranked the packages based on their preferences.

Several key takeaways emerged from the testing that related to messaging, packaging, and reduction of food waste.

Focus group participants reported a strong desire to clearly see the food through the packaging. In quality scores, smaller plastic and vacuum packaging was perceived to be of higher quality. Meat packaged in paper was viewed as more sustainable than plastic, but the focus group still ranked see-through plastic higher.

Packages that had a resealable pouch or a portion feature that allowed participants to use a selected amount of meat now and save or freeze the rest for later use also scored well. The focus group also gave high scores to packaging and materials that were made from recyclables and packaging that could be recycled.

Intelligent food packaging that monitors temperature and provides a shelf-life message when the food must be eaten right away, stored (e.g., frozen), or thrown out scored high with the focus group but did not replace their desire for product visibility. Respondents said more education is needed on how intelligent packaging works and that intelligent packaging would not replace their desire for a date code on ground beef.

To further distill the findings, researchers identified a “Sweet Spot” and a “Sour Spot” category based on the packaging with the lowest environmental impact and the highest consumer perception.

Packages that resonated with consumers on sustainability and those that were most sustainable were arranged into the sweet spot. The pouches that were vacuum packed, resealable, and/or divided into portions scored the highest.

In turn, the sour spot category had the highest environmental impact and the lowest consumer perception. The prototypes made of paperboard trays and PET trays with paper wrapping were assigned to the sour spot.

“A clear connection between a tight pack, which uses less plastic and does not have a tray, emerged from these conversations. I had not seen those results before. There was also a high premium on see-through plastic. Simply translated from the results, if consumers cannot see the whole product, they think that the retailer is trying to hide something,” says Sand.

Packages that gave participants the option to reseal the bag or had automatic portioning already built in also spoke to consumers, Sand observed. She attributes these results to the perception of freshness that see-through packaging presents.

“Consumers do not want to waste money by throwing food away after it has gone bad,” she explains. “I think the results were more ’pro clarity’ and not necessarily ’anti-paper,’” Sand continues.

One of the benefits to the beef industry with this study is that it underscores that consumers see strong value in fresh, quality products, notes John Schafer, the chair of the MBC’s research committee and a member of AURI’s board of directors. The MBC routinely invests in research that is categorized as either sustainability, innovation, or food safety. This project was in the sustainability category.

“Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. That is true in most aspects but especially in packaging,” Schafer says. “As an industry, we have made significant progress in improved packaging that is better for the environment. We have evolved. We can take that process further with this research as we hope to be better tomorrow than we are today.”
After reviewing the responses from the focus groups, the partners created a “road map” with recommendations for next steps and future research.

Below are a few potential next steps.

• Explore resources to expand the use of intelligent packaging.

•Explore the cost-benefit of intelligent packaging for retail beef and the higher cost impact on sales.

•Examine the cost of replacing trays with vacuum packaging pouches that reduce package material and prevent food waste.

Determine capital and equipment needs for beef processors to convert to resealable packaging.

•Determine capital and equipment needs for beef processors to convert to portion control packaging.

•Identify funding sources to advance recycling opportunities for ground beef packaging.

One complicating factor is coordinating across multiple value chain partners. The stores and shipping companies package the beef, so the industry must collaborate with its partners to implement some of these suggestions.

“Our role is to make sure we spread the word about what consumers are looking for and what kinds of packaging are more sustainable in the long run,” says Schmidt.

The results of this project verified something the MBC and the beef industry intuitively know, Schafer says.

“He concludes: ‘People want to see the ground beef when they are at the grocery store. They want to know what they are getting. That is such an important consideration that we as an industry need to be aware of.”