This packaging method involves the use of a plastic pouch or bag made from materials that provide a strong barrier of protection against abrasion, moisture migration and gas permeability. Beef cuts are placed inside the plastic pouch, placed in a packaging machine that removes the residual air from the pouch and immediately seals the pouch to prevent air from returning to the package. The vacuum-packaged beef is usually placed in hot water for a brief time, which causes the excess edges of the pouch to shrink around the beef cut; improving the appearance and strength of the package. Because vacuum packaging removes the oxygen from the package, vacuum packaged beef cuts usually are purple-brown in color. Consumers are not accustomed to purchasing purple colored fresh beef, so vacuum packaging at retail is typically reserved for beef cuts that have a permanently fixed color. Fixed beef colors can result from cooking or curing. In recent years, consumers have begun to accept the vacuum packaging of a few beef cuts, including beef brisket. The lack of oxygen in the package greatly increases the case-life of vacuum packaged beef because of decreased oxidation.
Traditional Packaging - The most common form of fresh meat packaging at retail is called store wrap. Surveys show that approximately two-thirds of fresh meat packages are store wrap, but this number is declining each year due to the availability of case-ready packaging. This packaging technique received its namesake because bulk, vacuum-packaged beef is delivered, portioned and repackaged for display when it arrives at the retail store. The package consists of a foam tray, which holds the beef and absorbent pad, wrapped with a clear atmosphere permeable plastic film. The permeability characteristics of the film allow oxygen from the air to come in contact with the beef; changing the color of the beef from purple to red. This package type is very economical and utilizes cost-effective equipment. However, it possesses the shortest case-life among package types because the continued exposure to oxygen promotes oxidation and the lack of significant levels of carbon dioxide in air does not suppress spoilage bacteria growth. Other types of beef packaging can be found in the retail case. However, these package types can generally be classified as a form of vacuum packing or gas-flush modified atmosphere packaging.
Recent advances in case-ready packaging provide increased case-life as well as the opportunity for increased safety. Great strides have been made to increase the safety of beef products through the reduction of pathogenic (illness causing) bacteria. However, opportunities exist for processors to ensure the United States not only has the safest food supply in the world, but to routinely benchmark new standards of safety. Recent research has shown gas-flush modified atmosphere packaging decreases levels of harmful pathogenic bacteria in controlled, laboratory studies. On-going studies also are investigating the use of beneficial bacteria (like those used in yogurt) in ground beef to destroy pathogens that may be present in beef. The United States continues to enjoy the safest food supply in the world. Because of technological advances funded and investigated by dedicated industry and government entities, U.S. consumers continue to enjoy wholesome, nutritious beef products with enhanced quality and longer shelf-life.