WASHINGTON -- As more fresh meat is sold case-ready, efforts to make that product "returnable container-ready" are moving ahead at a quickening pace.
More accurately, the focus is on making a better match between returnable shipping containers and consumer meat packaging.
In line with that, a group representing the reusable pallet and container industry later this month will issue a report detailing a foundation for expanding the use of returnable plastic containers to ship case-ready meat from the supplier to the supermarket.
The Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition report, based on input from representatives of supermarket, packer, container and logistics companies that make up the coalition's meat standards subcommittee, will address ways to make returnable container usage more feasible for retailers and their case-ready suppliers, said RPCC spokesman Eric Fredrickson.
"The end goal of the report is to develop a standard container specification that would allow the industry to move quickly into reusable containers," said Fredrickson, who is also sales and marketing manager for IPL Products, a company that has partnered with corrugated container manufacturer Georgia-Pacific to develop RPCs. "With the report, the coalition hopes to lay the groundwork for an easy transition to returnables that will benefit retailers, the group most likely to dictate any move to returnables."
Through the report, the coalition will make a case for the adoption of voluntary standards relating to the dimensions, design and usage of returnable containers for case-ready meat. By addressing these issues proactively, Fredrickson said, the coalition is hoping to avoid barriers to wider implementation stemming from simultaneous development of a multitude of container designs and usage mandates.
A lack of such standards has complicated efforts to introduce RPCs to other areas of supermarket distribution. For instance, although returnable usage is growing in fresh produce distribution thanks to the development of a standard container footprint, numerous container designs frustrate efforts to mix containers from multiple suppliers on a single pallet.
"We're trying to do a better job on the meat side, up front, by developing a more complete standard even earlier in the process," Fredrickson told SN.
Such standards are seen as essential to increasing the use of returnables in case-ready meat. Some estimates place the usage of returnables in the broad meat industry at 4% to 6%. But thanks to accelerating use of case-ready by large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kroger, which are represented on the coalition's subcommittee, the use of returnables in case-ready meat is growing at a faster clip and may already account for up to 15% of all case-ready shipped.
But even the early adopters have pursued different tracks on returnables, exposing the problems the coalition is trying to address. The chairman of the coalition's meat standards subcommittee, Jim Milligan, said Kroger's and Wal-Mart's container needs differ because of fundamental differences in their case-ready packs. Whereas Wal-Mart's use of modified atmosphere packing for case-ready ground beef allows the consumer packs to be stacked in deeper returnables, Kroger's use of traditional overwrapped ground beef trays precludes stacking, requiring a more shallow master returnable container.
"We've had to take those different packaging methods that are out there into consideration when coming up with our recommendations on container standards," Milligan said.
While details of the coalition's proposed standards won't be available until the report is released, Fredrickson hinted at some of the broad conclusions that have been reached. Most notably, the standards will call for use of an imperial, rather than a metric, size; a nestable design as opposed to a collapsible design, allowing for easier stacking and movement through the distribution loop; and avoidance of using containers interchangeably for transporting meat and fresh produce, to prevent cross contamination.
Fredrickson was less clear on where the report would come down on the crucial matter of container dimensions. Establishing a common footprint that allows the containers to be stacked on pallets in either a four-down or five-down configuration, though, will be an important consideration. The decision, he said, will have to take into consideration whether the containers should be sized for MAP packages or overwrapped consumer units.
Sizing of case-ready packages themselves is a tandem area that will likely have to be addressed. Marty Poetz, director of returnable containers for Tosca, Ltd., a company that handles the logistics of moving containers between supplier and retailer, said container sizing is limited because they have to fit a standard 48-by-40 pallet. The two most common sizes of returnables are 16-by-24 and 24-by-20. Container size, in turn, has to correspond to the case-ready pack size.
"Tray packs are designed for a thousand different sizes of corrugated boxes that are more flexible to construct, but tray packs don't cube up as well in the more rigid returnable plastic container design," said Poetz, a coalition subcommittee member. "So one of the areas that may have to be addressed in developing a standard are the tray sizes themselves."
The coalition report will likely buttress the returnable container industry's position that returnables are the wave of the future for the meat industry and its supermarket customers. Although the vast majority of case-ready meat is still shipped in corrugated and waxed-corrugated containers, the reusable container industry sees great opportunity in switching the industry to plastic containers.
In addition to relieving the supermarkets and their suppliers of container disposal issues, returnables also may provide a host of other benefits, according to the returnables industry. They include an ability to be ideal for floor-ready displays and more efficient cooling. Additionally, the case-ready supply chain, with a concentration of supply and close proximity to supermarket distribution centers, makes the logistics of moving returnables between supplier and retailer easier.
All things considered, Fredrickson argued, returnable containers could be a better choice than one-way containers, provided standardization issues can be solved.
"Case-ready meat is an ideal application for getting the most benefit out of reusable containers," he said. "The typical returnable container costs $5 compared to $1 for a one-way, but they can generate more savings over the long run as they're used more frequently."