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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Wegmans' fresh start in packaging

    The supermarket chain's new Keeps Fresh process sets the tone for the meat case of the future.

    In what appears to be a major development in Wegmans Food Markets' fresh meat marketing efforts, the Rochester, N.Y.-based chain launched in May a first-of-its-kind branded case-ready meat packaging process using heavy-duty plastic film that slows down deterioration and dramatically extends shelf life.

    Billed as a means of keeping meat and poultry fresh in the refrigerator several days beyond the normal two or three days offered by traditional foam tray packs, the Keeps Fresh debut "is probably the most aggressive move a major retail player has ever made toward vacuum-packaged 'purple meat,' and that's significant because everybody watches Wegmans," says one meat industry executive who requested anonymity.

    Indeed, the chain has held the attention of a growing legion of Wegmans observers in recent years. After it became the first supermarket chain in the country to introduce irradiated fresh ground beef under its own private label brand a little more than a year ago, the vast majority of the nation's other supermarket organizations quickly followed suit.

    Although officials from the privately held retailer declined to be interviewed for this article, the chain's Web site contains extensive consumer information about its new packaging application. Greater freshness, flexibility, and convenience are the key benefits described to consumers, who are instructed to refer to the "use or freeze by" date—which ranges from four or five days up to two weeks beyond the date of sale—when determining how long they can keep the meat and poultry in the refrigerator. Once packages are opened, meats must be treated like conventional fresh meat products that need to be cooked or frozen within two or three days.

    The packaging process works like this: The meat, which is vacuum-packed at the company's central processing facility (except for irradiated fresh ground beef patties, which are packaged at the supplier), is encased in heavy-duty plastic film that seals out oxygen while sealing in natural juices. The see-through film forms a protective barrier that lets the customer look at the meat before purchasing it.

    According to Wegmans, the smaller, portion-sized products cost the same as foam tray pack meat. Another bonus: the new packaging is leakproof and therefore cleaner in the shopping cart and the refrigerator.

    The leakproof aspect also gives Wegmans a leg up operations-wise, since sanitation is an important, albeit time-consuming, consideration. "Meat cases take a lot of time to wash, so there's real value with the packaging, which also improves their food safety position by eliminating risky bacteria counts," says Al Kober, retail director for Certified Angus Beef in Wooster, Ohio.

    "After testing the new process in a few stores, we found everybody from customers to meat department managers loved the new packages," Wegmans president Danny Wegman said in a statement. "The benefits were so clear that we decided this was the right direction."

    Realizing that oxygen-free, modified-atmosphere packaging may give some customers pause because of the meat's darker color, Wegmans points out that once the package is opened and the meat is exposed to oxygen, within a few minutes it will turn the same bright red they're used to seeing. The process is routinely referred to in the industry as "blooming."

    Best of all, according to perishables marketing specialist Mark Boyer, the meat and poultry will often taste better days later than when they were first brought home. "It amounts to a wet aging process where the product is sitting in a hermetically sealed environment, so any degradation that is happening is actually making the meat more tender. As a consumer anywhere near Wegmans," says Boyer, "it's the only thing I would buy."

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