Vegan minced meat from Vantastic Foods in paper-based eTray: plant-based meat alternative, packaged under modified atmosphere in a resource-saving manner

17 November 2020

Those who opt for plant-based foods are no longer an exotic species. More and more
people are either consistently vegetarian or vegan, or have become flexitarian, meaning
that they occasionally and consciously decide not to eat meat products. Experts see this
change not as a short-term hype, but as a real megatrend that will prevail. This is also
due to contemporary plant-based alternatives, which come so close to their meat-based
role models in both taste and consistency that refraining from meat no longer has to go
hand in hand with a significant decline in enjoyment.
Among the suppliers in the premium vegan segment is the brand Vantastic Foods, which belongs to the medium-sized company Absolute Vegan Empire (AVE) in Nabburg, Bavaria. The group’s latest development is vegan minced meat, in no way inferior to its carnal
alternative. With eTray, another contemporary innovation, Ponnath found the right,
resource-saving packaging solution. By setting up a joint project, the launch of the
product in its brand-new packaging was realized within the shortest period of time.
Around the market launch, all parties involved came together at Ponnath’s production
facility in Freiburg to make up the balance, discuss expectations and to peak into the
future. We spoke with Michael Ponnath (CEO of the Ponnath Group), Michael Schertl
(CEO at AVE), Michael Ascherl (Managing Director Production Technology at Ponnath
GmbH), Frank Mayerhofer (Manager Sales & Marketing at MPV GmbH, Ponnath’s sales
division), Robert Richter (Plant Manager at Ponnath GmbH), Karl-Peter Jaun (CEO at
Jaun-Neoform GmbH) and Clemens Berres (Area Sales Manager at Sealpac GmbH).

Ponnath is a family company with a history that dates back to the year 1692. What motivated the company, traditionally a butcher, to open up the plant-based food business?

Michael Ponnath (MP): Basically, consumer behaviour is becoming more diverse. We expect less meat consumption in the coming years, causing an increasing demand for plant-based alternatives. Also, within the meat segment, we detect a move in the direction of more conscious, responsible eating patterns. We are convinced that meat products will continue to have their justification and will remain in demand, but it is clear that in the future we will not be able to feed the growing world population with animal proteins alone. As a sustainable food producer, we aim at the future. The vegan and vegetarian division fits very well in our philosophy and makes up an excellent addition to our range of meat specialties. The focus of the Ponnath Group is clearly on those two pillars.

Michael Schertl (MS): The exciting thing is that the area of plant-based proteins is no longer a niche market or an ideological segment. We are dealing with a trend that has become mainstream. In Germany alone, next to seven million vegetarians and one million vegans, there are approximately 17 million flexitarians that like to consume plantbased meat alternatives occasionally. They have adjusted to the eating habits of vegans and vegetarians, but still do not completely give up meat. The segment of vegetarian and vegan products grew by 32% compared to the previous year, mainly due to buyers on the flexitarian side. We expect these numbers to continue to rise worldwide, resulting in a market share of up to 40% for „green foods“. Even fast food providers nowadays add plant-based alternatives to their menus. If it does not go at the cost of enjoyment, it will be easier to turn to meat alternatives. With the products that we sell under the Vantastic Foods brand, we have succeeded to convert taste deficits into real taste experiences.

Vegan minced meat sounds like a special product. What should we imagine?

MS: The 100% vegan mince is produced on the basis of soy proteins. It also contains other herbal ingredients, such as coconut fat and natural spices. The product does not differ visually or sensorially from minced meat and offers the same kitchen use, e.g. for lasagne or pasta Bolognese.

Robert Richter (RR): In our production area, there is a daily quality check by the product development department, which consists of trained butchers. We received extremely positive feedback with regard to taste, consistency and appearance. The product is widely accepted.

Frank Mayerhofer (FM): Incidentally, all of our vegan products do very well in independent tests. They are regularly awarded with prizes and attract substantial attention from influencers, such as well-known television chefs. How did this extraordinary product get its appropriate packaging?

Michael Ascherl (MA): That was the next piece in the puzzle. We wanted the packaging concept to underline the sustainability of the product, so eTray came at the right time ...

Karl-Peter Jaun (KPJ): The basic idea of eTray  was to reduce the amount of plastic of the tray, suitable for meat products, to a minimum. The packaging components, in this case a mixture of a cardboard base and plastic inlay, also had to be 100% recyclable. We succeeded in doing this with eTray, which we as Jaun-Neoform developed together with SEALPAC.

Clemens Berres (CB): Shortly before, SEALPAC had already successfully launched FlatSkin, a fibre-based skin packaging system for meat products. Here, a flat cardboard carrier is used with a thin plastic layer. Soon, our customers asked for alternatives when running products that are not suitable for skin packaging and require MAP. It was important for us that, when applying alternative packaging, the consumer immediately recognizes the need for and simplicity of separating the pack into its cardboard and plastic parts. The company Jaun-Neoform presented us with a matching concept. Another crucial aspect for us was that our customers, the food manufacturers, should be able to implement the packaging innovation without major investments, so on their existing equipment and preferably with their existing tooling.

KPJ: eTray is a paper-based modified atmosphere packaging system, which starts with a cardboard base that can be printed in highest quality on both sides. It has a thin plastic inner layer that purely provides the sealing and barrier function. Compared to common trays in the market, between 40% and 60% less plastic will be used, depending on shape and size. eTray® is suitable for various fresh food products. By using mono PP instead of PET for the inner layer, the concept fulfils the latest guidelines in German food retail, which requires packaging materials based on polyolefins. Both components are fully recyclable. After removing the product, the cardboard base and plastic inner layer are easily separated, for example by squeezing the tray together. As such, they can be disposed of in their appropriate recycling bins.

CB: It is important to communicate this message to the consumer. With eTray, there is plenty of space for storytelling due to the double-sided printability of the cardboard base. In this case, for example, after taking out the product, the instructions for correct separation and disposal, which are printed on the bottom of the tray, become visible through the transparent plastic inlay.

Which aspects prevailed in your decision for eTray?

MA: We immediately recognized the match between our sustainable product and this resource-saving packaging solution. However, product safety is always our main priority, so 100% process reliability when running the trays on our packaging equipment was mandatory. In addition, we demanded that the new packaging system would have the same barrier properties as a pure plastic tray. With regard to the packaging machine, its reliability and performance at highest cycle rates, which we already knew from other SEALPAC equipment that we have, proved decisive. Due to our trusted partnership, which exists for decades, we had the courage to break new ground here together. And fast too: it only took six weeks from the decision to start the project to the delivery of the equipment.

CB: At IFFA 2019, we presented eTray for the very first time. In those days, the inlay was produced from PET. In order to meet the various requirements of our customers in fresh and processed meat, we also developed eTray with a PP inlay. After we were able to inspire the company Ponnath with the idea, we implemented the project in record time. A SEALPAC A7 traysealer with 5-impression tooling for eTray in 190 x 144 mm size is now present at Ponnath’s factory in Freiburg. Of course, this machine and tooling configuration is also capable of sealing conventional plastic trays in 190 x 144 mm size.

KPJ: We worked jointly on the development of the paper-based tray. The adhesion between a natural product like cardboard and a plastic film is not that easy. PP is also a softer material and shrinks more than PET in the sealing process. From the start, the challenge was to combine the two materials in a reliable way, but without neglecting their separability after use.

RR: We are quite satisfied with the new packaging. eTray allows for fully automatic denesting and filling, as well as highly reliable sealing. It was our goal to achieve the right overall package: performance of the traysealer, productivity, price and efficiency – and naturally service and support. That is given in this partnership.

How will the food industry develop in terms of plant-based alternatives, but also in terms of overall sustainability?

MS: The minced meat segment is huge in Germany. With our vegan version, we have been able to create a product that can compete with its meat-based original in terms of quality, appearance, sensory properties and taste. Our research & development activities with regard to plant-based proteins will continue, because we are certain that in the future there will be plant-based alternatives in every major food segment.

FM: Due to the situation with regard to resources, we expect a „green revolution“ in the entire food industry. The strong growth will remain.

MP: We ensure that we acquire our ingredients, such as soy, from responsible sources, because at Ponnath quality starts with the selection of the raw materials. Sustainability and responsibility are just as important in our traditional business, which is the production of high-quality meat products. To this end, we recently started our Ponnath Traditionshof program, with which we promote increased animal welfare by using species-appropriate, healthy animals and by preserving the traditions of farming. With selected farmers, we implement comprehensive animal welfare criteria concerning keeping, feeding and processing. This includes 100% more space for the animals, floors covered with organic materials, a ban on docking the pigs‘ tails and a regulated number of animals per farm. And of course, the farmers receive a guarantee on purchase and price. Our meat products, created according to these strict criteria, receive the highest possible award from the German animal welfare association.

What contribution can the packaging of the future make to more sustainability?

FM: Our aim is to bring natural products from both segments in an appetizing and foodsafe manner to the consumer. In the ideal situation, we would see maximum avoidance of packaging materials, or, alternatively, the use of natural and renewable raw materials, or recyclable materials with 100% reusability.

MA: When it comes to plastic packaging, there are several starting points. Existing materials must become thinner and more recyclable. However, we are also open to new solutions, such as eTray, which allow us to reduce the plastic content. Maybe in the future it will be possible to use recycled plastics for food items. Process and food safety must, however, always be guaranteed.

CB: I can only agree with you here, because one thought usually gets lost in the discussion: the basic function of packaging is to protect the product and extend its shelf life. Preserving resources also means that we need to prevent food from spoilage. Not all food products can be offered safely without packaging. For some products, there still is no alternative to plastic when it comes to the density of the pack, required to have a suitable barrier against moist and oxygen.

KPJ: That is why our motto can only be: „As little plastic as possible, as much as necessary“. The packaging industry is called upon to improve the recycling options by working with mono materials. But the recycling industry should also adjust, in order to keep a closed loop on the materials.

CB: From our point of view as a machine manufacturer, we could offer labelling, for example by printing a QR code directly on the packaging line. That label could contain information about the packaging materials, in order to improve recycling rates. PET or PP, mono materials or laminates, food or non-food – those are the most important data required for accurate disposal. By applying a source code, a refund system that we know from PET bottles would become feasible. Nevertheless, consumers have to be on board as well to make it work. The consumer can thus decide to opt for mono materials with a much shorter shelf life or for technically more complex packaging solutions. However, this requires intensive education. That brings us back to the primary food packaging, which should offer plenty of space for communication.

Exciting plans in challenging times, hence this final question to Mr. Ponnath: how has your company coped with the Corona challenges?

MP: We immediately implemented numerous measures in all our factories and offices, from strengthening our already strict hygiene and safety standard to changing the work organization, such as separation of teams and increased use of home offices. As far as the productivity in our plants is concerned, we see different effects. While the demand from the food retail sector increased, therefore cushioning the decline in out-of-home sales, we do feel the loss of the catering segment. Although we recorded more sales in the food retail sector, on the other hand we clearly have additional costs due to tighter hygiene measures, special logistics, surcharges on Sundays and public holidays, and many more. As a family company that will soon pass into the hands of the 13th generation, sustainability in this context also means ensuring profitability and income for our employees to get through these difficult times. We do this by manufacturing contemporary, innovative meat-based and plant-based products that give consumers a choice, and by offering healthy, honest and enjoyable food items without pointing fingers or becoming a teacher.

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