KANSAS CITY, MO -- The best thing since sliced bread? With strong demand for cheese and products that make preparing and enjoying it that much easier, sliced cheeses are growing in form and variety.
More people working and learning at home over the past year has translated into a lot of meals and snacks featuring sliced cheeses. According to the latest “What’s in Store” report from the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), sales of deli grab-and-go cheeses climbed 21.2%, while sales of deli pre-sliced cheese rose 10.5%. Top varieties of resliced deli cheeses include mainstays of Swiss, American and cheddar/cheddar blends.
Even stalwart products are getting a bit of a makeover. This spring, Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., introduced a new line of sliced American cheeses sold in a 6-oz. package with eight slices.
One of Sargento’s newest products is a premium Reserve Cheese line, with slices of cheese aged for full flavor and texture and made with no antibiotics, no artificial flavors or growth hormones. The cheeses from the Plymouth, Wis.-headquartered brand are sold shingle style in a resealable pack with 10 slices and vivid billboard graphics.
In addition to classic sliced cheeses for sandwiches and other traditional recipes, cheese slices are taking new forms and sizes as consumers’ tastes evolve. Smaller sliced cheese portions are starring in at-home charcuterie boards, one of the biggest trends of the past year. Columbus Meats, a subsidary of Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., introduced a Charcuterie Tasting Board that includes sliced meats, sliced white cheddar cheese and other snacks. For elevated snacking, the Hillshire Farm brand from Tyson Foods Inc., now offers a packaged small plate charcuterie board with Gouda and cheddar squares that complement the cured meats.
Meanwhile, as keto, paleo, gluten-free and high protein diets remain popular, a replacement for tortillas and breads comes in the form of cheese. Lotito Foods of Edison, NJ developed a Folios line of cheese wraps made from parmesan, cheddar cheese or low-carb, keto-friendly spin on the traditional wrap that is 100% made from all natural lightly baked sheets of Jarlsberg cheese. The product comes with four “slightly baked” circular sheets of cheese.
Not all cheese that is sliced in a cheese production facility is thin. Pre-sliced wedges are also getting a new look with products like Cello Cheese Flights from Fairfield, NJ-based Schuman Cheese. A trio of sliced portions of cheeses is packaged in a refrigerated, ready-to-use tray.
EQUIPPED FOR EVOLVING NEEDS
As consumers look for convenience while enjoying sliced cheeses at home, manufacturers are working with their packaging partners to make it happen. Greater variety is the name of the game, according to equipment providers.
“Reiser has seen a real uptick in cheese and dairy activity in the last few years,” said Mike McCann, packaging specialist for Reiser, Canton, Mass. “In the last year in particular, the demand for convenience sized portions versus institutional sized portions has [increased significantly.]”
In response to the changes and demands, Reiser has been working closely with its dairy customers as they change up their lines.
“In some cases, we have been able to reconfigure existing Vemag and AMFEC processing lines with attachments to produce the various new portion sizes, or reconfigure existing Holac and Seydelmann equipment to produce new sliced, diced, cubed or shredded portions,” McCann said, adding that the company’s service team helps with tooling changes for new package shapes and sizes on existing packaging equipment. “Similarly, we can complete web width conversions of existing Reiser packaging equipment.”
As dairy manufacturers contend with ongoing labor issues – first due to a strong job market and later because of COVID-19 related shortages and disruptions – automated systems for packaging sliced products have come to the fore.
“We are seeing new opportunities for robotic packaging using our JLS robotic solutions to automatically load cheese products into packages, and then auto load cheese packages into cartons.” McCann said.
Netherlands-headquartered Pacproinc, with US offices in Souderton, Pa., has also ramped up solutions for higher speeds and reduced labor, with cheese interleavers and underleavers that automatically place a piece of paper, film or foil between under or around sliced cheeses. A programmable controller and motion control technology enhances ease of use for operators.
Complete systems are also available for manufacturers seeking integration and automation. Harpak-Ulma Packaging, LLC, part of the Ulma Group based in Spain, offers a fully automated solution for sliced cheese that includes linked systems for slicing and loading, thermoform packaging, inspection and labeling, case packing and palletizing.
ROBOTICS IN PLAY
Other suppliers are working with cheese manufacturers on robotic systems for packaging functions, including at the end of the line for case packaging and palletizing. The Paxiom Group, with US offices in Las Vegas, offers an end-of-line robotic palletizer that can pick and place cases onto pallets; the company offers a range of other solutions for cheese packaging, including systems for flow wrapping cheese slices.
Another equipment maker that supplies cheese companies with robotic systems for end-of-line gripping and placement is Quest International of Monroe, Wis., which has robotic case packers that can work with an array of cheese packages, including shingle stacks, pile stacks, random cuts and more. Quest designs its equipment for easy sanitation and durability that align with 3-A, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations and offers features like robotic coatings and drip management solutions that work well in rigorous environments like dairy and cheese settings.
The parallel marketplace push for more sustainable packaging is also impacting manufacturers of sliced cheeses. Atlanta-based Graphic Packaging International, LLC, recently introduced new PaperSeal Slice and PaperSeal wedge solutions that are recyclable, barrier-lined paperboard packaging alternatives to plastic thermoformed trays for sliced cheese.
”Compared to traditional plastic trays, PaperSeal Slice typically reduces plastic by 75% and PaperSeal Wedge by 80%,” said Ricardo De Genova, senior vice president of global innovation and new business. “The innovative new designs also use lighter weight paperboard to deliver reduced pack weights that can support our customers’ packaging sustainability goals.” Both of those solutions are available as formed or flat trays and offer a shelf life equivalent to traditional plastic trays.
The German packaging company Multivac, which operates a US-based headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., has been devising sustainable packaging concepts for sliced cheese. The company put forth the concept of envelope packs made with flexible multilayer film as a sustainable alternative to traditional rigid thermoformed packages for sliced cheese. More sustainability-based innovations are likely to be forthcoming, as companies seek to reduce their carbon footprint. In the Netherlands, FrieslandCampina converted its resalable cheese packaging to a fully-recyclable package nearly two years ago. The company estimates that it will have savings and recycling that amount to more than 300,000 kg (661,000 lbs) of plastic a year.
Given the pace of change in the market and emerging technologies and capabilities in production, versatility is an important facet of packaging materials and equipment, according to Reiser’s McCann.
“We have been very careful to propose and build our solutions to maintain maximum flexibility for our customers, so they can adapt to future changes in the market as seamlessly as possible.”
This article is featured in the June 2021 issue of Dairy Processing.