DUNCAN, S.C. — If you had a turkey on the table during the holidays this year, chances are the frozen bird was protected by a wrapper designed 50 years ago by a South Carolina company.
Cryovac created a process at its plant in Duncan that allowed a turkey to be slaughtered, cleaned, wrapped in the stretchy film, vacuum-packed and quickly frozen. The invention turned the meat from an only-on-the-holidays treat that often had to be eaten fresh within 25 days to something enjoyed year-round with a shelf life of up to 18 months if frozen properly.
The effect on the diet of Americans was immediate. In 1961, the year before the Cryovac bag hit the market, 109 million pounds of turkey was produced in the United States. Five years later, turkey production more than doubled to 284 million pounds and in 2011, 3.6 billion pounds of turkey was produced in thiscountry, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It was really a major packaging innovation. Without, the industry would not have been able to grow at the rate it did,” said Dan Blackshear, who spent more than three decades in the turkey business and is a former CEO of Carolinas Turkeys, which acquired Butterball in 2006.
Cryovac, which was bought more than a decade ago by Fortune 500 company Sealed Air, still runs that plant in Duncan, along with plants in Simpsonville and Seneca. Sealed Air has more than 2,600 employees across the state. The Simpsonville plant makes more than a billion bags a year for turkeys, ham, beef and other meat, said Karl Deily, the president of the food and beverage division of Sealed Air.
Cryovac was founded in Boston in the 1940s and moved to Duncan in 1962. And the bag used to protect the turkeys going on holiday tables this year aren’t much different than the ones made 50 years ago, said Don Smith, the director of marketing for poultry and seafood for Cryovac.
“It is essentially the same bag that we developed and introduced 50 years ago,” Smith said.
There have been a few minor changes, Smith said. The clamp on the bag is now placed and tightened by a machine instead of a plier-like tool in the 1960s. The bags have more flexibility to package a wider range of bird sizes. Different ink allows more intricate printing and designs.
The frozen turkey bag has also kept turkey prices down and opened the door to having the meat all year. Turkey went through another boom in the 1980s when doctors promoted it as a healthier meat than beef.
“There is probably more turkey eaten on a per capita basis July and August in cold sandwiches than there is in November and December,” Blackshear said. “We’re glad to have both. You can get a good turkey sandwich in the summertime and then a nice, warm festive turkey for the holidays.”
Smith said Cryovac took advantage of the second boom in turkey consumption in the 1980s and designed a special tube that turkey meat can be pressed into and cooked and then shipped to processors of lunch meat and other items.
Cryovac also created the packaging used for ham, Cornish hens and beef. The material saves money by preventing losses, Deily said.
“It protects the products, it enhances the shelf life. Less spoiled product means less waste,” Deily said. “And the package not only communicates valuable information to the consumer, it allows it to show the brand, too.”