Packages that are changing the face of food processing

The shelf-stable milk bottle, aseptic box and stand-up pouch will make museum pieces out of gabletop cartons, cans and many other packages.

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(Dean Foods declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The end of the age of cans?

Cans have reigned as a premier food package since the early 1800s. But Hormel and Stagg chili cans already are heading for the museum, and others may be on the endangered species list, ousted by a little cube of foil and paper with a tear-off top.

The new Recart retortable carton from Tetra Pak, Vernon Hills, Ill., is poised to challenge retort pouches, rigid retortable plastics and conventional metal cans and glass jars. This six-layer, cardboard laminate structure, incorporating polyester and foil, essentially is a cross between the retort pouch and Tetra Pak’s groundbreaking aseptic box of more than a decade ago.

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) recently honored the Tetra Recart retortable carton packaging system with the Industrial Achievement Award. IFT views the Recart as an outstanding development that represents a significant advance in the application of food science and technology to food production.

The Tetra Recart couldn’t have found a better mentor for its launch. Hormel Foods Corp., long a supporter and co-pioneer of retort packaging, helped introduce shelf-stable, single-serving retorted plastic cupped/bowled products to American consumers a few decades ago. The Austin, Minn., processor just finished test marketing its Stagg and Hormel brands of chili in the Tetra Recart and now is rolling national, converting all its chili products from metal cans to retortable cartons under the name “Smart Pak.”

The 14.3-oz chili cartons are laser-perforated for easy opening –- needless to say, they don’t require a can opener. Their cube shape is easily handled, stackable and space-efficient. They are batch retort-sterilized at rates of about 24,000 packages per hour, rendering them shelf-stable for 24 months.

Because of the foil layer (also present in most retort pouches), the retorted carton is not microwaveable. Microwaves cannot penetrate foil or metal. This presents a consumer-convenience disadvantage over retortable plastic cups and bowls. However, consumers can easily transfer the chili to a microwaveable bowl or stove-top heating pan and then reclose the carton to refrigerate unused portions.

In addition, the lightweight, rectangular cartons offer logistical advantages for shipping weight/space efficiencies, as well as for in-home and in-store storage. “One truckload of these blanks equals 19 truckloads of empty cans,” says Steve Hellenschmidt, Tetra’s general manager of the Recart line. “About 985,000 of these blanks can fit in a tractor-trailer. They weigh 18 g empty versus 56 g for a can. And for the retailer and the consumer, three of these fit in the same space as two cans, with a much better billboard effect.”

The cartons are recyclable in existing milk carton/juice box recycling streams.

“Our consumer research showed a clear preference for this new packaging concept,” says Larry Vorpahl, vice president and general manager of grocery products for Hormel. “The Smart Pak carton offers consumers a variety of advantages, including portability, easy opening and pouring, and convenient, space-saving stackability in kitchen cupboards. We are pleased to be the first to offer such innovation in the category.”

Hormel is converting both Stagg and Hormel chili brands to the new retorted cartons.


This little beauty already made our cover in May when we wrote about innovative food products from small companies, so we felt bad about featuring North America’s first reclosable can twice. But it is the first significant development in cans in many years, and it addresses two of their shortcomings. The Dot Top can actually was discovered in Brazil by Silgan Containers, its U.S. vendor. It requires no can opener to open it; the lid is held on by a slight vacuum. If only part of the contents is used, the lid can be snapped back on with a little downward pressure.

Hirzel Canning, Toledo, Ohio, is the first company to use it: for its Dei Fratelli Presto brand of pizza sauce and Italian dip.

Stand-up pouches’ shotgun approach

Aseptic boxes have a dead bead on cans, and shelf-stable milk bottles are taking aim at gabletop milk cartons and simple plastic bottles. But no new packaging technology is cutting such a wide swath as stand-up pouches. Cans, cardboard boxes, even other pouches are falling victim to this packaging juggernaut.

Stand-up pouches (SUPs) have come a long way since their U.S. debut in 1981 as the innovative package for Kraft’s Capri Sun juice drink. Even with that history, they remain a relatively novel package with consumers while becoming an increasingly familiar one with food and beverage processors, who appreciate this high-profile container with excellent versatility. They boast unique, consumer-appealing appearance, ability to incorporate eye-catching, billboard-type graphics, recloseability and easy portability.

SUPs are capable of holding a full range of wet and dry products — from snacks, candies and cereals to rice/pasta/vegetable meal kits and cake/cookie mixes to cheeses, meats and pet foods to beverages, soups and sauces.

Based on their customized construction, they are adaptable to a range of temperature tolerances, including retort processing (for more about retort pouch trends and technologies, see p.93).

SUPs also can offer excellent barrier properties for gas-flushing and other modified atmosphere packaging applications to extend product shelf life. And they can be produced in both clear and opaque formats, sometimes with customized handles and pouring spouts, in a range of specialized shapes, depending on user requirements.

For clear SUP applications, Kapak Corp., Minneapolis, offers the FlexiBowl, adaptable for both retort and non-retort products. FlexiBowl can be custom-produced in a range of laminations and barrier structures to satisfy specific product needs and can be printed in up to eight colors. Sizes range from single-serve to 2-lb. foodservice packs. Precise laser scoring enables easy removal of the peel-strip without use of knives, scissors or other utensils to create a stable-standing “bowl” ready for microwave heating.

In terms of packaging speeds, packaging equipment technology advances also are making the SUP more attractive. And more contract packagers are offering SUP packaging services for processors who prefer not to invest in their own stand-up pouch packaging machinery.

While stand-up pouches provide a lighter-weight, freight cost-saving, disposability space-saving alternative to some other packaging types, one drawback has been their inability to be stacked during shipment, storage and in-store shelf display. UK-based Amcor Flexibles, working with German packaging machinery manufacturer Rovema, responded to that problem with the introduction of FlexCans—easy-open, recloseable stand-up pouches with flat-top nestable/stackable panels. Their stiff structure comes from a three-ply laminate of oriented polypropylene, metallized polyethylene terephthalate and lapseal polyethylene. The British sun-dried fruits and nuts company Sundora already is using the Amcor FlexCan to package dried fruits.

While tuna has been in stand-up pouches for three years or so, Chicken of the Sea this summer was the first to pouch shellfish, including crab, imitation crab, shrimp, clams and smoked oysters.

It’s no wonder SUPs are experiencing a growth surge. They are the fastest-growing segment of the pouch market, increasing at an average rate of 15 percent per year through 2008 to $1.3 billion, according to a recent study by Freedonia Group, Cleveland (the “Pouches” study is available for $4,200 by contacting Corinne Gangloff, e-mail The report concludes stand-up pouches are driving the overall U.S. pouch market, which is projected to reach $5.2 billion in 2008. By then they will represent 5 percent of all packaging.

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