Market Drives New Steel Can Features

Market dynamics drive new can features, ranging from ease of opening to microwaveability.

By Kate Bertrand

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The metal can, created by an enterprising Frenchman in 1809 to preserve food for Napoleon’s soldiers, is undergoing an evolutionary spurt that promises to add both functional advantages and value to canned foods.

To create a consumer perception of value, U.S. food processors are starting to use shaped cans to differentiate their products and communicate a premium brand image. And on the functional side, easy-open ends and recloseable steel cans deliver the convenience consumers demand.

Self-heating and microwaveable cans currently in development also target convenience. Changing lifestyles are driving consumers’ desire for convenient, time-saving foods and food packaging.

An online survey of 500 American grocery shoppers, conducted by InsightExpress last year, indicates that nine out of 10 consumers buy portable convenience foods. The research firm defined “convenience foods” as ready to eat or easy to prepare. In addition, roughly 30 percent said they were buying more convenience foods than they had the prior year.

“Convenience is the buzzword these days when it comes to packaging,” says Robert Budway, president of the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) (www.cancentral.com), Washington. Thus the growing popularity of the easy-open can, which doesn’t require a can opener, as well as the recloseable can, which is “convenient because you can open it and put it in the refrigerator without having to transfer the product to another container.”

Del Monte packages fruit and vegetables in steel cans fitted with Silgan's easy-open Quick Top ends.

Easy-open ends

CMI estimates easy-open cans have penetrated 35 percent of the U.S. market. The organization further estimates that by 2008, 65-75 percent of all metal cans will be fitted with an easy-open end — a ring-pull, pop-top lid that enables the user to partially or completely remove the can end and easily scoop or pour food from the can.

In other parts of the world, easy-open cans already have made deep inroads, thanks partially to steel companies’ research and development. “In the past five to 10 years, steel companies, especially in Europe, have made good progress” developing steel that is strong enough to provide package integrity while delivering a bona fide easy-open end, says Jeff DeLiberty, senior marketing manager at Silgan Containers Corp. (www.silgancontainers.com), Woodland Hills, Calif. With the newer materials, “The metal can be more easily fractured and broken away from its existing connection to the can, using forces that are much lower and more in synch with younger and elderly consumers,” he adds.

Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellsoup.com), Camden, N.J., began changing its cans three years ago when it switched from a sanitary end to an easy-open end for its ready-to-serve soups. The consumer removes the entire top end from the three-piece can using a pull ring.

The company later switched to similar easy-open ends on two-piece cans for Campbell’s condensed soups, Swanson canned poultry and some bean products. Campbell uses a pop-and-pour can for Swanson broth. Overall, the company currently ships about 3 billion filled, easy-open cans per year.

“The dominant reason we made the change was to offer consumer convenience,” says Brad Menees, Campbell’s vice president of technology development at the corporate R&D center. He adds that consumer response has been “great,” with more than 4 percent growth in sales of the ready-to-serve soups directly attributable to switching to easy-open ends.

Campbell uses easy-open ends from multiple suppliers, including Quick Top ends from Silgan; that supplier purchased Campbell’s can manufacturing operation in 1998. Menees says line speeds are the same running easy-open cans as they were running sanitary cans, but he declines to reveal the speed.

Del Monte Foods Co. (www.delmonte.com), San Francisco, also switched to easy-open cans for a range of products. The company has packed fruit in easy-open cans for many years and switched to them for selected vegetable products about four years ago.

Easy-open cans are a good fit for products used completely on one occasion, such as snacking or meal preparation. Del Monte’s 4-oz., single-serve canned fruit falls in the first category; 15-oz. canned vegetables fall in the second.

Del Monte needed to modify some of its filling lines, particularly the closing equipment, for compatibility with easy-open ends. Having made those changes, the company’s plants have found that “if done properly, the easy-open end doesn’t impact line speed,” says Scott Butler, vice president-engineering and technical services.

In some cases, Del Monte fills the can, then applies the easy-open end. In other instances, it uses cans with the easy-open end already attached. In this case, it inverts the cans, fills them and seams on a sanitary end. The company uses more than one supplier for its pop-top ends.

The easy-open ends on cans of Capitaine Cook tuna salad are made from a peelable aluminum lid stock from Crown Holdings. Consumers eat directly from the bowl-shaped container.

Capitaine Cook of Plozevet (Brittany), France, uses a different style of easy-open end for its tuna salad products. The company closes its steel cans with peelable foil instead of a metal end. The consumer pulls a tab to remove the foil, then eats the salad directly from the bowl-like can.

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