Rediscovering the retort pouch

Food processors take a fresh look at this established technology and find it appeals to club store consumers as a stable replacement for cans.

By Judy Rice, Contributing Editor

The retort pouch may be on the rebound. Heralded in the 1970s and 1980s as a packaging technology with outstanding applications potential to challenge metal cans and glass jars, retort pouches then experienced a period of stagnation.

Retort pouches are filled with wet foods, sealed and then heat-treated in steam/hot water retort kettles to achieve commercial sterilization (for shelf-stable foods) or pasteurization (for refrigerated foods).

Certainly, you can find retort pouched products on grocery shelves (often as pouched meat and sauce components in boxed meal kits), but not in the vast varieties of foods predicted by early advocates. Some companies have opted for retortable rigid plastic bowls and cups versus the pouch for single-serving products. But now it seems food processors are beginning to revisit the concept of flexible retort pouch-packed, pre-cooked foods -- especially for foodservice and club store markets.

Crabmeat grabs opportunity

One company contributing to the retort pouch revival is Blue Star Food Products, Miami, which this spring launched six varieties of hand-picked crabmeat in 1-lb. retortable pouch packaging. The company uses its own modified, patent-pending process, retort pasteurizing the crabmeat (at about 170-200°F) rather than commercially sterilizing it (at about 250°F). The resulting product requires refrigeration, but has freshness, flavor and texture levels superior to traditional canned crabmeat, the company claims.

Blue Star’s reclosable zipper pouches are targeted mainly toward foodservice and club store markets. Users can portion out product and securely reclose the pouch, keeping the remainder fresh (refrigerated) for later use.

Because processing time typically is faster in the pouch than in metal, glass or rigid plastic containers, the crabmeat tends to end up sweeter and moister. Pouches also offer lower shipping and storage costs (pouch material is lighter than cans, and pouches take up less storage space than cans); easier, safer handling (no can openers or thawing time required); reduced product waste (pouches easily can be completely evacuated of product); and reduced volumes of disposed packaging waste material compared to cans.

Blue Star worked with Pyramid Flexible Packaging, La Habra, Calif., using the latter’s Zip’n Store reclosable pouches, which are supplied in pre-made form. The three-side seal zipper pouch was created in alliance with Pyramid and Alcoa/Presto Products, Appleton, Wis. The zipper component of the packaging is constructed of specially engineered heat- and pressure-sensitive resin, which enables the zippers to withstand high heat processing temperatures. This ability to use heat-tolerant zippers on retort pouches is a recent technology advance.

"There is no question that reclosable zipper pouch packaging is more appealing to many of the main customers — chefs and kitchen workers — because it is so easy to use," says Steve Harmell, vice president of marketing and sales for Blue Star. "They can zip a pouch open and zip it closed again, putting what they don’t need back in refrigeration for future use. This technology lets us capitalize on our product being closer to fresh-picked crabmeat versus the old industry standard: canned, pasteurized crabmeat."

Ground beef gets pouch test

Fully cooked ground beef packaged in retort pouches is an innovative venture being undertaken by Jack Link’s Beef Jerky Co., Minong, Wis. The ground beef is filled in 10.6-oz volumes into retortable pouches, sealed and heat processed to an internal temperature of 250° F to accomplish commercial sterility and shelf stability.

The convenient, time-saving, no-mess product, currently in test markets in Wal-Mart stores, is intended for use in such applications as pizzas, pastas, tacos and casseroles. The processor also sees excellent potential for marketing in sporting goods stores as a portable food for campers.

To prepare the pouched ground beef, the user simply kneads the pouch to loosen the cooked ground beef, pours the contents in a heating bowl or pan, then microwaves it for about 30 to 45 seconds or stove top-heats the product. Initially, three flavor varieties are being offered: Lightly Seasoned, Italian Style and Mexican Style.

The pouched ground beef has 12 months non-refrigerated shelf life if unopened. Interestingly, it’s made at a new manufacturing facility in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "Since the test marketing began in October 2003, the product has been doing very well," says Cathy Sturm, senior marketing manager at Jack Link’s. "But we realize consumer trial is very important, and there is a learning curve involved to educate consumers about the product features and availability."

Spam explores singles scene

Hormel Foods Corp., Austin, Minn., is considering giving consumers a new packaging option for Spam, its popular processed meat product. The company is test marketing Spam Singles packaged in 3-oz foil/film retort pouches supplied by Kapak, St. Louis, Minn. Preformed pouches are filled and sealed using equipment supplied by PPI (Profile Packaging Inc.) Technologies, Sarasota, Fla. Varieties available in the pouches are regular Spam and oven-roasted turkey.

Reportedly, the new packaging approach is doing very well in test markets. However, Hormel emphasizes that this retort pouch project is still in test stage, and no final determination has yet been made about carrying it forward into full-scale production and marketing.

Gerber goes with pouch

A new line of meat-based toddler foods is rolling out in stand-up, easy-open, retort pouch packaging. An addition to the Gerber Graduates line, Pasta Stuffers from Gerber Foods, Fremont, Mich., includes four initial varieties: Chicken & Parmesan Cheese, Turkey, Carrot & Wild Rice, Ham & Cheese, and Beef Pot Roast & Potato.

No preservatives or artificial flavors are added to these retorted, shelf-stable offerings. And the pasta and potato pieces are cut to sizes that enable toddlers to easily handle them.

Gerber packaging technologists are well-experienced in retort processes. The company has successfully used retorted metal cans and retorted rigid plastic bowls for various baby food products over the years. Now Gerber is taking a look at the potential of the retort pouch for specific product line applications.

Pouch pros & cons

When processors and packagers evaluate the potential of the retort pouch for their product applications, there are several considerations to weigh. On the pro side, pouch material is lightweight, and pouches are space-efficient in terms of freight, storage and shelf display. These attributes can translate to significant shipping and storage savings, especially for large-volume operations. Pouches also offer an opportunity for striking, full-faced graphics presentations that can attract shopper attention and make a positive impact on sales.

Furthermore, the reclosable zipper component now possible for retorted pouches adds an important convenience factor, especially for multi-portion packs used in the foodservice sector. Pouches are easily opened and quickly, easily evacuated of product, reducing costly product waste. And once the packages are emptied, they can be flattened for disposal—offering considerable disposal space savings advantages over metal cans, glass jars and rigid plastic containers.

Finally, in some applications, the material cost of pouches may be less expensive than rigid plastic retortable containers.

On the con side, because of the multi-material foil/film structure of retort pouches, they don’t move through the recycle stream with the relative simplicity and ease that metal cans do, for example. There also are quality control concerns such as pinholes, flex cracks and leaks in the flexible packaging material and seals that need to be carefully addressed. And, despite the fact the retort pouch has been around for a long time, many consumers still experience a certain amount of unease about meat products and other low-acid products packaged in unrefrigerated pouches. They don’t equate the metal can and the retort pouch as products that undergo similar processing procedures.

No doubt, there are also other pros and cons that processors/packagers are considering as they explore pouch potential for specific product applications. But overall, based on recent market activity, it appears that the retort pouch may be experiencing something of a rediscovery.

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