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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By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief, and Judy Rice, Contributing Editor

Credit Napoleon for all these wonderful food packages.

As the Little Corporal and later emperor remarked, “An army travels on its stomach.” Neither his soldiers nor their stomachs were doing so well in 1795 when a lack of safe food put his world conquest plans in jeopardy. But Parisian Nicholas Appert claimed a government reward when he came up with the technique of canning (or retorting, essentially, since he first used glass containers). Napoleon’s fortunes improved, as did Appert’s.

Indeed, much of the world exploration of the late 18th and early 19th centuries may not have been possible without the subsequent advances in the preservation and packaging of food, headlined by names like Louis Pasteur and Englishman Peter Durand.

Some may argue the rate of technological change in food packaging has slowed in the past couple of decades. But packaging innovation does live on. It is especially evident this time of the year with the annual co-located shows Pack Expo and Food Processing Machinery Expo (see p.63) plus a handful of end-of-year packaging award programs (see our report on the Institute of Packaging Professionals awards on p.98).

Food processing and marketing often is only about the food itself. But packaging, as any astute marketer will tell you, is a vital part of the equation. (See “Markaging: Your in-store salesman,” FP August ’04, p.63). And in the case of the three packages we’ve picked for this cover story, the packaging is revolutionizing the food inside and the way it’s being marketed.

Milk in a rainbow of flavors

Milk has always suffered from schizophrenia, along with delusions of grandeur. “Nature’s perfect food” on the one hand was considered such a critical commodity that the same government-established standards of identity that ensured its purity and (pardon the pun) homogeneity also restrained it for years from stretching out into new directions.

While its packaging made leaps from glass to paper to plastic, some would argue those advances actually set back some of the freshness in its taste and its shelf life. As for flavor experimentation, chocolate certainly is an established flavor but even widely accepted strawberry, stuck for a couple years at just 4 percent market share, seems like a crap-shoot to some milk processors. Egg nog is economically viable only in short runs for the holidays.

What about vanilla, America's favorite ice cream flavor, as a milk option? How about banana or orange creamsicle? Why not root beer and pina colada?

Why? Because processors could not economically make them in short runs, and retailers could not sell enough of them within milk’s traditional 14-day shelf life. But what if milk could for months? Maybe even a year?

For decades in Europe, a large percentage of the milk had been sold in shelf-stable, aseptic boxes. In part this dated back to many countries’ less prevalent use of refrigeration, from the distribution channels right through to homes. Shelf-stable milk could be shipped at ambient temperatures and stored similarly, by retailers or by consumers, then chilled before use. Shelf life typically was six months.

The higher temperature needed to sterilize this milk gave it a cooked or even burnt taste, many first-time tasters say. While there were several attempts at similar packaging and processing in the U.S., it never caught on.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., several consecutive years of declining milk consumption spawned category-wide marketing programs. Not only did they re-establish the numerous benefits of gallon-milk, but they began to promote single-serve milk as a viable, even hip, beverage option. However, one of the first obstacles was to take single-serve milk out of the unresealable, unattractive little gabletop cartons and put it in sleek resealable plastic bottles. Although it still came only in white and chocolate, milk began fighting back.

The two technologies converged at the turn of the millennium when four European machinery-makers created systems to take European-inspired shelf stable milk and put it in American-inspired single-serve plastic bottles. It would be an expensive and arduous task to be the first company to prove to the FDA that such milk was safe. When consolidation in the dairy industry finally produced a billion-dollar national milk company, that company, Dean Foods, took up the task.

Further armed with contracts to bottle Hershey’s chocolate milk and shakes and Folgers Jakada coffee-milk drink, Dean in December 2001 applied for FDA approval to distribute and sell its milks warm or cold with 180 days shelf life. Both products are in high-density polyethylene bottles with special barrier layers.

FDA approval came in 2002. Despite their heavyweight brands, Hershey’s milks and Folgers Jakada are in pitched battles with entrenched category leaders (NesQuik in milk and Frappuccino in coffee drinks). But their aseptic packaging is providing a leg up.

A few other dairies have similar filling and packaging technology and also may be moving toward officially stated 180-day shelf lives, as well as unusual flavors. The day may come soon when you can buy at Sam‘s Club a 24-bottle case of single-serve milk bottles in a rainbow of flavors and keep them in the garage unrefrigerated until just before use.

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