The Next Best Thing

March 1, 2002
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Breakthrough products and packaging require years of technological trial and error before they burst on the scene

In the food industry, there are no revolutions, only evolutions. Markets may shift dramatically, but the technology underlying the processing and packaging changes that make them possible are usually the result of decades of development.

Innovations in processing take decades of research and testing, so it's a major event when a process like ultra high pressure (UHP) achieves a commercial breakthrough. Long timelines also are at play in packaging changes. Hormel Foods' all-plastic retortable container may only elicit a "That's nice" response from consumers, but more than a decade of research and development went into the microwavable cup before it landed on a grocery shelf.

Cost savings are the driver for many innovations, such as Tetra Pak's Glaskin coating technology. But those savings might only come after significant capital investment, limiting the opportunity to companies with the deepest pockets. That's the case with 14 oz. high-density, polyethylene bottles of Hershey's flavored drinks and Folger's 10.5 oz. Jakada chilled coffee drink. The shrink-sleeved, single-serve plastic bottles with eye-popping graphics are debuting courtesy of Morningstar Dairy. The Dean Foods division is making a multi-million-dollar investment to bring to market the first aseptically-filled low-acid products in dairy's hottest packaging. The payoff: dairy's first centrally produced national franchise with promotional flexibility for the trade. End caps and other store real estate beyond the dairy case suddenly is available.

Dallas-based Morningstar installed a Stork extended shelf life (ESL) line in its Crawford, Va., plant last fall, with a second line for aseptic filling set for delivery this spring. Similar machines are filling aseptic dairy products in Europe, but the Morningstar units have undergone significant modifications to satisfy FDA validation demands. Development work was done in conjunction with Asep-Tech USA, the Missouri pilot plant operated jointly by Dairy Farmers of America and Stork Food & Dairy Systems.

A rotary filling line using conventional processing would have cost the plant $2-$3 million, processing managers estimate. The 12-lane linear filling system required a capital outlay of $12-$14 million, including $1.5 million for packaging equipment. On the other hand, the ability to distribute value-added products throughout the continental United States translates to $50 million worth of product a year.

"Traditionally we have been a gable-top company, and the world has metamorphosed to plastic-container consumption," Morningstar's Sam Hillin, senior vice president of operations, explains. "The whole reason we're doing this is for the convenience of our retail customers. It gives them more options and choices in where and how they sell these products."

"When it comes to ESL processing, batching and blending, it's pretty much the same whether you're using plastic or gable top," adds Willis Brown, Morningstar's corporate engineer. "But the filling and bottle handling, including blow molding, storage in silos, leak testing, foil-seal sterilization and sleeving is a much more complex process."

Morningstar is using ultraviolet treatment to sanitize foil lids that are induction sealed to the mouths of ESL bottles. That procedure won't pass FDA muster for aseptic, though. Instead, the dairy will employ a hydrogen peroxide spray in a sterilization chamber. To keep up with the filler's 300 bottles per minute speed, multiple lanes were installed.

HEPA filtration for incoming air and servo-driven filler-bed controls are among the modifications needed to accommodate aseptic. "FDA demands documentation that air handling, CIP and every other sub-system on the filler is sterile and can be made sterile if the system is inoculated with clostridium or some other pathogen, and you must provide the engineering data to prove it," Brown points out.

ESL products carry a 90-day shelf life. With aseptic, Hillin expects that to go to 180 days. "On a product with milk in it, that's going to be the upper limit," he believes.

That should be long enough to allow the plant the satisfy most of the projected national demand for beverages like Hershey single-serves and will enable Morningstar to become the exclusive distributor for those brands.

Sealed bottles feed through a sleeving machine en route to a steam shrink tunnel at Morningstar’s Virginia plant. Later, bottles are capped and spot glued to a paperboard pad prior to shrink wrapping.

Plastic, fantastic retort

For Bill Heyn, the quest to design and build an all-plastic retortable container for low-acid foods began 13 years ago. That's when he founded the company that would devise the Polystar lid. Early success with a Del Monte fruit cup prompted Silgan Container Corp. to acquire his firm and redirect his efforts to devising a high-speed system that would marry the lid to a plastic Omnibowl. The objective was to offer consumers a cup that could be popped into a microwave without having to first remove a metal lid. The challenge was met in November 2000 when Hormel Foods began converting its Kids Kitchen line to Silgan's spin-weld system.

The rotary filler installed at Hormel's Beloit, Wis., plant handles 400 7.5-oz. cups a minute. An even faster servo-driven filler was undergoing validation at copacker Ameriqual's Evansville, Ind., plant in February. The second-generation system will achieve filling speeds of 600 containers a minute, according to Heyn, or 10 per second.

The equipment is massive: 45,000 lbs., with a footprint "triple the size" of a comparable double-seam metal canner, says Russ Potter, Hormel's director of grocery product production. Still, "It's met our expectations," he reports, "and we had high expectations."

Omnibowls of different heights can be filled, but only a 307 lid (3.44 inch diameter) can be accommodated. Material costs are comparable to the metal-and-plastic units they replace, Potter says.

"Cans will be here forever," he asserts, "but microwavable cups are a good niche business for us, and this new technology is a step in the right direction. It's kid friendly. And even though there were very few reports of people cutting themselves on the metal edges of the old containers, there's the perception that this is safer and more recyclable. We're getting a lot of favorable responses from preschool teachers and day-care centers."

"We've created a technology that is as good or better than double-seaming a metal end on a metal can," maintains Heyn, general manager of Silgan's Omni Star division. "We have the efficacy of a traditional metal can but in a package that mama perceives to be better, and that brings new functionality."

The servo-driven filler takes a stationary bowl to 1,000 rpms in "fractions of a millisecond," Heyn adds. The resulting friction effectively melds the tongue-and-groove joints together to provide a container that delivers 18 months of shelf life for low-acid food.

The potential for spillage posed a major challenge during FDA validation. "If you have contamination on the flange, you have to prove that your sealing process will deal with that," Heyn explains. The new filler's racetrack design minimizes potential spills, but engineers at Ameriqual had to demonstrate that the centrifugal force of the spinning bowls was sufficient to wipe away any product in the bowl's groove.

Oxygen absorbers are built into the bowl, and soon they'll be integrated into the lid stock. "Absorbers can be much more cost effective than EVOH," Heyn points out. "The ability to use oxygen absorbers to augment the plastic is a significant improvement."

Hormel Food’s Kid’s Kitchen is the first product on the market to make use of Silgan Containers’ all-plastic retortable packaging.

Mining pressure's potential

Ceramics, powdered metals and other industries have used ultra high pressure for decades, and 2001 proved to be a breakout year for UHP in commercial food processing. Most of Flow International's 70 system sales worldwide came last year. Oyster processors embraced the technology in a big way because it simplifies shucking and kills the Vibrio bacterium that has prompted multiple seafood recalls in recent years.

Fresh-juice makers also are adopting UHP. Coca-Cola Co.'s Odwalla division concluded extensive testing with an order for four continuous UHP units. The technology's appeal includes its minimal impact on flavor and its ability to extend shelf life and satisfy HACCP-mandated 5 log pathogen reductions.

Flow's success has encouraged other suppliers of high-pressure units to focus on the food industry. For Haverhill, Mass.-based Engineered Pressure Systems Inc. (EPSI), the shift represents a return to a business it served almost a decade ago.

EPSI has engineered UHP units for 40 years and traces its roots to National Forge, a company that began making naval gun barrels in 1914. "A gun barrel is really a pressure vessel," points out Ken Morse, EPSI's sales engineer. "It has to withstand up to 75,000 psi." The company supplied four UHP units in the 1990s to university researchers but was largely inactive in food until recently, when it began producing 130,000 psi systems.

While EPSI has fabricated systems with wire-wound yolks, plate yolks can be made at significant cost savings, "and it's engineered to be just as strong," Morse notes. "Wire wound is a little better, but it has disadvantages in maintenance costs." Durability is comparable: "We have plate-yoke customers with more than a million cycles on their vessels," he says.

While EPSI has the engineering expertise to deliver competitively priced UHP systems, "We have no food scientists working for us," Morse says. That can short circuit efforts to guide users to less costly alternative systems.

Flow, on the other hand, has food science talent to complement its engineering staff. Multi-discipline expertise closed the deal on a recent order from Lovitt Farms Inc., which expects to begin processing fresh cider in April. "The information and support Flow has provided has been excellent," says C. Lorne Brown, Lovitt's president. "That alone has been worth half the lease payment."

Brown's firm is a juice-processing newcomer with a long engineering pedigree. Geologist Ed Lovitt came to Washington state's Wenatchee Valley in 1949 to mine gold and then, using advanced mill circuitry, ore. As a hedge against mining's bust periods, Lovitt planted 100 acres of apple trees, later pioneering the use of controlled atmosphere apple storage in the Northwest.

Little more than apples and water rights remained of Lovitt Mining Co. a year ago when current owner Grange Gold Corp. decided to redirect assets toward the fresh juice business. Wenatchee is in the heart of Washington's organic apple country, and UHP will give Lovitt the 21-day shelf life it needs to get fresh organic cider to the California market. "California is the Mecca of health food and the type of product we want to produce," explains Brown. UHP will add 15 to 20 cents a gallon to Lovitt's production cost, he estimates, but that is incidental to the $10 to $20 a gallon the product is expected to fetch at retail. A food chemist and former Flow engineer are among the 20 staffers Brown has hired to run two shifts in the company's 9,000 sq. ft. plant. Lovitt's pressure unit will treat 750 gallons of juice per hour, and modular design gives the firm the ability to add capacity as needed.

"This is one of the few projects I've ever done that gets better as you go along," says Brown. "Two major natural-foods distributors have called us to get involved."

An operator at Nisbet Oyster Co. prepares to lower seafood into a 45-liter batch unit for ultra high pressure treatment. Oyster processors have been early adopters of the technology. (Photo courtesy of Flow International)

Economical performance packaging

If emerging technology can reshape the economics of a cottage industry like fresh juice, imagine the impact on a mature business like brewing. Countless hours of R&D and regulatory filings may finally pay off with plastic packaging that can compete on price and performance with glass. Multi-layer PET bottles are simply too costly and time-consuming to produce for major brewers to use in any volume; single-layer PET with an oxygen barrier coating is another story, and in November FDA gave its blessing to Tetra Pak's Glaskin, the second oxygen-absorbing coating approved for direct contact with food.

Sidel Group received FDA approval for an amorphous carbon coating called ACTIS almost two years ago, but when Tetra Pak acquired 94 percent of the French firm's stock last year, management indicated it would shelve the technology. Tetra Pak uses silicon dioxide in a similar coating process. ACTIS results in a brownish tint; Glaskin is clear.

Glaskin is injected in plasma form into a rigid container in a vacuum chamber. The plasma is ignited with microwave energy, spreading a thin, even coating of silicon oxide over the container's interior. "Si-ox is essentially glass," explains Jeff Keller, vice president of plastics. "Its thickness gives it the flexibility to move with the material." It also prevents product from being absorbed into the packaging material, adding a functional dimension that multi-layer PET bottles lack.

Two European brewers are packaging three brands in Glaskin bottles produced in a Tetra Pak facility at a rate of 18,000 bottles an hour. "We're trying to increase the speed of the system before introducing it in the U.S.," says Keller, predicting U.S. production will begin within a year. "Dairy products, juice and many other foods are candidates for Glaskin. Its potential is much greater than beer."

PET bottles treated with Tetra Pak’s Glaskin oxygen barrier coating rotate through a filler at Spendrup’s brewery. The Swedish brewer was the first to use Glaskin when it began packaging the Norrlands Guld brand two years ago in bottles produced by Tetra Pak. (Photo courtesy of Tetra Pak)
On the processing front, a new level of condition-based monitoring is being established with the introduction of the Tetra Centri IQ separator for dairy and beverage processing. Vibration levels, temperature and pressure variance, amperage draw and other performance indicators are monitored to detect wear and make automatic adjustments. If bearings begin to wear, the IQ system alerts the operator of a potential breakdown and slows the bowl to prevent failure. A Web interface will allow on-site balancing from remote locations in the future.

Two IQ systems are being installed in German plants. The unit's first U.S. exposure came at last fall's World Wide Food Expo in Chicago.

Any of the products these technologies help create could cause a huge a splash with the trade or consumers in coming years. If they're regarded as overnight successes, their stories will have been written over years of development work.

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