FALL SIGNALS THE START OF soup season, and fans of the condensed variety may remember fall 2003 as the season they threw away their can openers.

Can makers have committed extensive engineering resources into making the pull-tab can easy to open by consumers but sturdy enough to withstand retort processing. Source: Crown Holdings.

The easy-open can end has been making inroads in retort products, but a watershed is occurring with conversions of commodity products. Seamers at Campbell Soup Co.'s four condensed-soup production plants were retooled during the summer to handle 211-diameter easy-open ends from Silgan Metal Containers. A leading copacker of condensed soups made a similar switch in the spring. Austin, Ind.-based Morgan Foods Inc. began using Crown Holdings' Eole III (easy open, low energy) ends.

Condensed soups still constitute the biggest share of Campbell's business, but last year's 5 percent sales drop was just a continuation of a downward spiral. Still, the Camden, N.J., processor is making major investments in condensed soups, with easy-open ends the latest example. The company also is extending its "cold-blend technology" to condensed soups containing chicken this fall. Cold blend reduces retort times to 25 to 30 minutes from 45 minutes for various soups, resulting in less mushy stock.

To support the can conversion, Woodland Hills, Calif.-based Silgan is installing new presses, as are other suppliers. The new Campbell ends also require a can that is 1/16th inch taller.

Crown installed two lines to produce ends in Massillon, Ohio, last year. "The lines now are at full capacity, and we're looking to expand," says Crown's Michael Dunleavy. Besides Morgan Foods, canning lines have been converted at Chiquita Brands International and Vietti Food Co., a regional canner in Nashville, Tenn.

To maintain head space while accommodating the pull tab on new cans of soup, Campbell went to a taller can with a deeper countersink to protect the tab from snag points in retort units.
"We dabbled in easy-open ends a few years ago on our premium products, then decided to put it on all 15-oz.-and-under products, including our budget line," according to Philip Connelly, Vietti's president. "It's already secured new business because it helps differentiate us. We think there will be enough new business to offset the added cost." The company makes chili and other products.

Elimination of changeovers between pull-tab and sanitary ends has meant efficiency improvements at Vietti. Not so at Morgan, where only a few customers have adopted the convenience feature. With Campbell's conversion, Morgan's Paul McCaig thinks that will change quickly. "There are some scheduling issues in running both easy-open and sanitary ends, but it's something we can work around," says McCaig.

Private-label products typically trail brand leaders in packaging innovation, yet retailers are taking the easy-open lead in some categories. Silgan's Jeff DeLiberty points out Wal-Mart offers store-brand condensed and evaporated milk, and other firms are responding to supermarket sales data showing lifts of 10 to 30 percent for products that switch. "By 2008, 65 to 70 percent of North American canned foods will have easy-open ends," he predicts, up from a third today.

For more information:
Keith Lucas, Crown Cork & Seal, 215-698-5305, klucas@crowncork.com
Jeff DeLiberty, Silgan Metal Containers, 818-710-3742, jdeliberty@silgancontainers.com