When 41 European school children became ill after consuming soft drinks two years ago, it touched off a 2.5 million bottle recall by Coca-Cola Enterprises Belgium. It also put the outside of beverage packaging under the harsh glare of public scrutiny. One industry response is hygienic caps for aluminum cans.

Consumer activists are pressuring the Italian government for a ban on pop-top aluminum cans, according to Giancamillo Spelta, marketing coordinator for Imola, Italy-based SACMI Group. An incident in which insecticide was splashed over pallets of aluminum cans added momentum to their crusade and prompted some firms to implement capping systems.

The solution selected by Pepsi Cola Italy is SACMI's Healthy Cap machine, which is positioned between the seaming device outlet and the heat-shrinking machine infeed. Two Pepsi plants serving the Italian market have been outfitted with the HCP 036 and HCP 048 systems.

The larger unit caps 48 cans at a time in a thermoforming blanking mold, handling 1,000 units a minute. That machine was undergoing testing in October, according to Pepsi plant manager Antonio Zanetti, adding, "We rate (the first machine) to be a reliable system. From the analysis done, the Healthy Cap guarantees the protection requested."

After pneumatically actuated grippers load cans into one of six baskets' 48 cavities, a horizontal-axis wheel rotates the load to the thermoforming zone. Plastic film heated to 130-220 C degrees is formed over the top and cut. The cap's snug fit maintains the cans' easy stacking advantage, and the machine's unloading zone can separate cans into singles or six-packs and other configurations.

Multi colors and promotional messages are being incorporated into the caps, Spelta says, and the cap safeguards against leakers and corrosion. But the greatest benefit is the protection the removable lid provides against any outside contamination being ingested by consumers. "The impact on customers' perceptions has been positive," Zanetti says.

For a plant outputting 250 million cans a year, Spelta estimates material, capital, electric, manpower and other capping costs at two-tenths of a cent per unit.