Between focus groups, contract negotiations and machine engineering, it took Sargento Foods Inc. and Pactiv Corp. a year and a half to bring slider-style zipper closures to grocers' dairy cases. But all that development work is paying off with strong consumer sales and retailer enthusiasm for a packaging innovation that promises to sustain the 6 to 12 percent annual growth that has occurred in the shredded cheese category for the last five years.

National distribution of 8-oz. shredded cheeses was completed in July. They join earlier rollouts of 12- and 16-oz. packages. The convenience feature eventually will replace zipper closures on other Sargento cheese products.

"Minimally, it's going to raise the bar for the category and increase awareness of slider technology," according to Brad Rostowfske, senior business manager at Sargento, a packager and marketer of cheese products. "It also could drive new growth in other categories of the store if the technology is applied to value-added products."

Pactiv retrofitted Sargento's KBI horizontal form/fill/seal system with a unit that applies Pactiv's Slide-Rite closure before film reaches the folding board. The system runs at 50 to 70 bags per minute, depending on the product. Pre-made bags were an option that was rejected as too costly and disruptive to the operation, Rostowfske says. "We didn't raise the price of the new package because part of our mission is to raise value."

The Plymouth, Wis., firm has done such a good job of raising value over the last 46 years that it has grown from a small regional player to a national force with $400 million in net sales. Observers credit Sargento with inventing shredded cheese, a $1.8 billion category that didn't exist until company founder Leonard Gentine developed a nitrogen gas-flush system in 1958. The introduction of pegboard merchandising in 1969 was another Sargento breakthrough, but the first zippered closure in 1986 was arguably Sargento's most revolutionary change.

Zippered closures elevated Sargento to the No. 2 player in shredded cheese, despite having fewer skus and less distribution than the market leader. Sargento has 11 percent share vs. 24 percent for Kraft.

Slider-style closures also are produced by Presto Products and Zip-Pak Resealable Packaging, but Sargento selected the Pactiv system because of strong consumer preference for enclosed zippers with superior tamper evidence. Sargento has a long-term exclusive on Slide-Rite in the cheese category.

Packaging extends apples' shelf life
Sliced apples are the Holy Grail of fresh-cut produce, and a small start-up processor from Minnesota may have found it.

For at least 20 years, food scientists have sought to arrest browning and extend the shelf life of sliced apples. The growing market for convenience foods has accelerated those efforts. Some major processors have stumbled while attempting to tap the apple's potential, but Rochester, Minn.-based Reichel Foods has come up with upscale packaging and processes to extend shelf life.

The firm introduced Dippin' Stix two years ago because it needed an application for idle packaging material. Continued packaging and processing refinements have extended the product's refrigerated shelf life to 42 days.

"We felt quality packaging was as important as the quality of our product," explains founder Craig Reichel. Two-compartment thermoformed trays hold the apple slices and a dollop of caramel sauce. Lid stock with an antifogging additive is heat sealed to the tray. The 4-oz. package retails for $1.

The Reichel product contrasts with Tree Top Inc.'s 12-oz. polyprinted bag with a zip-strip closure and a 21-day shelf life. Both Tree Top and Reichel dip slices in a solution of water, calcium ions and ascorbate ions from Mantrose-Haeuser, Westport, Conn., but Reichel's packaging also supports a gas flush.

Research by the Washington Apple Commission suggests 84 percent of consumers would buy sliced apples, and two thirds of baby peeled carrot buyers would prefer sliced apples as a snack item.