If ‘new’ and ‘improved’ are to have meaning, food companies need processing and packaging systems that make products more than what they were.

Fun Fresh Concepts devoted as much energy to formulation work and processing adjustments as packaging innovation in developing its Deli Dashers line.
Added value means added profits, and added-value foods have become the mantra of the food industry. Meat and poultry companies, plagued for years with razor thin margins, have made impressive strides in the early 21st Century in transforming themselves from commodity suppliers to value-added processors.

The trend goes far beyond protein foods, of course. Virtually every food company is looking at ways to leverage state-of-the-art processing and packaging technologies to enhance the consumer and institutional-sales appeal of their products.

Packaging often is the most obvious manifestation of value-added foods, though packaging alone won’t deliver a better product if processes aren’t adjusted accordingly. “Engineering for the application is not often followed in the food industry,” grouses Roman Forowycz, president of Fun Fresh Concepts LLC, a developer, marketer and distributor of grab-and-go meals. “Packaging plays a role, but controlling water activity, pH, and other aspects of food formulation will make or break your product. You can’t take an existing product, throw it into a special package and think you’ve added value.”

That reality was taken to heart by Fall River Wild Rice, winner of this year’s Diamond Award for packaging innovation from DuPont Packaging (see story on page 21). Using a retort pouch that could go from the grocer’s shelf to the home microwave enhanced the convenience of gourmet rice, but the added value extends beyond that. “Some people want to maintain the snob appeal of wild rice, which is regarded as a sacred grain by the Indians,” says Hiram Oilar, general manager of the California Wild Rice Growers Association, which created the heat-and-eat product. “I lean toward something that is special but attainable for the average consumer.”

Stovetop preparation of wild rice can take up to an hour, and that’s enough to scare off most home cooks. Uncle Ben’s and others offer frozen prepared varieties, and refrigerated versions have about a 10-day sales code. Distributing a frozen or refrigerated product was beyond the coop’s financial means. When he saw shelf-stable salmon soup at a Natural Foods Show in Anaheim, Calif., Oilar saw wild rice’s future.

“If you can make salmon soup shelf stable, you can make wild rice shelf stable,” he reasoned. “The challenge was achieving 100 percent absorption of the water in the package during retort so that the rice came out moist and fluffy. That took a lot of trial and error.”

To overcome the challenge, Oilar deferred to the expertise of his copackers. They include DDM Foods Inc., retort specialists with two facilities in the Greenville, S.C., area. DDM has an alliance with Cryovac in developing a 6-lb. retort pouch designed as a foodservice replacement for the #10 can. Explosive growth in shelf-stable retort pouches threatens to max out capacity at DDM’s 16,000 sq. ft. plant that started up two years ago in Simpsonville, S.C., prompting president and CEO Robert Stoddard to lay the groundwork for an 80,000 sq. ft. operation called SouthPax, which should be operational in early 2005.

“Packaging is the major value-added feature in many of the new products being developed, with the thinner profiles allowing shorter cook times and higher quality foods,” allows Stoddard. “But retort technology continues to evolve. You can’t take a retort unit designed for cans and create these kinds of products. They require special technologies.” In DDM’s case, Stock America supplies the retort units used to create products like Fall River Wild Rice.

Star of the show

Retort refinements are not as obvious as breakthrough packaging, so processing equipment is cast in a supporting role. And while Stoddard and Forowycz take pains to emphasize R&D and the continuous process improvement imperative, it’s the packaging they use that consistently steals the show.

In fact, Forowycz is co-developer of three patented packaging concepts. A coinventor on one is James Sanfilippo, president and CEO of Clear Lam Packaging Inc., thermoformer of the 11-layer cups that deliver Fun Fresh’s Deli Dashers pasta and Oriental cups. The 10 oz. cups are gas flushed and boast a 30-day refrigerated life. Convenience stores are a primary outlet for Deli Dashers, which are designed to be shaken, microwaved for one minute and consumed in what the company euphemistically refers to as a “dashboard dining” experience.

“Visibility to the product is very important,” Forowycz believes, and Deli Dashers feature a clear, domed overcap of amorphous PET to give consumers a clear view of the product. “It’s not shelf stable because the perception of those products is that they are highly processed,” he says. “It’s a challenge to deliver refrigerated products that are fresh, are a good value and are good for you. I don’t know if we’ve achieved that yet, but we’re getting there.”

Fun Fresh owns the equipment and deploys in-house engineers to set up its production lines, which are operating in the plants of several copackers in a piecemeal national network. With sales momentum building, Forowycz has set his sites on a new production facility in Indiana. In the meantime, production has shifted away from Houston’s Amy Food Inc., the Oriental meal cups’ first copacker, because, as he explains, the company couldn’t meet growing demand.

Houston-based Amy Food may be out of the meal cup business, but the processor of Asian appetizers and entrees continues to reap returns from its investment a few years ago in gas-flush packaging machines that helped it to make the transition from foodservice to retail sales. By installing a customized Multivac R530 rollstock unit, Amy was able to extend the life of refrigerated rice bowls, pot stickers and egg rolls to 45-60 days from seven days.

“The package conveys a crisp, clear image of freshness,” according to Phyllis Hsu, co-owner of Amy with husband Victor Hsu. The success of the retail line led Amy to purchase a Multivac unit that can output 270 packages a minute, four times the rate of the first machine. The company remains a specialty player, relying on manual loading of both machines as it strives to attain a position as a gourmet-quality supplier.

A value-added product in which packaging takes a back seat to processing innovation is Diamond Glazed Nuts, a line of walnuts and pecans that is expanding Diamond of California beyond the culinary market and into mainstream snack foods. The company recently converted 6,000 sq. ft. in its Stockton, Calif., plant to produce the kettle-cooked items using a new patented process.

The nuts are processed in 25 lb. batches. After declumping on a cooling table, the glazed nuts are conveyed to a tumbler where they are sprayed with a natural antioxidant before packaging in nitrogen-flushed, vacuum-sealed pouches ranging from 0.5 to 24 ounces. The antioxidant retards rancidity and boosts shelf life to nine months. Conventional processing equipment was adapted by Diamond’s engineering staff to create the glazing process, according to Fred Jacobus, senior director of operations.

Whether processing or packaging is the star of the show, value-added products demand the adaptation of available technology to deliver food that actually is an improvement over what customers already can buy. How well processors make those adjustments determines if they have a hit on their hands or another new product that fails to live up to its promise.