For 20 years, watching aseptic's progress has been like watching paint dry. Thanks to filling and packaging innovations that may be changing.

Convenience stores and foodservice operators that don’t want to deal with the expense and scrap generated by single-serve coffee cream packages are converting to dispensers that use an aseptic bag with a combination filling/dispensing valve. Source: S&D Specialty Coffee.
A battle of the dispenser bags is underway in aseptic filling, and the hands-down winners will be companies that leverage aseptic technology to deliver superior-quality, safer products at lower cost to customers.

International Dispensing Corp. (IDC) was the first contender to crawl into the ring. The Hanover, MD, firm debuted its gravity-flow valve four years ago, and it continues to refine the design and drive down costs. Instead of outfitting pouches with one fitment for filling and another for dispensing, users can deploy single-fitment pouches using IDC's valve. Designed by engineers from the medical supplies industry, the valve can withstand high levels of irradiation, steam treatment and chemical sterilization without developing cracks and fissures. It also comes with a tamper-evident ring.

Scholle Corp.'s liquid packaging division in Northlake, IL, is going toe-to-toe with IDC, offering a flip-top filling/dispensing valve suitable for low-acid aseptic. Two tamper-evident membranes are incorporated in its design: an induction seal welded ultrasonically to the mouth of the valve and an inner membrane that is pierced by Scholle's Pierce Probe connector when the bag is ready for dispensing. The system reduces the cost of a two-fitment bag by about a third, according to Jim Arch, foodservice product manager. The 800FT became commercially available last year.

Independent process authorities have validated the efficacy of both companies' valves-National Food Laboratories reviewed IDC's device, while Creative Research Management conducted the Scholle challenge. Coincidentally, both were tested on Astepo fillers owned by VR Food Equipment, a Pen Yan, NY, copacker and the US distributor of Italy's Astepo line.

VR president Steve Von Rhedey ordered modifications to his aseptic filler three years ago to accommodate IDC's valve, which is too large for a conventional aseptic filling chamber. "We copack for a lot of people," explains Von Rhedey. The modification made good business sense because it attracted foodservice suppliers who saw the value of distributing perishable products without the cost of refrigeration. One of the earliest suppliers to seize the opportunity was Goodwest Industries Inc., a Parkerford, PA, supplier of bag-in-box cream dispensers. Goodwest has carved out a niche with coffee-service companies by outfitting refrigerated cream dispensers to replace single-serve coffee creamers. Convenience stores and other operators are also migrating to the dispensers because of lower cost and the elimination of waste.

Shelf stability allows non-refrigerated shipment of Goodwest's cream and milk for its vending operations. But just as consumers expect vending machines to deliver cold milk, public health inspectors expect cream in an opened container to be kept below 40

Scholle’s 800FT valve with a Pierce Probe reduces aseptic pouch costs by filling and dispensing through a single valve.

Peekaboo packaging

IDC's expectations for increased demand assume an increase in aseptic filling, and there's reason for optimism on that front. In a newly issued report, "Aseptic Packaging in the United States: Systems, Installations & Trends for Food & Beverage Markets," Packaging Strategies and Aseptic Resources Inc. estimate there are 558 aseptic fillers in operation, up from only 23 five years ago. There also were 1,195 aseptic filings with FDA last year, with the greatest growth involving low-acid foods.

High-acid beverages require faster fill rates than conventional aseptic fillers can deliver, allows Jeff Kellar, marketing director for Tetra Pak Inc. On the other hand, dairy-based beverages can be filled profitably at slower speeds, enabling processors of low-acid beverages to leverage the lower packaging costs of paperboard-polyethylene-foil composites and pouches versus rigid, multi-layer plastic bottles. As a result, manufacturers are taking a closer look at aseptic filling.

A cutaway of IDC’s gravity flow valve, the first combination filling/dispensing tap for aseptic.
Stodgy package options may pose a bigger hurdle to aseptic than fill speed. Tetra Pak is addressing that limitation with Tetra Wedge Aseptic, a family of funky pouch shapes. The newest innovation is a clear pouch designed to appeal to preteens who regard the Tetra Brik as kid's stuff. The worldwide debut of TWA Clear occurred in May when Mexican processor Jumex SA rolled out Nautix, "a clear solution for kids," according to Kellar. Produced on a modified TBA/19 aseptic filler, the drink is formulated with fewer preservatives than a hot filled juice would require.

Jumex created a cast of superheroes with names like Sombra, Moby and Shaina to promote Nautix. The 200-ml pouches show off the juice's blue color and support high-quality printing. A PET/silicon oxide gas barrier provides aseptic protection.

The first microwavable TWA application was two years ago in Finland (see "Aseptic container wedges open door to microwave," Food Engineering, May 2005). A US test of the V-shaped microwavable package is set for the fall. Tetra Pak will announce its commercial launch at the Worldwide Food Expo in Chicago this month.

Mr. Peanut

Snazzy packaging addresses a retail need, but more than likely, near-term growth will be on the foodservice side. An encouraging trend on that front is a movement toward downsized aseptic filling and processing systems. Major citrus processors already have transitioned from frozen inventory to aseptic deploying systems capable of processing 200 gallons or more per minute. Compared to those systems, a 15 gallons-a-minute Frigoscandia unit installed recently in Abbotsford, BC, "is just a peanut," says Glenna Matthews, aseptic processing technology manager for the FMC FoodTech division. But the Abbotsford system has all the components found in the bigger systems, and there are many more processors like Abbotsford Growers Cooperative than Tropicana.

Nautix, a children’s fruit juice manufactured by Mexican processor Jumex, lays claim to the worldwide debut of the transparent Tetra Wedge Aseptic pouch. A US application is expected in 2006. Source: Tetra Pak Inc.
Abbotsford's aseptic conversion was so recent, the co-op has yet to begin promoting shelf-stable shipments of raspberry purees as an alternative to frozen product in 28-pound plastic pails or 400-pound steel drums. That hasn't stopped buyers from requesting the aseptic alternative, however. "It's so new, we haven't had a chance to work out all the bugs yet, but there's already lots of interest from major manufacturers," says General Manager Doug Edgar. Typically, harvested raspberries are packed and run through a 0