by Lynn Petrak
Dairy packages sport an array of safety and security features, designed to keep out pathogens and predators alike.
Safety and security have been on the nation's collective consciousness for some time, and with good reason. Sky-is-falling scenarios aside, there are genuine concerns and realities about the nation's food supply, including perishable dairy foods and beverages.
Although the dairy industry is not under as much fire and may not pose the same risks as other markets, such as the meat and poultry sector, foodborne pathogens like salmonella, listeria and E. coli still have potentially serious consequences. The Council of Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) estimates that up to 33 million cases of foodborne diseases occur each year in the United States with an annual cost of $5 billion to $8 billion. Some of those illnesses are linked to dairy products.
On the security side, in an era of color-coded warning systems and a general buttoning up of production and packaging, the threat of bioterrorism cannot be taken lightly, from either foreign or domestic culprits. Ever since September 11, 2001, the issue has been on the table for many manufacturers.
In fact, government regulations now address bioterrorism specifically as it relates to food production. Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 passed by Congress, all domestic food manufacturing facilities were required by mid-December to register with the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Food manufacturers also must now give FDA prior notice of any imports, and this month, the agency is expected to announce final rules on administrative detention and recordkeeping.
Packaging for food safety and security may not be the biggest focus of packaging innovations right now – think convenience and high-impact graphics – but the desire for tamper-proof features is practically a given. Indeed, say some packaging suppliers, it is almost always a consideration when mulling over designs and prototypes. "Tamper evidence is usually in the top four or five things they are concerned about," reports Jeff Keller, vice president of strategic business development for Tetra Pak North America. The Vernon Hills, Ill., packager provides dairy manufacturers with several types of packages, from traditional gable-top milk cartons to bottles with screw-top closures to aseptic bricks and boxes.
Sharon Lobel, president and chief executive officer of Long Island, N.Y.-based Seal-It Inc., underscores the fact that dairy processor interest in tamper-proof features stems directly from consumers. "I think tamper evidence to the consumer is very important. I want to know if I'm the first one to touch that product," says Lobel. "It's a vote of
Ultimately, safety and security do not exist in a vacuum. They are concepts that apply just as much to quality and freshness as they do to preventing any intentional harm or halting a specific pathogen. "It's all tied together. We provide zipper-type packages or tear-strip features on shredded cheeses for the purpose of freshness, recloseability and safety," reports Dennis Bonn, a vice president of marketing for North American food, flexible and specialty packaging for Chicago-based Pechiney Plastic Packaging Inc., recently acquired by Montreal-based Alcan. "In that market segment, it is probably for all three reasons that customers have requested it."
Such a multi-purpose approach makes it easier for dairy customers, who can add one or two tamper-evident materials and benefit in numerous ways. The growing use of shrink-sleeve labels, which offer a colorful billboard effect along with various safety features, is one example. "You are doing primary decoration as well as providing packaging with tamper evidence in one application," says Neil Konstantin, president of shrink-sleeve material and equipment maker PDC International, South Norwalk, Conn.
Lobel agrees. "A shrink-sleeve label offers 360 degrees of printing," she says. "You can have a less-expensive container and make it look like anything you want, which is a big savings to the customer."
Not Shrinking From Responsibility
Shrink-sleeve labels have already revolutionized packaging to a large extent. The trend, which now extends even to items like salad dressing, gained momentum in the single-serve milk bottle category where it still reigns.
The newest generation of shrink sleeves includes extended labels that fit over a closure, which are perforated when opened. Konstantin foresees such extended-sleeve labels as an efficient choice for processors. "The trend is there, but dairies have yet to take advantage of it fully," he says, adding that other food items like pudding cups and fruit cups are packaged with fully extended sleeves. "The technology could also be used on things like cultured product or dips, where you are both decorating tapered tubs and providing tamper evidence over the closures."
Extended labels offer other benefits, such as up-front identification at the store level. "At the point of purchase, the consumer can verify the integrity of the external seal, which they can't do with an inner seal," says Konstantin.
Seal-It also provides extended sleeves to several of its dairy customers who want an all-inclusive approach to tamper proofing. "I think it helps sell your product that much better," says Lobel, adding those labels can be done at a "reasonable" cost.
In addition to extended shrink-sleeve labels, Seal-It, PDC and other suppliers also offer tamper-evident plastic bands that can be wrapped around lids, caps or closures. Like sleeves, bands are proving that what is functional doesn't have to be generic. Seal-It's tamper-evident bands can be printed in several colors, as well as with logos or additional graphics. "We also can do it with a message on it, like the brand name or a statement along the lines of "'Do not use if band isn't on,'" says Lobel, adding that perimeter shrink bands are appealing to consumers because of their simplicity. "It's been shown that tamper-evident bands are more formidable to the consumer because they are visible — with a cap, you're not always sure and you can't see it right away."
Tamper-evident bands are currently used for many different dairy package formats, such as cultured products like sour cream, cottage cheese and some pudding containers. Ice cream packages are increasingly sporting shrink bands as well. Unilever's Ben & Jerry's brand, South Burlington, Vt., added a clear recyclable shrink band to its pints almost two years ago, while Orrville, Ohio-based processor Smith Dairy uses Seal-It's PVC shrink band for its rounded-corner paperboard ice cream cartons.
Topping It Off
Sound decisions often come from the top, and the same can be said for dairy products fitted with protective caps, closures, lids or seals.
For fluid dairy products, including milk, cream and dairy-based blended beverages, the most common safeguard is a secure cap that doubles as a guarantee against leakage. Dairies can choose from different cap and closure models — again in a multitude of styles and colors — from many suppliers.
Safety rings on plastic containers and jugs have been a popular feature for years. A broken ring is an immediate and visible signal that a bottle has been previously opened. Tear strips, wrapped around a cap and designed to be pulled off at the point of opening, have also become a staple of the beverage category.
Because some safety rings and strips are flimsier than others, packaging suppliers have enhanced technology to create more secure versions. Indianapolis–based Alcoa Closure Systems International (CSI) recently extended technology from one of its longtime juice applications to dairy products for single-serve milk bottles as well as gallon-sized high-density polypropylene (HDPE) and PET containers. Alcoa CSI's Seal-MAX™ closure, available for screw-top bottles, prevents leaks and provides tamper evidence, thanks to a robust molded liner and Extra-Lok™ tamper band. "The issue we've seen is that there have been problems with tamper bands either coming off with the closure or falling off milk bottles," explains John Krasich, Alcoa CSI global business development director. "The Seal-MAX tamper band separates easily from the main part of the closure and does a good job of hanging on to the bottle." To complement the rainbow of colors on today's milk bottles, the closure is available in a variety of colors, says Krasich.
Portola Packaging, San Jose, Calif., also offers sophisticated tamper-evident fitments and closures. One example is the company's Easy-to-Open Inner Pull Ring, a two-piece snap-on closure made from a threaded injection-molded bottom component and an injection-molded top component that screws into the threads of the bottom piece. Both pieces are joined as the cap is snapped on to the bottle's neck finish and separated when a consumer screws off the top piece and removes the pull ring. For safety and security purposes, Portola also offers dual tamper-evident fitments, featuring external and internal tamper-evident designs, with a molded membrane and external tamper-evident band.
In addition to two-piece closures, screw-top and snap caps are frequently paired with an inner seal for an extra layer of protection. Foil and foam seals can usually be provided by cap and closure suppliers, although they do require an extra step on the packaging line.
Under-lid seals are common in many dairy products. Several yogurt cups feature either a foil or film seal under a lid that would be obvious if penetrated. Ice cream packages increasingly are designed with seals, again added for determination of puncture or tears. "We do a lot of foil-lidding material and are the exclusive supplier for Häagen-Dazs," says Bonn.
Tamper-evident features at the top of a product aren't limited to caps and closures for beverages. Flexible packages, like those used for cheeses, also commonly include some type of tamper-evident feature at the top, again used to guarantee freshness as much as to guard against adulterated contents. Pechiney's zipper closures and tear-off strips are one example, and have led most shredded cheese pouches and shingle packs of sliced deli-style cheeses to be outfitted with similar tamper-evident components. "It's more for ease of opening than anything else, but once it's been opened, it would be tamper evident," says Bonn. Chunk cheeses, by and large, are not yet designed with such reclosable features, he adds.
Providing True Stability
Although many efforts to ensure safety and security center on protective features like tear-strips, zippers, lidding and closures, sometimes the product form itself is changed. For instance, first popularized in Europe, shelf-stable products sold in aseptic packages are now making their way, albeit slowly, to the American marketplace.
Tetra Pak has developed many prototypes for aseptic packaging, including some for dairy-based items. The company supplies the unique layered Prisma® packaging for single-serve, shelf-stable boxes of milk from Horizon Organic, Longmont, Colo., now sold in supermarkets as well as through the ubiquitous Starbucks Coffee chain. Tetra Pak recently has used similar technology for brick packages of dairy-based liquids used for foodservice, such as shelf-stable crème brulée and hollandaise sauce bases.
Shelf-stable products in aseptic packages provide the ultimate protection against foodborne pathogens because they are processed at ultra-high temperatures to kill off any bacteria. That said, packages also feature tamper evidence for security reasons, in the form of caps and puncture- or tear-evident brick materials. "We are able to take all the food safety issues out of the kitchen and back to the manufacturing facility," says Keller. "You are not giving up taste or quality."
Aseptic milks may not be mainstream yet, but they are expected to take hold in some sectors because they offer advantages besides food safety, including the ability to be stored on the shelf and distributed without refrigeration.
Keller, for his part, predicts growth in many types of distribution channels. "We are hot on the trail of club stores. If you think about club stores, they are for people who stock up," he says. "Another channel with interesting potential is the dollar store, which is a non-refrigerated channel that does sell a lot of food. They will be one of the fastest growing areas for foods."
Vending machines and school lunch programs, he adds, offer other possibilities for aseptic single-serve products that are both safe and secure.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance$OMN_arttitle="On Guard";?>
journalist based in the Chicago area.
journalist based in the Chicago area.