Sealing the Deal

by Lynn Petrak
Resealable and recloseable packaging delivers on freshness, portability and convenience.
When it comes to opening up new markets for dairy products, recloseable and resealable packaging accomplishes that objective in a rather literal way. Although dairy foods and beverages have long been designed for straightforward opening and closing, the importance of resealing packages has taken on new importance, as consumers seek ever-greater guarantees of quality, convenience and spill-proof on-the-go consumption.
It’s no secret that as dairy product lines have expanded, so too have packaging options for the increasing array of dairy-based items sold in retail and foodservice settings. From milk bottles to flexible packages of shredded and chunk cheeses to yogurt cups, more products are sold with resealable closures.
The evolution toward more resealable and recloseable packages that protect products from everything from spillage to spoilage is primarily driven by consumer demand. “It is processors and marketers responding to the consumer. I think the consumer views it as a premium package,” observes Timothy Ferrel, vice president of sales for Phoenix Closures, Naperville, Ill.
Dairy companies are all too aware of customer interest in packages with more proverbial bells and whistles than before, and are increasingly investing in features like recloseability to maintain or improve their market share. “Consumers have told us in research, such as focus groups and in unsolicited comments, that ease of opening and closing food packaging is very important in their decision making in the dairy case,” reports Barbara Gannon, vice president of corporate and marketing communications for Plymouth, Wis.-based Sargento Foods Inc., an early proponent and user of advanced sealing mechanisms for its shredded cheese products.
Dissecting consumer demands a bit, it appears a desire for convenience is key. “Convenience is always a factor when you are talking to consumers. That is a big part of our market,” says Mike Wilcox, vice president of sales and marketing for Elopak Inc., with U.S. offices in New Hudson, Mich. Larry Rebodos, marketing manager for Pactiv Corp., Lake Forest, Ill., agrees. “As consumers today, we are all about convenience. A package is useless if it doesn’t work,” Rebodos says.
Semantically speaking, convenience means different things to different people. One aspect of convenience is the ability to close and seal a product and use it at a later time. Such portability has been cited in several consumer focus groups that eventually led to resealable features. “Portability goes into reusability. Someone in a convenience store buys milk, has a couple of sips, reseals it and puts it back in the car, and five minutes later wants some more,” says Scott Cheek, marketing manager for Alcoa Closure Systems International (CSI), Indianapolis.
Likewise, Ferrel believes the increasingly mobile lifestyle of consumers spanning many demographic groups has been an impetus in the development of such package features. “With milk, there are and always have been concerns about freshness, but when you talk about single serve it really is a function of convenience, in the ability to have a package you can drink from, reclose and not have to worry about, whether it’s in a cup holder or refrigerator,” he says.
Another aspect of convenience is tied to protection against waste, which can be costly to consumers, distributors and processors alike. “We found there was a need in the dairy industry to control leaks, with feedback from a combination of retailers and processors,” says Cheek.
Ferrel agrees that spillage has been a factor in closure designs. “You are really talking about maintaining a package that isn’t going to leak once it gets in consumers’ hands,” he says. “If kids grab it and knock it on its side, it won’t leak.”
Beyond fluid milk, waste can be an issue for other dairy categories as well, with less protected packages more vulnerable to quality problems. “As far as recloseable performance, a lot of feedback was gathered about the difficulty to line up and pinch the two pieces that track together,” Rebodos says of previous press-to-close flexible packages of cheese. “There was not 100 percent security that it was truly closed. Air gaps could cause drying out or spoilage.”
Another more serious concern that has been spawning tighter seals on all types of packaging formats is safety. “The other issue is security. There is an assurance level there when you are opening a closure, that you are the one opening it for the first time,” says Wilcox. Adds Ferrel: “Leakage is a huge issue, but after 9/11, safety has become a focus for a lot of our customers, that the food chain could be vulnerable to tampering. Many people spend a lot of resources to assure safety.”
As concerns about spoilage prevention and potential tampering indicate, a distinction can be made between the terms “recloseable” and “resealable.” They are not, as some point out, necessarily interchangeable. “Those are two different words. A gabletop, for example, can be reclosed but it may not be sealed. If tipped over, it can spill,” Wilcox says, adding that end users can distinguish between the formats as well. “Consumers believe because it is sealed, a package locks in flavor and protects the carton or bottle a bit more.”
Fluid Situations
In the fluid dairy market, both resealability and recloseability have become greater areas of emphasis over the past decade, especially given the growth of new package formats, such as single-serve bottles, extended-shelf-life bottles and more sophisticated gabletop containers. “The dairy market has gone through a huge evolution in the last 10 years, as they have tried to position milk as a premium beverage. That is somewhat unique compared to other industries,” says Ferrel.
As it is wont to do, competition naturally spurs innovation, including on the closure side of milk packaging. “Dairies have to portray an image that competes with other brands out there. It used to be a carton of milk sitting on a shelf, but now you are seeing a lot of fairly sophisticated packaging,” says Cheek.
Competition counts within the category as well. Ferrel cites the growing number of custom-designed recloseable and resealable package features, such as the caps that Phoenix has specifically designed for Dean Foods’ Milk Chugs®, Land O’Lakes Grip and Go® bottles and Hershey’s® flavored milk bottles from Dean’s Morningstar Foods division. “I think the proliferation of those packages speaks for itself. The most successful packages still rely on unique designs to differentiate their brand,” Ferrel says.
In light of such trends, several suppliers have introduced new package features over the past year. Alcoa CSI, for example, launched a new 38-mm Seal MAX cap in late 2003, a hard-shell screw-on/screw-off cap with an interior liner and a specially designed tamper-evident band. “It allows the consumer to open it, reseal it and not have to worry about the bottle leaking,” says Cheek. “The seal not only stops leaks from coming out, but prevents oxygen from coming in.” The Seal MAX closure can be used to reseal several types of fluid beverage bottles.
Blackhawk Molding Co. Inc., Addison, Ill., has also responded to marketplace demands with its caps. Currently the company is expanding the distribution of its Super Quad cap, a four-thread, resealable cap used in conjunction with Blackhawk’s STS direct drive capping system. “It’s noted for its ability to prevent leaking and it’s used extensively in the Midwest,” general manager Dale Berg says, adding that the cap also helps prevent tampering. “Five years ago, we had three dairies using it, and now we have 60.”
The Super Quad cap may be its most popular model, but Blackhawk is at work creating the next generation of resealable closures. “We are looking at a new packaging rendition that incorporates the Super Quad technology called the Fresh Seal System,” Berg says, noting the prototype will be officially unveiled at an industry trade show in the fall. “Safety and portability will be the big advantages of the new system and we think it will work well in the small single-serve category.”
The popularity of plastic bottles with screw-on/screw-off resealable closures has prompted many suppliers to enter that niche, even if it is a new area for them. Elopak, for instance, began offering screw caps for its paperboard gabletop cartons a few years ago and recently developed blow-molding equipment for its dairy and juice customers. “Without a doubt, there is pressure on suppliers to develop caps for cost effectiveness as well as performance,” says Wilcox.
Elopak is also at work on new designs for effective dairy closures. “Our latest is the Elo-Cap™ UP, which features an exterior tamper-evident band as well as pull-plug dual tamper evidence,” Wilcox says. “We are also in the process of introducing new caps.”
Custom closures remain big business when it comes to helping guarantee recloseability and resealability. Phoenix Closures, for example, has created custom caps for several major dairies, including Dean and Land O’Lakes. “We work very closely with our customers. The process can be as little as 16 weeks or take as long as three years, depending on the project,” Ferrel says, adding that the dairy segment has been a hotbed of R&D activity in recent years. “Dairy is an area with a lot of potential, as companies come out with new flavors, products and packages.”
Most recently, Phoenix refined the Dean Milk Chugs closures to allow for greater tamper evidency. “It was a huge order, and one of the more difficult design projects we had, from a performance standpoint, an aesthetic standpoint and a price standpoint. But we pulled it off,” says Ferrel, noting the tamper band ring was created so customers would not be left with an extra piece of plastic as in many tear-away bands.
Alcoa, too, does custom work for large dairy processors looking to distinguish themselves with non-standard resealable features. One recent project was a molded cap for Nestlé Nesquik® ready-to-drink flavored milk, which featured an image of the brand’s famous bunny icon. “For many dairies and brand mangers, the package is just as important as the product in delivering on consumers’ expectations,” says Cheek.
The Flexibility Factor
Another focus of innovative resealable and recloseable packaging has been flexible packages of pre-portioned cheeses, including shredded cheese and snacking cheese cubes. The first recloseable package may have been developed in the mid-1980s by Sargento, but the category is anything but stagnant. Sargento moved from a press-to-close recloseable feature to a slider in 2001, which continues to spur positive consumer feedback, says Gannon. “The slider is easier to open and securely reclose for people of all ages,” she says. “There is a confidence that the package is indeed reclosed, and it provides a ‘fresher, longer’ perceived benefit, since the cheese is not accidentally left open and consequently dries out in the refrigerator.”
To be sure, the success of Pactiv’s Hefty® Slide-Rite® advanced closure system — which was an exclusive Sargento feature for the first few years of its launch — has impacted the marketplace. “They (Sargento) started the revolution of recloseability and at this point, you would be hard pressed to find any shredded cheese without recloseability,” Rebodos says, adding the trend has moved over into other food and non-food markets as well. “We also sell it in deli meat and several other segments, from potting soil to coffee packages.”
The Slide-Rite closure, comprised of linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), provides strength and stiffness to improve top retention and opening force to more effectively pull the slider off the track and pull the tracks apart. The closure is available from 0.3 to 1.25-inch strips on reels, used in horizontal form-fill-seal machines.
Another feature that has replaced the sometimes cumbersome press-to-close package top is technology developed by Manteno, Ill.-based Zip-Pak Inc., a division of ITW. Last year, Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods upgraded its shredded cheese line with the Zip-Pak® Slider™. “It’s no surprise that processors want to upgrade to the latest technology,” says Robert Hogan, director of sales and marketing. “Now, we are even seeing some individually packaged items like string cheese in packages with a zipper.”
According to Hogan, consumers are leading the trend toward the use of sliders and zippers in this category. “Consumers are very good at knowing what they like and don’t like in packaging,” he says. “Our focus groups we’ve done show exactly that — consumers talk about their preferences and the reasons behind them, and are very specific about what they like about zippers. It’s almost at the point where they seem to be using technical terms.”
Many consumers also understand that convenience comes with a price. “Consumers are willing to pay for it. If you look at food storage bags, for instance, the price point for a resealable gallon freezer bag is 15 cents and people are buying those buy the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Hogan says. “By comparison, putting a slider on a cheese package is probably about a nickel.”
Rebodos, too, says an increasing number of manufacturers are investing in the latest zipper and closure technology, which can involve adding new equipment designed to work with existing form-fill-seal machines. “Sargento had the ability to pass some of the cost along, but they chose not to and decided to take their gains in growing the market share,” he recalls, adding that the cost difference can be shifted to the consumer, absorbed by the manufacturer or split.
Other Open-and-Shut Cases
Bottles of fluid beverages — from milk to drinkable yogurts to dairy-based functional drinks — and pouches and bags of shredded cheese may be the most ubiquitous examples of resealable package features, but other dairy products are packaged with recloseability in mind.
Zip-Pak, for instance, has seen substantial growth in resealable packages of powdered milk, currently used by many foreign marketers. “We have a product called the Powder Proof Zipper, with evacuation ports. Sometimes, zippers can get clogged, and this allows it to escape back into the bag,” explains Hogan. Used for powdered milk and other drink mixes, the Powder Proof Zipper is a growing part of the company’s business, he adds, and is especially popular in the Pacific Rim, where distribution chains are not as advanced as in the United States.
In addition, many rigid containers of spoonable yogurt also include recloseable lids, as opposed to the peel-off foil lids that have been popular for decades. Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Dannon and Minneapolis-based Yoplait-Columbo USA for example, have opted for rigid lids for several of their yogurt products, as have other manufacturers. Super Store Industries, Stockton, Calif., recently replaced its recessed lids with a new foil heat seal with a clear high-density polyethylene (HDPE) lid.
Ice cream makers, meanwhile, who have long topped paperboard cartons with paperboard lids, are using more plastic lids, at least on pint containers. In addition to providing an aesthetic boost, such lids also help seal in freshness and flavor. Plastic lids also continue to impact the dairy-based spread and spreadable butter category, used on plastic tubs and containers.
Finally, as demographics are shifting, suppliers and processors alike are expected to continue to emphasize resealability. “The aging Baby Boomer population has been attributed to the increased interest in easier to open and reclose packaging features,” says Gannon.
Wilcox agrees. “I think consumers like caps because they are typically very familiar with them and know how to use them. As the Baby Boomers age, they react to it because they like the convenience of it,” he says, adding that his own 85-year-old mother-in-law appreciates easy-to-open and resealable containers. “With a screw cap, she can handle it.”
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.