Out of The (Ice) Box

With a range of stringent processing requirements, aseptic packaging remains a slow mover in the cold-based U.S. market.
by Lynn Petrak
Shelf appeal has always gotten a lot of attention from dairy manufacturers and marketers, but these days, it’s being interpreted in a novel way.
Shelf-stable dairy products, once the stuff of 21st century predictions or thought of as relegated to cold chain-challenged parts of the world, are slowly making their way out of refrigerators in this country.
To be sure, the emphasis is on slow — there is no rapid change in the way dairy products are produced and distributed in the United States and it’s not likely the average mom will open the pantry door to serve her kids milk from an ambient bulk container.
That said, there have been breakthrough concepts and potentially effective and profitable areas for aseptic packages of various dairy and dairy-based foods and beverages. “The way to think about it is that it is a very specialized application. While applications are getting broader and more mainstream, aseptic packaging will never replace the gallon jug. Its role is to do things the gallon jug can’t do,” says Jeff Keller, vice president of strategic business development for Tetra Pak, Vernon Hills, Ill., a supplier of packaging materials for dairy, including aseptic capabilities. “Aseptic packaging adds value, improves flavor in certain products and improves supply chain economics of many systems.”
The aseptic process is decidedly different from traditional production and packaging of perishable foods like dairy products. First, and probably foremost, aseptic processing sterilizes a food or beverage product by destroying potentially harmful microorganisms by a stringently controlled thermal process, also known as flash or ultra-high-temperature (UHT) pasteurization. All products must then be conveyed a sterile (think operating room) environment to be placed in a sterile package. The packaging material itself is a critical aspect of aseptic technology, since it is the barrier between production and end use.
As Keller points out, aseptic processing and accompanying packaging technology can impart several benefits to a product and, in turn, to a processor. In addition to long-term shelf stability and food safety attributes, aseptic technology also can produce items of improved sensory quality, enhance nutrient retention and allow for a more versatile use of containers that range in material type and design.
The Arlington, Va.-based Aseptic Packaging Council, for its part, promotes the fact that aseptic packages tend to be energy efficient and recyclable as well as convenient and appealing to consumers leery of added preservatives in their food and drinks.
Many industries have utilized the technology for years, in fact. Aseptic packages are used for a wide variety of food and beverage items in the United States, including soy-based drinks, infant formula, tomato sauce and liquid eggs.
For all of the advantages, though, there has been at best a gradual expansion of aseptic processing into the dairy category. “One thing holding back the aseptic market is cold-chain distribution in this country, which is rock solid. That makes it a challenge,” says Christopher Hoemeke, who works in business development for filling equipment supplier Sidel Inc., Norcross, Ga., noting such systems also require a significant capital investment.
Such barriers don’t mean there aren’t windows of opportunity opening for the movement of aseptic products through new or even existing distribution channels. “One thing that could really change it is the rising cost of transportation,” Hoemeke says.
In addition, the creative use of aseptic formats in Europe, Asia and even South America, where they are now flourishing, may also cause U.S. processors to take note of some trends and possible applications here. “If you travel in Europe, aseptic packaging is more common. Although that level of acceptance has yet to be realized in this country, I think there is potential based on the European experience,” says Paul Burdick, director of marketing and sales for Schneider Packaging Equipment  Co. Inc., Brewerton, N.Y., which supplies various packaging systems for traditional as well as aseptic purposes.
Brick by Brick
Currently, one of the most common formats for dairy-based aseptic products is the multi-layered, high-barrier carton, also known as a drink box or brick package. Tetra Pak is a leading supplier of this type of package, supplying Tetra Brik and Tetra Prisma® packages for single-serve consumption.
The Tetra Prisma was first used to a national extent in the dairy market by Longmont, Colo.-based Horizon Organic for shelf-stable, single-serve flavored milks. Launched nearly three years ago, the milks became popular grab-and-go items at nationwide Starbucks Coffee stores as well as in natural food stores, club stores and eventually in mainstream supermarkets, where they are now also available in multi-packs.
Although usually merchandised in the refrigerated section, the shelf-stable format helped operators add value to their business by easier storage and distribution. In another way, the visibility of such products introduced many Americans to the concept of fluid milk that did not require refrigeration.
On the heels of Horizon Organic’s success, Bravo Foods International, North Palm Beach, Fla., also chose the Tetra Prisma package for one format for its line of Slammers flavored milk products geared to kids. In addition to plastic bottles with ESL products, Bravo has opted for shelf-stable milk as another option for those in its distribution channel. Both the bottle and the 11.2-ounce aseptic carton feature nearly identical colors and graphics, including the use of licensed Marvel® superhero figures.
More recently, Tetra Pak has supplied Prisma aseptic cartons to ESE Dairies, a subsidiary of East Side Entrees, Woodbury, N.Y. A major supplier of more than 3,000 school districts around the country, ESE wanted a package that would encourage children to drink more milk and that didn’t require refrigeration. ESE’s Prisma packages of flavored milks and milkshakes, under the Shake ’n’ Sip brand, feature characters from popular Nickelodeon cartoons, such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Jimmy Neutron.
School vending is a logical extension of the brick package, and one Tetra Pak is pursuing in other avenues as well. Schools can especially benefit from the shelf stability of milk products, as the company points out, because such packages help ensure food safety while cutting down on spoilage and waste.
Along with school-based programs, Keller believes the next generation of Prisma packages could emerge in other aspects of foodservice. “Another area of development for milk and flavored milk is through quick-service restaurants. We think there is a real opportunity in that channel for aseptic milk for kids,” he says, adding that the recent switch to from cartons to plastic single-serve bottles at chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s may result in an interest in milk drinks with even longer shelf lives or those that offer shelf storage. “As you look as supply chain issues and benefits, you’ll find key opportunities for aseptic flavored milk because they can provide variety you may not be able to provide with pasteurized [products].”
Whether sold through retail or foodservice outlets, another advantage of aseptic cartons is the potential size and shape variation. Schneider, for example, recently helped Stamford, Conn.-based Mott’s Inc. bring production of its shelf stable Yoo-Hoo drink boxes in house, as the company wanted a different look in its packaging format. The Tetra Brik packages were slimmed down to better fit young consumers’ hands, which also allowed Mott’s to increase the number of drink boxes placed in multi-packs. Schneider provided the plant’s new custom packaging line, including supplying a conveyor feed, multi-packer and tray packer.
According to Burdick, the system for aseptic Briks has actually proven more user friendly than some traditionally packaged products. “On the aseptic side, it’s one of the simpler applications we have. It’s single tier and we don’t have a lot of layering involved, for example,” he explains.
Beyond the Carton
Aseptic drink boxes may have generated a lot of interest in recent years for their various attributes, but there are other types of containers that work well with aseptically processed dairy products. For example, the shelf-stable Raging Cow™ dairy-based drink, a product of Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Plano, Texas, has been packaged in a high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottle that is aseptically filled on a Tetra Pak system.
The aseptically filled bottle, in fact, may be a focus of other milk processors, who continue to tinker with the shelf life of their products. Already, dairies like Orrville, Ohio-based Smith Dairy have developed ways to sell flavored milks with a 60-day referigered shelf life in a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle, packaged using a sterile filler.
Pouches are another type of material used for dairy products manufactured under aseptic conditions. Among its line of films, Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Packaging, for example, offers an Enhance™ aseptic pouch. Designed to protect a sterile product from outside contamination, pouches made with Enhance film are commonly used in foodservice settings and chosen for their safety, shelf life, storage capability, less packaging waste and elimination of the use of additives.
Tetra Pak, too, supplies pouches, including a traditional Tetra Wedge Aseptic pouch and its latest offering, the Tetra Wedge Aseptic Clear pouch. “I believe the Aseptic Clear has some exceptional dairy opportunities, for products like flavored milks, drinkable puddings and smoothies. It allows for transparent printing technology that maximizes printing clarity and impact,” Keller says.
Applications for both types of Tetra Pak Wedge pouches include dairy products, such as bases used by foodservice operators and ice cream bases sold to consumers through gourmet stores and catalogs.
Meanwhile, along with the container itself, aseptic packages feature an increasing array of bells and whistles these days, or at least more advanced accessories. The Tetra Prisma, for instance, is often packaged with a glued-on straw, especially engineered for the products’ main consumers, children. In addition, Tetra Pack now offers a screw cap option for its 12-ounce, 16-ounce and quart Brik packages.
In the area of foodservice and bulk containers, there have been other types of enhancements in aseptic package features. International Dispensing Corp., Hanover, Md., for example, recently commercialized the world’s only gravity flow valve (GFV), designed to allow liquid products to be dispensed from a flexible bag or pouch without oxygen or bacteria entering the package. The valve’s first commercial applications include dairy and ready-to-drink coffee beverages.
Equipped for Success
The vessel is usually the main focus of aseptic packaging technology, but the equipment on which it is run is also crucial. Improvements have been made in several areas of aseptic machinery, from aseptic fillers to conveyor systems to loaders and palletizers.
Sidel’s R&D team, for example, detected a need for more efficient filling systems for ESL and aseptic products. “The missing element on these lines has been line design and line engineering. Everyone is focusing so much on the filler itself and forgets how much an improperly designed line can bring you down,” Hoemeke says. “If downstream isn’t running, neither is your expensive filler.”
To help ensure a properly designed system, Sidel works with dairies to incorporate its integrated blowing, filling and capping systems with other machines on the line for greater consistency and efficiency. Among other features for aseptic purposes, Sidel’s systems allow for fill volume to be controlled by electromagnetic commands of the filling nozzle. The machinery also has been engineered to reduce labor, because contamination sources are most likely to be equipment operators at that stage of production.
Further down the line, Schneider has focused on speed and efficiency for aseptic packaging as well. The company’s latest TP-35 Tray Packer model for aseptic cartons is capable of running 200 ml to 1.5 liter aseptic cartons at a rate of up to 25 trays a minute. Schneider’s MP-20 Multi-Packer/Bundler then takes single products like aseptic cartons, collates them into a bundle and shrink-wraps them. Both systems, says Burdick, are designed for sanitation, which is key in any processing environment, much less an aseptic one. “The equipment is all stainless steel for washdown,” he says.  df
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
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