Bending to Pressure
In an increasingly competitive climate, flexible-packaging innovations span dairy categories and formats.
by Lynn Petrak
The dairy industry has demonstrated greater flexibility in recent years, in approaches to processing, new product development and marketing. Flexibility also applies, in a more literal sense, to packaging, as more dairy manufacturers embrace flexible-packaging solutions.
The definition of flexible packaging can vary. In general, as opposed to rigid materials like plastic and polyethylene (PET), flexible packaging includes traditional paperboard containers as well as more contemporary dairy packages like pouches, films, stand-up bags and multi-layered brick cartons. Sometimes, the notion of flexible packaging can cross into proverbial gray areas, such as shrink sleeves; although used on rigid plastic bottles, sleeve labels themselves are considered flexible.
Whatever the format, the growth of dairy flexible packaging can be tied to a surge in new and innovative dairy products as well as to the development of high-tech materials and features from suppliers. Today’s supermarkets, in fact, are full of new flexible formats for an array of goods, from sleeve-wrapped mayonnaise jars to upside-down plastic ketchup bottles. As more dairy manufacturers team up with packaging companies to truly think out of the box, the result has been products like zip-to-close cheese pouches, aseptic single serve cartons of milk and bag-in-a-box beverages and liquid bases for institutional and foodservice use, among other items.
Indeed, in the frenzy to catch the consumer’s increasingly wandering eye, flexible packaging is often used to garner attention. “One factor is more competition — the increase in grab-and-go products that are available on the market,” notes Tim Kenny, vice president of marketing for Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm Inc., which developed its line of Squeezers tube yogurt three years ago. “Flexible packaging also allows manufacturers to take a product like yogurt — something that has not traditionally been seen as a convenience item — and market it to a new audience by increasing its portability.”
To be sure, flexible formats are a growing part of the packaging business. According to the Linthicum, Pa.-based Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), flexible packaging is a $20 billion industry in the United States and is now the second-largest packaging type. Food products comprise the greatest market for flexible packaging, accounting for more than 50 percent of supply shipments, FPA reports.
Dairy processors have pursued flexible packaging for products ranging from yogurt to ice cream to cheese, but also are balancing their packaging priorities with other aspects of production and promotion. “One of the things people are very focused on, by the virtue of their packaging selection, is how to eliminate cost from their operations,” reports Chuck Dunlap, dairy business marketing director for the Cryovac division of Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C. “That is the holy grail, if you will — to continue to offer increasingly good products and to be able to do it with high merchandising appeal and in a more cost effective environment.”
Indeed, the need for cost-effective solutions and consumer-friendly features continues to impact the decision-making process among dairies. “Dairy processors have done an excellent job of taking cost out of their systems. They are great at managing economies of scale and at consolidating, but they are under pressure to provide solutions to the marketplace,” notes Gary Allanson, president and chief executive officer of Hanover, Md.-based International Dispensing Corp. (IDC), an aseptic packaging and dispensing supplier. “We’ve joined forces with leading dairy processors to address the dual demands for improved barrier properties and aseptic dispensing capabilities at a cost-effective price.”
In the package development process, collaboration does become key, notes Dunlap, who cites the many cheese companies with whom Cryovac works. “The cheesemakers focus a lot on the products they are making and how to present them and move them through a number of distribution chains. They look to packaging partners to help come up with creative merchandising aspects,” he observes. “It is a partnership, in which both bring ideas to the table.”
While bags and pouches represent a common type of flexible dairy packaging, especially for cheeses and powdered dairy products, many innovations have occurred on the film side of the business. Films are becoming more advanced and are increasingly developed with food processors’ needs in mind.
Cryovac, for instance, offers a variety of materials for dairy companies, including shrink bags, thermoform films and films for block cheeses, among other items. In 2003, the supplier introduced two new films, HFP 1000 and HFP 1050, suitable for horizontal form-fill-seal machines used for cheese packaging. “It broadens our participation in the dairy business,” explains Dunlap, who underscores the primary benefits of the new materials. “The clarity of the film is outstanding and the gauge tends to be a less heavy gauge product with practical implications for the customer, in terms of the amount of footage that can be put on a roll and the increased productivity. It has a wide utility.”
According to Dunlap, the clarity in the film provides for high-impact graphics when using today’s printing technology. He points out, though, there is a balance between what is possible and what is pragmatic in terms of package appearance versus cost. “There is no question that the whole graphic environment is changing in a lot of respects and customers are taking advantage of it. But the thing that customers have to analyze is, to what degree does taking advantage of a whole array of colors and designs really increase sales and provide the kind of return they like?” he says. “That is what marketing is about — providing a package with a product that consumers want with a special appeal.”
Another recent film trend in the dairy industry Dunlap has noted is the use of rigid trays with film, similar to packages used for sliced deli meats. “People are buying trays and film from us and using them together as a package for slices and cubes. It helps the dairy industry provide different offerings,” says Dunlap, adding that meat and cheese combinations in such formats, like party trays, are increasingly popular as well.
Other types of films have attracted notice among both the packaging and dairy industries for their innovative qualities. Oshkosh, Wis.-based Curwood Inc., for example, won an FPA award for technical innovation earlier this year for its Clear-Tite® Surround Shrink Bag with EZ Peel® Opening Feature. The shrink tube can be slit open, allowing the substrate to be printed as a flat film, eliminating the need for a tube to be printed on one side and then flipped and printed on the other. Used with Curwood’s EZ-Peel opening feature for products like brick cheese, the printed film is made into a seamed bag with 360-degree printing capability.
Cheese products are the focus for another type of new flexible packaging from major packaging supplier DuPont, Wilmington, Del. Developed in conjunction with packaging company Lawson Mardon Morin, a new permeable packaging film is being used for soft cheeses with surface mold, such as camembert. The paraffin-free package combines DuPont’s Bynel® resin layer and Selar® PA 3426 resin layer for better barrier properties and optimal cheese maturation.
Flexible films are also used for an increasing variety of labels. The most common and obvious example is the growth of shrink-sleeve labels used for flavored milks, drinkable yogurts and other dairy-based beverages and now extending to other types of packages like cultured product containers.
Alcoa Flexible Packaging, Richmond, Va., was recently recognized by the Packaging and Label Gravure Association for the shrink-sleeve labels it provides to Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, for the company’s Rolo® milk beverages sold in Canada. Most recently, Alcoa has expanded its line of shrink sleeve labels to include a new oriented polystyrene (OPS) label. “These labels have a better yield than PVC or PET-G, so they are cheaper and more environmentally friendly,” remarks marketing manager Terry Copenhaver. Alcoa, which sells its traditional sleeves to Nestlé for the company’s flavored milks, is currently supplying the OPS film for Nestlé’s chocolate syrup bottles.
Like Dunlap, Copenhaver notes that companies are taking a closer look at graphics and package shape and size to help them stand out from the competition. “In print quality, we are seeing more complex graphics on shrink labels,” she says, adding that that the company is working with advanced print technology.” “We are also offering more unique inks, such as the technology that includes a ‘flip’ — there is one color, but when you tilt the container you get another color. And we can put pearlescent inks on the outside to give a package an element of depth.”
Copenhaver sees more changes ahead for flexible-sleeve designs as well as for the types of rigid bottles with which they are used, especially for the fluid milk segment. “The market now is flooded with single serve and companies have to differentiate from each other,” she notes.
Beyond the material itself, flexible packages are sporting an array of additional features today, most of them designed around the convenience factor. From recloseable features to tear-off openings to tamper-evident closures, it is clear that the film, bag or carton itself isn’t the only focus of package development.
Press-to-close packages of shredded or grated cheeses developed in the late 1980s were an early example, a technology that has now been supplanted in many circles by the use of slider closures. Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv Corp., for example, helped Plymouth, Wis.-based Sargento Foods shake up the cheese category in 2002 with the application of the supplier’s Hefty® Slide-Rite® advanced closure system. After an exclusive two-year arrangement with Sargento, Pactiv is now marketing the Slide-Rite zipper to other dairy-based companies, according to marketing manager Larry Rebodos.
There is still great potential, says Rebodos, and an untapped market for the Slide-Rite closure for cheeses and perhaps other dairy products sold at both retail and foodservice levels, especially as manufacturers continue to grow their product lines to include items like individually wrapped snacking cheeses. “On the dairy side, I can see more things coming,” he says, citing pre-sliced deli meats sold in trays with zipper-topped bags. “We’ve seen that conversion and that should drive a lot of cross over between the deli meat and deli cheese cases. They go hand in hand.”
Although such package features are more costly than traditional formats, consumers have continually demonstrated a willingness to pay for such options. “It is amazing how packaging has really taken over price. You can spend your money on a lot of different areas, but with packaging, convenience is truly driving a lot of decision making for the consumer,” Rebodos observes.
Flexible-package features aren’t merely limited to closures. International Dispensing Corp. (IDC), for example, is the only flexible-packaging company with an FDA approved aseptic dispensing valve that enables low- or high-acid foods and beverages to be aseptically dispensed from a flexible bag. According to Allanson, IDC’s valve extends the shelf-life and use-life of low- or high-acid products because the valve does not allow oxygen or bacteria to enter the flexible package. “IDC’s patented technology offers the food and beverage industry a composite technology that significantly improves product quality and product safety,” he explains, noting that the valve is currently being used to dispense commercial dairy products such as half and half, whole milk and ready-to-drink coffee beverages. In addition to low-acid dairy products, IDC’s aseptic valve is able to dispense aseptic teas, juices, isotonic beverage and cocktail mixes and allows for new product markets for the bag-in-the-box package for foodservice and in-home markets.
Meanwhile, machinery used for flexible packaging is also growing more sophisticated as demand for such materials grows. Appleton, Wis.-based CMD Packaging Systems, for instance, has developed a new USDA Dairy/3A-approved line of vertical form, fill and seal packaging machinery designed for the production of portioned cheeses.
“Most of our customers do a combination of all different products and most are buying equipment that can be used to shred, grate or chunk products. They are looking for flexibility in bag style sand sizes, recloseability, different ranges and capabilities for the equipment, and versatility for any type of washdown,” says regional sales manager Margaret Valinski. “They may do a one-pound package in the morning and a 25-pound package in the evening.”
Cryovac also continues to broaden the choices customers have in using automation in their packaging operations. “There is a clear need and appreciation for automation in the dairy industry,” says Dunlap, adding that the company’s BL-110 loader for shrink bags of mozzarella and provolone cheese and its CL-20 for 40-pound blocks of cheese has helped customers package items quicker and more efficiently. “There are numerous activities, both in the US and around the world where different types of our automated packaging equipment are being used to help customers. It helps them manage their packaging and gives them greater flexibility in terms of labor usage.” df
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.$OMN_arttitle="Bending to Pressure";?>