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Brand owners looking to grow sales in the burgeoning convenience food sector face the double whammy of consumers demanding lightning-fast cooking times and retailers desperate to minimise costs. Jonathan Baillie examines how the packaging sector is responding

In the words of Gordon Scorer, managing director of Tyneside-based packaging producer Print Design & Graphics: “Today’s consumers expect convenience foods to be really convenient, much more so than in the past, and that means things like lightning-fast cooking times are an absolute given.”

However, while meeting consumer demand for easier, faster-cooking foods is a top brand owner priority, the same companies’ supermarket customers constantly expect more for less. Packaging manufacturers are thus under pressure to offer packs that add value at minimal cost.

PDG, with its growing reputation for “added value” food packaging, believes it can meet the challenge. Gordon Scorer predicts that with our increasingly frenetic lifestyles, the days of a typical ready meal taking 7-8 minutes to microwave from chilled and even longer from frozen could be numbered. Nor will today’s consumer continue to pay more for “active” packaging devices like self-heating beverage cans “unless they work well and justify any extra cost”.

PDG, which has just rebuilt its Newcastle factory following a fire, has considerable expertise in convenience and on-the-go food packaging. Scorer says in the past two years more and more brand owners have requested susceptor-lined microwaveable board packs that dramatically reduce cooking times and ensure foods like sausage rolls, traditionally difficult to microwave, “emerge crispy and appetising, not soggy and deflated”. PDG formed an oven board tray division last September.

“Aluminium susceptors now go into many of our board trays, and we have seen significant ongoing improvements in microwave cooking capabilities,” says Scorer. The company has just launched a service to the ready meal, bakery and catering sectors via which it can offer a complete paperboard tray and lid design, tray forming and printing capability, combined with susceptor incorporation.

Scorer explains: “In November we became the first UK company to install a Gralex tray former which can produce dual ovenable pressed paperboard trays in an unprecedented range of shapes and sizes much more cheaply than on existing rotary trayformers.” The trays are formed from a MeadWestvaco SBS board coated with a PET barrier liner infed as flat blanks.

Most minimalist packaging available

PDG’s Gralex TP2620x14 will form both solid paperboard and microflute packaging into shaped trays that can be film or board lidded, to complement its existing printed lid range. “It is probably the most minimalist packaging available, so is very attractive environmentally,” Scorer contends. “We can also offer the trays within a four week lead time.”

The system, which MeadWestvaco and Gralex co-developed, has been extremely successful in America since its launch five years ago. Scorer says a much wider range of tray shapes and sizes can be formed than conventionally, deep draw trays can be produced, and tooling costs are “typically around £15,000, compared with the £95,000 generally seen on rotary trayformers”. He admits the trays are more likely to be favoured by “specialist” or premium ready meal manufacturers but believes the technology has “immense potential”.

PDG promises an even more exciting microwave packaging development imminently when it buys in from the US a new susceptor which Scorer says could “halve some existing microwaving times”.

Another company aiming to improve ready meal container performance, while simultaneously reducing brand owner/manufacturer costs and simplifying the recycling of used plastic food trays, is Southampton-based radio frequency (RF) technology specialist Stanelco.

Following successful ongoing trials of its new RF sealing system with Grampian Country Foods [with stuffing balls in tin trays and barbecued pork in plastic ones] and Oscar Mayer [ready meals], Stanelco is optimistic full-scale commercial packhouse trials with an Asda seafood supplier will see the supermarket introduce the process more widely across its supplier base.

The tray lidding system, possibly a world first, eliminates the need for additional PE or other heatsealing layers on CPET and APET preformed and thermoform/fill and seal packs, potentially reducing users’ material costs by up to 20%. It also reportedly enables faster sealing than traditional heatsealing on foil trays, and eliminates ‘leakers’.

“Our RF technology is ideally suited to high integrity sealing of microwaveable CPET, APET and foil food trays,” says Stanelco technical director Mike Feast. “Food manufacturers wanting to use monomaterial, easily recyclable plastic packs can now do so.”

The system will seal even through areas contaminated by juices, gravies or sauces. Stanelco has pioneered the technology using Proseal heatsealers, but can retrofit the required RF sealing head and other components to many different manufacturers’ machines or tailor-make equipment.

While the ready meal market is still growing [figures from Rexam’s recent “Busy Lives” research show it grew by 6% across Europe and 4% in the US in retail volume terms between 2002 and 2003], and provides ample opportunity for innovation, impulse buying and today’s on-the-go eating and drinking culture have spawned some ingenious packaging developments too.

Nearly half [44%] those surveyed in the UK “rarely or never plan ahead” for “refuelling on the move”, instead “grabbing a drink and a bite when they can”, while 71% said they would try their favourite brand in a new package “at least once”.

According to Rexam Plastic Containers sales director David Lewis, while UK consumers lead Europe in ready meal consumption, as well as in the sophistication of their tastes and expectations, our American cousins are even more geared to eating on the go. He says: “Nearly every American home has a microwave; fast, on-the-go eating is so prevalent that food manufacturers are falling over themselves to come up with new products.”

Rexam’s Busy Lives research reinforces this view, revealing, for instance, that US chilled soup sales have rocketed by 23% in the past five years. This probably explains the positive reception given to a range of microwaveable soups recently launched US-wide by Campbell’s in thermoformed easy-open plastic pots manufactured by Rexam Plastic Containers’ Union, Missouri plant.

Lewis explains: “The Soup-to-Go soups, presented in attractive multilayer PP/EVOH/PP waisted bowls, can be microwaved in two minutes, are supplied with an aluminium easy-open lid and offer a two-year ambient shelf-life.

“Campbell’s has not launched them in Europe yet, probably because, with the very high sales volumes achievable in the US, it has been easier for it to justify the necessary line investment there than elsewhere.

“However, the launch has been a major success, and I’d be surprised if the soups didn’t make a significant European appearance soon. In fact, we anticipate very rapid growth in the use of super-convenient packs like this in coming months for a raft of quick, easy-to-prepare meals.”

Alternative to cans for vegetables

Also designed for fast, convenient consumption is a new pack from RPC Bebo UK Corby based on an original idea from Luc Fevrier, category manager, Preserved Products at Carrefour France. RPC says the multi-layer PP pack is “one of the first genuine alternative packaging formats to the tin can for processed vegetables”.

The transparent container is being used for Carrefour’s new Conserves Pratiques range of beans, peas and mixed vegetables, produced by Gelagri Bretagne and on sale under the ‘Grand Jury’ label in Carrefour hypermarkets, Champion supermarkets and local stores. Each pack comprises two or four individual portions in lightweight sealed trays.

The compartments can be quickly and individually microwaved, while the thermoformed pack is designed for ease of filling and to maintain shape during sterilisation. The rectangular packs, sealed with a peelable transparent multilayer film from LPF Flexible Packaging, are supplied in eye-catching board sleeves and, RPC says, take up just one third of the space of equivalent capacity metal cans.

Last year Denmark-based Mondi Packaging Nyborg, formerly Neoplex, addressed the insatiable desire for maximum cooking convenience with two new active packs. The first, neoCrisp, is a system based around a patented Safety Susceptor inner laminate for crisp microwave cooking of items like spring rolls and pizzas, and the second, neoSteam, an equally ingenious pack for microwave steam cooking deep-frozen ready meals, vegetables, pasta, rice, shellfish etc, featuring the Japanese-designed VacSys valve system.

Dan Johannessen, European business development manager, Mondi Packaging Flexibles Division, says the NeoSteam pack, particularly, has proved hugely successful.

Big users include Unilever, using it extensively for products including frozen vegetables and fish, Frozen Fish International in Germany and Belgian frozen food producer CROPs, whose applications to date include single serve vegetable bowls and pillow packs.

“A key selling point of the neoSteam film system, which uses Japanese firm Packs’ VacSys valve, is that the that the valve can be incorporated relatively inexpensively within the lidding, certainly more cheaply than competitor systems,” Johannessen explains. “However the major driver has been consumer convenience.” Johannessen expects a tripling in sales this year.

This month the company launched a further microwave cooking innovation, its neoSteam retortable stand-up pouch, also incorporating the VacSys valve.

Incorporated in the pouch’s side seam [users therefore need buy no additional application equipment], the valve offers sufficient bond strength both to enable it to withstand retorting at 126° C for 60 minutes and open during steam cooking for self-venting.

“The food is steamed quickly and under uniform pressure, rather than boiled, at a high temperature, ensuring retention of taste and consistency, essential vitamins, minerals, colour and texture,” says Mondi Packaging Flexibles. The pouch should suit products including ready meals, rice, vegetables, steamed fish and shellfish, ethnic dishes and soups and sauces.

Johannessen adds: “The reason it has taken us 18 months to perfect the pack with our Kroneuberg, Austria operation is that it is extremely difficult to create a valved plastic pouch where the valve will withstand high temperature retorting without bursting or delaminating, yet will open during cooking.” The pouch is made from a triple-ply polymer laminate.

Multi-cooking opportunities

Microwave cooking is now accepted as a quick, efficient cooking method by even hardened culinary traditionalists but packaging film specialist Cryovac Sealed Air can says it can go one better by offering packaging systems that enable foods to be cooked equally satisfyingly, and quickly, whether in an oven, microwave, or simply a pan of boiling water.

Its new Flex Tray Flex film Darfresh skin packaging system, based on flexible, co-extruded multilayer heat-treatable high barrier Darfresh films with an easy peel facility, was specifically developed to meet this goal. Compatible with PP, CPET and foil and ceramic trays, it is designed for ultra-fast vacuum cooking of anything from complete meat joints to ready meals using any one of these cooking appliances. Cryovac says a 1lb beef joint can be microwaved in seven minutes, while taste and nutritional benefits are “excellently preserved”. Simultaneously, the lidding system is compatible with a wide range of pre-made rigid trays.

“For processors, the lack of headspace means better thermal exchange during pre-cooking, for shorter heat treatment times,” explains Richard Griffiths, Sealed Air Cryovac business development manager. Other claimed processing advantages include “no unappetising drip migration” and the ability to heat treat product in several ways including in a water bath, via steam oven or low temperature autoclaving. Alongside the Darfresh films, users will need a purpose-designed, Cryovac-supplied Multivac RCD vacuum skin machine.

Griffiths adds: “The pack has a 12mm transparent outer flange where the base and top webs meet, which provides an excellent seal, while the self-venting feature means packs do not have to be pierced prior to cooking.”

The FTF system offers a claimed six-week chilled shelf life, while the vacuum skin packing prevents ingredients moving in transit and storage. “Packs can be attractively displayed even on their sides and, on opening, shoppers shouldn’t find the contents looking more like a dog’s dinner than a gourmet meal,” enthuses Griffiths.

While there are already several European FTF users, the system has only recently seen its first UK application. A leading processor is packing four types of meat joints with gravy using the technology.

Commenting on today’s broader convenience food packaging trends, Griffiths adds: “The sector is now relatively mature, with a vast choice of dishes, so perhaps consumers are a bit blasé. Consequently everyone is looking for packaging that makes users’ lives easier and performance packs are set to play an ever bigger part.”