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FLEXIBLE PACKAGING Metal makers are heated up over microwaveability

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Food fight! While conjuring up images of battles with mashed potato, the words are about to take on a new meaning as a mini-revolution is geared to heat up in the kitchen.

The catalyst is the arrival of microwaveable steel and aluminum food packaging—certain to light a fire under metal packagers and their plastic-producing counterparts in their rivalry to gain market share.

The booming U.S. flexible packaging industry currently accounts for just 18 percent (about $23.5 billion) of the overall $130-billion packaging market, second only to corrugated paper at 24 percent. And with the flexible packaging market growing at an estimated 4.4 percent annually, players are keen to develop ways to differentiate their products. The largest market for flexible packaging is food, both retail and institutional, accounting for more than 57 percent of shipments.

The notion that metal containers can't be microwaved is being turned on its head, according to Joe Pryweller, managing editor of newsletter Packaging Strategies and executive director of the Can Food Alliance, which promotes the benefits of canned food.

According to the results of a German study done for the Brussels-based Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging (Apeal), shallow and open steel and aluminum containers are indeed micro-waveable. And while heating times for food in steel and aluminum containers are longer than plastic containers, the food is more uniformly heated than in the rival plastic product.

The microwaveability of metal containers opens up new opportunities for both consumers and food processors alike, according to the study. For consumers, it offers the added convenience of either heating by conventional oven or by microwave; for processors, it provides new opportunities to segment their product range further by developing suitable food products such as ready meals and soups that are microwaveable.

In Europe, concept packages for the growing market of ready-made meals have been developed by France's Impress Metal Packaging SA and ArcelorMittal SA, Luxembourg, using ArcelorMittal's patented Creasteel technology, a new packaging steel that enables packagers to differentiate their microwaveable product via complex and original shapes.

Inspired by the Japanese market, where microwaveable steel food containers have been available for years, ArcelorMittal Packaging International has teamed with European packaging manufacturers to develop microwaveable Creasteel packaging for the retail market.

"The microwave ready-meal market is growing globally by 6 to 10 percent annually and is dominated by plastic containers and trays. That segment presents a major growth opportunity for metal packaging," said Doreen Decker, strategic development marketing manager of Impress Metal Packaging, one of the companies that funded the study.

Ball Metal Food Packaging, Broomfield, Colo., has developed a patented microwavable can called Fusion-Tek, a single-serve package that isn't yet on store shelves. "Our pilot production line has been running for many months and we've run several successful line trials. At this time, we are focused solely on launching the product in North America," said Jennifer Hoover, the company's manager of marketing communications.

The industry continues to reinvent itself. One example is Buitoni pasta and sauce pouches made by CLP Industries Ltd.'s CLP Packaging Solutions division in Fairfield, N.J. In switching from jars to stand-up pouches, Buitoni used shaped-pouch technology to maintain its sauces' distinctive profile on supermarket shelves. The product—stored at room temperature—has reduced handling and logistical challenges.


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