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Canning sauces the Hirzel way

Listening closely to busy consumers, packagers and canmakers are making more strides in metal container innovations than in decades in order to satisfy demand. And retailers have quickly caught on to the new developments. Stores are now stocking an array of new metal cans with convenience features such as portability, easy-opening, reclosability and easy-grip configurations. There are also advances in freshness liners, as well as specially shaped cans and self-cooling, self-heating, microwavable and even twist-top cans.

One juicy example of such a convenient new package is a steel food can being used by Hirzel Canning Co. & Farms, Northwood, OH, just South of Toledo. Hirzel packs Dei Fratelli® (meaning "of the brothers") Presto! tomato-based Pizza Sauce and Italian Dip (the latter, a bread-dipping sauce) in an easy-to-open, reclosable, 12-oz can that uses Silgan Containers' (www.silgancontainers.com) Dot-Top(tm) technology. Silgan licenses the technology from Metalgrafica Rojek SA (www.rojek.com.br), a family-owned business based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Hirzel, a major Ohio manufacturer of canned tomato and sauerkraut products, is a third- and fourth-generation, family-owned food processor in business since 1923. The vertically integrated company has three processing plants in northwestern Ohio, and extensive greenhouse and farming operations and processes its raw tomato and cabbage (sauerkraut) products, actually growing some of them from seed. Hirzel packs an assortment of more than 100 products for retail and foodservice applications in several sizes of metal cans, glass jars and flexible packages. The company's unique bulk aseptic-storage facility for tomato concentrate is one of only six in the entire country.

A progressive processor and packager, Hirzel takes the needs of its customers seriously to stay ahead. The company offers the two Dei Fratelli products in a conventional, 15-oz can with a flat-panel end that requires a can opener. But Hirzel likes to stay on top of new packaging developments, and was one of the first to use a white lining inside its cans to prevent a metallic flavor from migrating into its products. It was also a pioneer of the use of four-color labels on cans. For the two sauces, Hirzel explored other easy-open end options, but didn't find what it was after until it discovered the Dot Top, and liked what it saw.

Sized slightly smaller than the conventional 15-oz, the 12-oz Dot Top can is suitable for snacking, parties and quick meals. The consumer-friendly package is based on Rojek's technology that offers a pressure-release lid especially handy for children and the aging population to use. With a rolled edge, the lid requires no tools to open and has no sharp edges.

The can opens when the user peels back a small plastisol tabbed membrane, or dot, affixed by an adhesive coating to the center of the lid. The plastisol covers a 1/16-in.-dia hole pierced into the center. The vacuum holding the lid in place is then released, and the consumer is able to easily lift off the lid. If contents remain after use, the consumer can simply snap the lid back on and store the remaining product for use later.

In 2003, Hirzel became the first commercial food processor in the U.S. to try the Dot Top, capitalizing on the convenient nature of the new package.

Says Hirzel's current president, Stephen A. Hirzel, great-grandson of the company's founder, "We looked at adding a pull-tab end to the fifteen-ounce can, but the Dot Top made even more sense. We didn't think it was going to cost as much to convert production equipment to run it. While we're not positioning the twelve-ounce can as a snack size, its reclosability allows it to be used, say, to make a pizza, be reclosed and then be opened later for use at another time. It's versatile. The ability to reclose and re-store the can is a very good benefit. You can't do that with a regular easy-open pull-top end."

One of Ohio's largest, privately held tomato processing plants and farming operations, Hirzel processes its mouth-watering Dei Fratelli Italian Dip and Pizza Sauce from tomatoes that it either grows itself or that are grown in the area or in Michigan. It packs the products on an existing but modified canning line that runs several other tomato products in metal cans and glass jars. After successfully test-marketing the two Dei Fratelli products in the Dot Top in Cleveland and Chicago, Hirzel began a broader rollout across the Midwest in late 2003. Depending upon the specific item, the products sell for $1.09 up to $1.59.

Silgan has a 10-year exclusive North American licensing agreement for the technology with Rojek, which calls the system Abre-f?cil (meaning "opens-easily" in Portuguese). Abre-f?cil has been available in the Brazilian market since 1989. Silgan renamed it Dot Top for the U.S., and incorporated the can and lid technology into its Quick Top(tm) easy-opening can line. Explains Silgan's senior marketing manager, Jeffrey DeLiberty, "The innovative technology was invented by [the late] Dr. Arnoldo Rojek Sr., who launched it into the Brazilian marketplace in the late eighties on glass jars of cream cheese."

The 300 necked-in container measures 3 in. dia on the bottom and tapers at the top to 21 1/16 in. dia and is capped with a 211 Dot Top end. Colorful graphics bolster the can's shape and product appeal. In fact, the entire can body is litho-printed top to bottom in Hirzel's eye-popping, tomato red for a high-quality look. The lid is also printed in the same vivid red and features step-by-step opening instructions litho-printed in white. As an extra measure of quality, the cans are lined with a white coating described on the label as a "pure white" can lining, which prevents any chemical reactions between the can surface and the tomato products. Shelf life of the Dei Fratelli products is the same in the Dot Top can as in the conventional 15-oz can?at least 24 months.

The can also gets a glued, wraparound cut-and-stack label from Smyth Companies (www.smythco.com), printed with Dei Fratelli's appetizing photo vignettes and brand graphics and the same vivid, precisely color-matched, red for a high-quality, consistent look. In the case of the pizza sauce, a front-panel graphic touts the Dot Top's convenience features. The back of the Italian Dip label presents a circular violator proclaiming "Reclosable Pure White Can," along with the benefit line, "Reclosable--Safe--No Sharp Edges," printed along the bottom in black type.

The unusual can not only provides a visual difference on store shelves, and DeLiberty says it can also be hot-filled, closed with mechanical vacuum or retorted with overriding pressure.

When Hirzel began the Dot Top project, Silgan had samples of the can produced and hand-packed with the tomato products for testing purposes to ensure that the cans would function properly and would accommodate the white lining Hirzel uses on all of its metal cans. "Once we completed the test packs, we went straight to small-scale production in their facility with a manual end-closing machine," explains DeLiberty. "The machine was used for their initial launch and to create sales samples. Later, Hirzel decided to modify an existing piece of capping equipment to run the can on an automated basis."

Steve Hirzel says the company made minor modifications to an older, steam-injection vacuum capper that's no longer available to run the Dot Top can lids. "With any new application, there are always some production issues to work through," he tells PD, "but we didn't need to do anything extensive [to our equipment]. The key was to make sure that the lid was placed [on the cans] properly for vacuum sealing."

PD recently visited the Hirzel plant in Northwood to see the canning line in action. A 200,000-sq-ft facility, the operation includes a processing/packing building, warehouses, greenhouses, a seed-starter shed and more. The "fresh pack" of tomato product is divided into whole, peeled, sliced, diced, chopped and stewed versions, explains general manager Bill Hirzel, Steve's uncle. During tomato season, the company produces a concentrated, crushed tomato "base" that it stores in tanks and 300-gal bag-in-box containers. The Dei Fratelli products are made from that tasty base described as an 11-percent-solids concentration of tomatoes that maintains a rich, top-quality flavor. The remainder of the tomato crop is either ground or processed into juice, barbecue sauce, ketchup (one of Hirzel's biggest sellers), salsa and other special sauces and dips. From the family's description, one of its goals is to use up all of the tomato, with as little waste as possible.

"Our peak tomato season in Ohio is between the middle of August and the middle of October," Bill Hirzel tells PD. "People often think of California as the U.S. tomato capital, but there's a large track of fertile land in this area that's suitable for growing a lot of vegetables. Northwestern Ohio is very flat, so it's perfect for produce like tomatoes and cabbage."

Running five days a week, eight hours a day, the plant houses five main packing lines and five "minor" lines for off-season use. In the canning room, the tomato base is heated in stainless-steel kettles and is mixed with spices, herbs and other ingredients to create a sauce or dip, as steam and a mouth-watering aroma fill the air.

"The product is packed as quickly as possible for a better taste," Bill Hirzel points out. The canning line in the room outputs about 100 12-oz Dot Top cans/min. Changeovers from one product to another on the multi-use line occur about once a week. The line can also be set up to run spaghetti sauce, salsa and sauerkraut, so some of the equipment is bypassed when it's running the Dei Fratelli Presto! sauces.

Canning begins as bulk loads of the bright red Dot Top cans arrive on slipsheeted, double-stacked pallets. Line and plant control is maintained by an AutomationDirect (www.automationdirect.com) Ethernet-based controller with a PC and Think & Do software from Entivity (www.entivity.com). Layers of cans are manually off-loaded onto a bulk accumulation conveyor from Intralox (www.intralox.com).

On the day of PD's visit, Hirzel was packing the zesty Italian Dip. As they begin to single-file on a tabletop chain conveyor toward a steam-based preheater/cleaning system, the empty cans are inverted through a twistrail along the way before being steam cleaned to remove any contaminants. Meanwhile, the tomato product cooking in the large kettles is heated to boiling for a time to sterilize it before it's cooled and pumped to the filling station.

As the cans are uprighted, they bypass a sauerkraut filler and convey to a 14-station rotary Pfaudler piston filler from Pneumatic Scale (www.pneumaticscale.com), which deposits the spicy crimson sauce, heated at this point to196 deg F, into the cans. The filled containers exit the system to be capped on the cap applicator, which was a lug capper altered to press on the new lid. According to plant manager Rick Kopec, the alteration took some minor tinkering.

"We needed a machine that could operate at a faster speed than the semi-automatic one we had on loan, so we started looking at machines we have in-house and an evolution took place to apply the lid. The lids are on the thin side, they're thinner than a lug cap would be, and the older capper we're using was built for capping jelly jars. We disabled the machine's twist-on mechanism and installed a press-on system and a steam system that pulls a vacuum, which ensures a tight seal."

It's versatile. The ability to reclose and re-store the can is a very good benefit. You can't do that with a regular easy-open, pull-top end.

Hirzel also built a special feeding magazine to hold the lids and obtained changeparts locally from Diversified Capping Equipment, a subsidiary of Dillin Automation Systems (www.dillinautomation.com). The lid magazine sorts the lids face-up, as filled cans convey out of the filler and make a jog to the straightline capper. Once inside the capper, the cans pass beneath a lid-feeding chute that transfers the lids onto the containers. Kopec says steam is injected at the interface, creating a vacuum that sucks the Dot Top lids onto the cans, closing the containers with a tight seal. With lids in place, the cans next make a quick left turn and convey out of the capper and into a bulk pasteurizing steam tunnel built in-house. Next, the cans are rinsed with a water spray and are cooled and dried for several minutes in a Horix (www.horixmfg.com) rinser/cooler.

As the cans emerge en masse, they begin to single-file after making a hard right turn onto a belt that takes them through a feedscrew to a glue labeler that's no longer made. The straightline labeler applies hot melt adhesive to the cans and then wraps them with a cut-and-stack label before overlapping the label edges with cold glue.

"We are hoping to put in a new Krones (www.kronesusa.com] Rotina labeling system soon and are in the process of upgrading some of the other equipment on the line to run faster," says Kopec. The Dot Top lids are then printed with a two-line production code that incorporates a Julian date, a ship date, a plant ID and a product ID by an Imaje (www.imaje.com) small-character ink-jet system. Next, the cans enter a "homemade" dud detector and are tray-packed in groups of 12 and 24 with the help of an automatic tray former from SWF (www.swfcompanies.com) and four line workers.

Palletizing of 170 cases per pallet is performed manually. The loads are automatically stretch-wrapped on a new, rotary Lantech (www.lantech.com) wrapper and receive a bar-coded label for inventory scanning purposes. The loads are then forklifted to a warehouse for storage and are stacked three- and four-high until they're trucked to Hirzel's sister facility in Pemberville, OH, where they can be shrink-wrapped for certain customers depending on their distribution. Focusing on serving its customers to the best of its ability, Hirzel has thrived on a partnership philosophy, working with suppliers to ensure consistent quality, competitive pricing and building lasting relationships. It extends that philosophy to its packaging and to the new Dot Top cans.

Any way you slice it, the new can is attracting attention to the Dei Fratelli products and clearly departs from the conventional. Steve Hirzel says he hopes consumers will view the enhanced can and its easy-to-use, reclosable end as a convenience. "We're still discovering the importance of the reclosable factor," he says. "The container lends itself to multiple-use products as well as several ethnic-type sauces and other foods." If the Dot Top can proves successful with the Dei Fratelli Pizza Sauce and Italian Dip, keep your eyes peeled for more of Hirzel's products to move to the new can. Could their extraordinary sauerkrauts be next?

Silgan hopes Hirzel's move signals a trend in marketers' and packagers' changing perceptions of the common metal food can and its role in captivating convenience-craving consumers. Silgan's DeLiberty says the easy-open/reclosable Dot Top can is catching the eye of other packagers. "We're close to seeing another customer get on board and expect to make the investment in bringing the canmaking technology here to the U.S. so that we can start forming the cans and making the Dot Top lids here soon," he says.

More information is available:

Flipping the Dot Top lid

While some see signs that the metal food can may be experiencing a large dent in market share from the growth in use of paperboard cartons and flexible pouches, some brand owners and retailers are tapping into the new, user-friendly features metal cans offer. In fact, the Can Manufacturers Institute (www.cancentral.com) has reported that 65 percent of cans used in Europe feature an easy-open end. However, the Dot Top does carry a premium over other cans—on average of six to eight cents—mainly because of the additional equipment that must be used to apply the plastisol piece over the pierced top.

Silgan began researching the Rojek easy-open/reclosable package in 2000 and decided to make a few changes to it, creating the Dot Top package for use in the U.S. One enhancement made was to slightly enlarge the plastisol membrane, to make the dot as easy to handle as possible. Says Silgan's Jeff DeLiberty, "The Rojek ends have a removable plastisol membrane, but we wanted it to revise it and have it peel back only halfway from the lid and remain adhered to the lid as a safety precaution."

An extended pull-tab was also added to the plastisol component to make it clear to consumers where to initiate the opening process. The tab is easy to grab and pull. "We want the little piece of plastisol to remain on the can," DeLiberty adds. "When we start making the can here in the states, we'll make it the same way the Rojeks do in Brazil, except to ensure that the dot stays partially affixed."

Opening instructions are also printed on the ends, along with "Dot Stays on lid," encircling the plastisol component, to further emphasize the opening process. The can is made in a very interesting manner, DeLiberty continues. "It starts with a narrow tinplate cylinder that's welded and run through a can-stretching device that Rojek invented. The device basically looks like a cone or a piston on a car engine that expands the tube to three inches, so that the metal is not technically drawn but is stretched. The body of the can expands, but the top stays at two and eleven sixteenths."

Since steel is thicker than aluminum, these cans are tricky to neck in, DeLiberty says, so Rojek's process facilitates the process of necking in the can and ensures that it's sized to the proper diameter. "There's another advantage of having a necked-in can, and that's on the packaging line," DeLiberty adds. "When the cans move down the line, the tops don't touch each other, so the lids won't pop off."

To make the special lid, a metal disc is formed into a lid and a hole is punched into the center before plastisol is applied to the hole on one side. DeLiberty says the plastisol is basically baked on, like it's being cured in an oven. "The lid is then flipped over, and more plastisol is applied to the underside, which bonds both 'dots' together, creating a giant plastic cork of sorts, that forms the seal. The end is then baked a second time. The plastisol is the same used to line many metal closures that we have made for years," DeLiberty tells PD. Like other metal closures, the inner rim of the Dot Top lid also gets plastisol channel that runs its circumference, keeping it securely sealed until it's opened and the vacuum is released.

More jarring news: Notable for its handy maneuverability, The Dot Top won Can of the Year in 2004 from Canmaker Magazine, and during interpack 2005 in April, received international kudos in Germany, when it was named one of the top three food division Steel Packaging Effectiveness Award winners at the Fourth International Steel Packaging Congress in Rheinterrasse. The congress, which recognizes packaging innovations, is sponsored by the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging (APEAL) (www.apeal.org).

More information is available:

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