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Milk in HDPE pulls the plug on refrigeration

Milk is gaining in popularity among beverages, especially with the progress it has made with new flavors, new packaging, new sizes and its healthful benefits. And since the hugely successful "Got Milk?" ad campaign was launched, it's no wonder that cows have been working overtime lately.

However, with so many other new beverages entering the market, milk still has its work cut out for it to quench consumers' thirsts. Flavored, fortified, organic and other specialty milks are being introduced regularly in bottles, cartons and even bags of varying types and dimensions. In an effort to "milk" the nondairy competition, milk processors like Canada's Natrel are rolling out shelf-stable, aseptically packaged dairy products.

The first with an aseptic, shelf-stable milk in Canada, Natrel, the Longueuil, QC-based division of Agropur Cooperative, produces and supplies fresh milk and other dairy products to the Canadian market. To entice consumers to try its line of flavored milks, it's bringing them the convenience of a shelf-stable format in custom high-density polyethylene bottles, vibrantly decorated with Label-Lytew oriented polypropylene wraparound film labels from ExxonMobil (www.exxonmobilchemical.com).

Natrel's milk is sold both under its own name and several other brands in nearly 31,000 retail locations across Canada. Natrel introduced Canada to the first line of aseptic flavored milks, nutritional supplements and coffee "creamer" in plastic bottles to expand sales opportunities among children and young adults. The company also packages milkshakes under the Hershey® and Oh Henry!® brands for Canadian sales.

Natrel offers two-percent milk and flavored one-percent milks in chocolate, vanilla and café au lait varieties plus a vitamin-enhanced nutritional supplement drink, in unique 375-mL patented HDPE bottles. A second 200-mL size is multipacked in groups of six and a third HDPE bottle in a distinctive 425-mL long-neck configuration is used for Moka, French Vanilla and Caramel flavored coffee creamers under the Natrel brand.

'Mooving' quickly into stores

The distinctive bottles are helping to invigorate the category and trigger sales in a short period of time. Because no refrigeration is needed, the single-serve milks can be displayed on shelves in the same section as sodas, juices and water, though they're often displayed in coolers. Shelf life of the products is three months from the date of manufacture.

According to recent research (see sidebar), flavored milks represent a strong growth opportunity and already have contributed to overall growth in milk consumption. Data from Chicago-based Information Resources, for example, shows that sales of flavored milks increased 6.3 percent in dollars and 0.6 percent in units from May, 2001, to May, 2002.

Attracting attention to the Natrel line, the Label-Lyte 350 LLG-202 labels are made of a satiny white, uncoated, 1.45-mil film that offers a high yield. Two-side-corona-treated, the three-layer, biaxially oriented PP film is designed for use in roll-fed labeling of cylindrical glass, plastic and metal containers.

ExxonMobil offers three Label-Lyte white opaque OPP films for roll-fed labeling of cylindrical dairy and beverage applications like this one. Designed for excellent opacity—some of the highest for its gauge in the industry, according to ExxonMobil—the material has a bright white background that greatly offsets Natrel's bold, colorful label graphics, which are printed in English and in French. The labels present eye-catching 360-degree graphics that include a spirited cow illustration on the milks, a striped background and flavor illustration on the nutritional supplement and a cup of coffee vignette and a coffee bean-patterned background on the coffee creamer.

The company fills the bottles on a single, proprietary production line equipped for aseptic packaging applications. The custom bottles, blow-molded by an un-named source, are embossed either with the Natrel logo, a dotted pattern or a splash motif. Following filling, the bottles are capped with a proprietary, 33-mm tamper-evident threaded closure and are also induction-sealed with an inner film/foil membrane. "I believe we were the first in Canada to aseptically pack milk in HDPE bottles," says Jean-Paul Clément, packaging and merchandising manager for Natrel. "We previously packed our products in gabletop cartons. Nutrition 24 is a new product, the flavored milks (with the exception of chocolate) are new products, so aseptic packaging and plastic bottles were big changes for us."

Tough but beautiful performer

Adding visual appeal, the flavored milk bottles feature vibrant labels flexo-printed in up to seven colors. Label-Lyte 350 LLG 202 can be used in laminations or as a single web. The treated white surface can be flexo- or gravure-printed with water- or solvent-based inks while its treated satin-white side is designed for machinability and hot-melt adhesion to ensure that the labels will stay affixed to the milk bottles. Since Natrel milk can be sold from coolers, the company favored the moisture-resistance of the OPP film. The high-gloss film resists moisture and highlights the eye-catching graphics with its high opacity.

Clément adds that Natrel followed the recommendation of its labeling equipment provider to use ExxonMobil's Label-Lyte 202. "A big advantage of using Label-Lyte film is the moisture-resistance it provides," he tells PD. "Our products are often displayed in refrigerated cases, but can be sold dry [unrefrigerated] and then stored in coolers, so it's critical that the label stock maintain its integrity and stay affixed under a variety of conditions."

Heading into stores quickly, the milk line stands out from the competition with a product that used to be sold as a commodity. Natrel's success is the result of providing its customers with the products and level of service they need to best meet consumer demands.

"The introduction of single-serve plastic bottles really helped make flavored milks attractive among a younger audience," Clément points out. "At Natrel, we take bottling and marketing of our flavored milks and milkshakes to an even higher level of innovation through aseptic processing, which means the milk holds its fresh taste at room temperature until it's opened. That allows our flavored milks to be sold in both the dry goods and refrigerated sections—just like all other beverages."

Natrel's single-serve aseptic milks can be found in multiple locations in stores. Being able to market these bottles unrefrigerated and in chilly coolers also ensures that the milks receive maximum display or "face" time in front of consumers.

As demand for its aseptic milk continues to grow, Natrel looks to regularly increase its rate of production. Clément says that Label-Lyte can keep up with fast labeling speeds. "We run 300 bottles or more per minute, and need a durable label film we can count on to perform trouble-free," he says.

The products are selling well in stores, Clément notes. "The products are available in major supermarket chains and convenience stores. Although the main goal was to maintain their asepsis and ensure their integrity, looks were especially important for these products.

"We looked at various labeling materials, but with the equipment we have and bottling at the speed we do, we quickly realized that we needed a high-performing material like Label-Lyte. It provides consistent machinability under what can be very challenging conditions. We have used Label-Lyte exclusively since we introduced our aseptic products and have been pleased with the results."

Got opportunities for Milk?

While the core volume of the dairy market is in white milk, there is plenty of growth in flavored and single-serve milks, on which Natrel has a firm grip. While fluid milk sales are relatively flat, opportunities for growth are available in single-serve and flavored-milk markets, reports Corinne McGarrity, marketing director at the International Dairy Food Assn., who spoke at the recent AET Films' (www.aetinc.com) Label Institute. McGarrity says that the greatest growth has been observed with branded milk products. Fluid milk sales have been relatively flat between 1997 and 2002, according to her findings. "Milk sales are still mostly in gallons of white milk," she says, citing market share of white gallons sold in food, drug and mass merchandise outlets, including Wal-Mart at 74.0 percent. White milk in other containers ranks second at 21.4 percent, while the share of flavored milk is at 3.5 percent and those described as "other" are at 1.1 percent.

How do you grow a commodity business? McGarrity says the flavors themselves are key. "Flavors have experienced significant growth, with vanilla topping the list at 48.8 percent." Interestingly, coffee flavor is the second most popular milk flavor, at 15.4 percent. Growth is in the single-serve category, with single-serve milk packages at 12.6-percent share versus 87.4 percent in multi-serve containers. "Awareness of single-serve milk containers from vending machines is also growing," she adds. "More than one-third of teens are aware of single-serve milk containers from vending machines and vending machine placement is on the rise." According to her findings, between 2001 to 2002, vended milk per capita consumption was at 39 percent for kids aged six to 12.

Milk has also been shown to be a solution for weight management, especially key, McGarrity says, with obesity becoming the number-one U.S. health problem. "Emerging science shows a link between dairy and weight loss," she explains. "The National Dairy Council has been supporting a body of emerging science that suggests dairy can be part of the solution to the obesity crisis. There will likely be more growth in good-for-you foods and beverages. More than 30 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

McGarrity's milk marketing strategy for success is to maintain the core white milk business and expand your array of flavored and single-serve milk products. Also, she suggests branding for flavors, maximizing awareness and building credibility for the compelling message that drinking milk can help with weight loss. "A change in consumption behavior is necessary to increase purchases," she states. "Activate a new regimen. It's the first step and a critical tool. After all, milk has gained momentum with younger audiences recently."

She reports that between 1999 and 2002, kids have gotten the message about milk. Infants to children aged five increased their milk consumption per capita from 26.2 to 28.4 gal/year while kids six to 12 also drank more milk, from 24.7 to 25.3 gal/year. And teens aged 13 to 17 were not to be outdone, bolstering their milk drinking habits from 22.8 to 23.5 gal/year.

"The milk industry is looking toward a promising future," McGarrity concludes. "Driven by building brands, developing immediate consumption channels of distribution and promoting weight loss benefits."

More information is available:

Label film:ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Films Business, 315/966-1000. www.exxonmobil.com.

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