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Consumer convenience, healthier choices reign

Supermarkets will be offering lots of healthy and tasty choices for hungry consumers. As our editors scoured the aisles of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show last month, they snatched up individually wrapped chicken, peanut butter in single-serve cups, energy drinks, retort pouches and ethnic cuisines, among many other new products. Here's a closer look at what ended up in their baskets.

Vacuum-pack makes fresh vegetables, fast

Making fresh, steamed vegetable preparation a four-minute affair, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Inc., Coral Gables, FL, is offering three varieties of fresh-cut veggies (1) in vacuum-packed trays that extend the shelf life of the product while eliminating the need for preservatives, additives or other chemicals. Relates Matt Smith, vp of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, “Consumers are looking for convenience, and these days, microwavable meals are a common offering on supermarket shelves. The new film and packaging system offers a quick way of cooking vegetables with superior results.”

Included in the new Del Monte Fresh Microwave and Serve Vegetables line are Baby Carrots; Vegetable Medley, with baby carrots, broccoli and cauliflower; and Mixed Vegetables, with baby carrots, cauliflower and sugar peas—each in a 6- and 12-oz version. The colorful, fresh-cut vegetables are packaged in a plastic tray and film-lid combination from Cryovac (www.cryovac.com) and have a 10-day shelf life, excluding production time. While Del Monte Fresh Produce will not reveal the exact construction of the packaging materials, the company does say that the “skin-tight” vacuum-pack is designed so that when the vegetables are microwave-heated, the film will inflate and create a “steam dome,” allowing the contents to cook evenly. “The result is a fragrant, flavorful product,” notes Smith.

The company relates that the product was in development for six months, with the greatest challenge consisting of “getting the right mix of flavors to offer consumers a good value,” Smith says. “Then we had to determine the correct product weight and the corresponding package to tie it all with the proper microwavable cooking times and offer the product at a competitive retail price.” He adds that packaging requirements included a quick cooking time, a good shelf life through the normal cold chain to stores and “a superior eating experience for consumers.”

Labeling of the product is done with a paperboard sleeve that covers roughly one-third of the tray, allowing complete visibility of the vacuum-packed vegetables. Graphics, created in-house by Del Monte Fresh Produce, are designed to reinforce the “fresh” concept, as well as highlight the product's quick, four-minute prep time.

First test-marketed for six weeks in Midwest groceries, the line was officially introduced on June 1, with national expansion continuing throughout 2006. Prices are $1.99 for the 6-oz version and $2.99 for the 12-oz size.

Single-serve vegetable sides provide an 'entrée' to healthy eating

There's no excuse for skipping your veggies, with simple preparation and individual portion sizes now provided by new Green Giant® Just for ONE!™ vegetables (2) from General Mills, Minneapolis. Scheduled for launch later this month, the 4.25-oz, single-serve side dishes include two varieties: Broccoli & Cheese Sauce, and Niblets® Corn & Butter Sauce. And, says George Tuszkiewicz, packaging technology leader for General Mills, “the packaging system is perfect for potential line extensions.”

Just for ONE! is General Mills' solution to consumers' search for convenient, healthy, portion-controlled side dishes and snacks, Tuszkiewicz explains. “More and more consumers want healthy foods, but they need to be won over by something else at the same time, such as convenience.”

The vegetable dishes are individually packed in a custom, square, polypropylene container—from a proprietary supplier—that features two compartments: a larger one for the frozen vegetables and a smaller one for the cheese or butter sauce. A clear polyethylene terephthalate extrusion-coated film, also from a proprietary source, covers the tray and is peeled back during microwave heating. Cooking time is just two to two and a half minutes in the microwave.

Sold in four-packs, the vegetable trays are held in a .016 solid unbleached sulfate paperboard sleeve that includes photography of the finished dish, along with an image of the product's namesake—the “Jolly” Green Giant. General Mills says the suggested retail price for the 17-oz four-pack is $3.79.

Smucker's hopes consumers will go nuts for portable peanut butter

Planting its peanut butter firmly in the portable products arena, The J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, OH, has introduced its creamy Jif® spread (3) in convenient, 2.25-oz, single-serve cups for snacking. In a nutshell, Jif To Go™ was developed to meet consumers' growing desire for healthy snacks packed for on-the-go use, according to Smucker's marketing materials, distributed at the show.

With this new, single-serve, shelf-stable version of its popular Jif peanut butter, Smucker's is hoping that “choosy moms” will choose Jif To Go for their family's lunch boxes, backpacks and gym bags. While the company would not disclose information on packaging materials or suppliers, PD has learned that the clear-plastic, thermoformed cups—packed six in a paperboard sleeve for retail—are supplied by Winpak Portion Packaging (www.winpak.com). Bold and bright, Jif's trademark graphics of red, blue and green stripes and its white logo are printed on the cup's peelable foil lidding, which is easily removed for convenient consumption.

Also printed in a pattern of red, blue and green stripes, the paperboard sleeve, from Rock-Tenn Co.'s (www.rocktenn.com) Nicholasville, KY, folding carton plant, includes an illustration of the peanut-butter spread being used as a dip for apple slices and celery. Other items suggested for dipping include crackers and pretzels. Die-cuts on the sides and bottom of the sleeve enable consumers to see the portioned product.

While retail prices may vary for the multipacks, depending upon location, PD found the new Jif To Go in a Chicagoland grocery store for $3.24.

To-Go pouch heats up SoupMan's sales

Look out Seinfeld fans, no soup for you! SoBe Beverages is back this year with The Original SoupMan, a line of fresh soups in flexible packaging (4) for supermarket sales made with the recipes of the Soup Man, made famous on Seinfeld episodes for blasting some of the characters and refusing to serve others. Al Yeganeh, a real New York soup chef, who opened a small storefront soup shop on 42nd Street in that city, soared to national recognition on Jerry Seinfeld's TV show in a 1995 episode. On the show, Yeganeh wouldn't always sell patrons like George, Elaine and Jerry cups of his flavorful soup.

John Bello, who sold his SoBe company to Pepsi in 2001 and became chairman and chief operating officer of Soup Kitchen Intl., says the SoupMan venture is “the perfect marketing storm.” Notes Bello, “The iconic brand already exists in Al, and the marketplace is ready for a super-premium soup with the emerging health consciousness, and that's coming together with a very talented marketing team led by me and others.”

The soup is available in the refrigerated deli sections of grocery stores in a clear, 15-oz, gusset-bottomed, standup pouch that sells for $4.99 to $6.99. Five soup flavors include chicken vegetable, Al's garden vegetable, turkey chili, seafood bisque and jambalaya. Yeganeh's devoted soup fans, or “soupies,” can vote online for the next soup flavor they want on the shelf. Sorry, but the Elaine character on Seinfeld will just have to step to the back of the soup line—so far there's no mulligatawny version of the soup currently available in the pouches. Word is that Bello expects to have at least 50 or 60 of The Original SoupMan franchise restaurants by year's end.

The company expects that the retail Grab-N-Go pouches of soup will heat up the market. Since its launch last May, The Original SoupMan line of soups has found its way into 14 states and about 1,100 stores across America, including Marsh Supermarkets in Indiana, Price Chopper, Giant, A&P and even Loblaws in Canada. All of the soup is produced and packaged under strict supervision by Yeganeh to assure the products consistently adhere to his high standards. In fact, PD learns from Soup Kitchen Intl. that he specifically wanted a clear pouch material so that the ready-made soups inside could easily be seen. The company reports that the consumer response, which was gathered from in-store demos and event-based tastings, shows that consumers love the fact that they can see the soup in the package. The franchises are provided with some 45 soup varieties in 8-lb bags available in rotation.

Like a secret soup recipe, Soup Kitchen Intl. won't reveal packaging details or suppliers. “Consumers also tell us that because the package can stand up well, it's a space-saver in the refrigerator—it can be 'wedged' into tight spots,” says Bello. “We have also learned that consumers like to take the packs to the office and to parties and find it easy to open.”

Tyson wraps up more packaging innovations

Tyson Foods, Springdale, AR, rolled out several new items, including what it's calling Trimmed and Ready™ products, which will be introduced in June along with individually wrapped Tyson boneless, skinless fresh chicken breasts (5). The latter has a resealable outer bag that holds fresh chicken breasts that are then portioned inside so the user can take out only what's needed and refrigerate or freeze the rest. “We developed this product for the sixty-six percent of consumers who buy fresh, boneless, skinless breasts and freeze them for later use,” says Bill Lovette, Tyson senior group vp of Poultry and Prepared Foods.

Approximately 45 percent of consumers who buy boneless breast meat are feeding one to two people. “We think the bag-in-bag product will drive incremental volume by increasing household penetration among light users who would prefer individual portions,” Lovette says. “At the same time, heavy and medium users of fresh chicken can trade up for the added convenience of freezer-ready.” Each portion-pack resists leakage, prevents mess and is easier to thaw. It's also ideal for those who don't like to handle raw chicken.

While Tyson is keeping packaging specifics and suppliers close to the vest, the Cryovac Food Packaging Div. of Sealed Air Corp. (www.sealedair.com) offers a “saddle-type” chicken portion-pack that closely resemble this one, as do a few other suppliers. Tyson says it anticipates extending the individually wrapped concept to other products.

What's more, Tyson displayed a new family combination pack of fresh beef chuck roast and fresh-cut vegetables, including celery, carrots, onion and potatoes (6). Launched in 2005, the combination kit is also available in a pot roast, a beef kabob and a fajita version. The compartmented, outer container for the vacuum-packed meal components is a double-windowed, die-cut corrugated carton. The package presents the familiar Tyson branding and graphic elements in a red color scheme. This convenient kit allows consumers to create homemade meals with ease, by combining a pork shoulder butt roast, traditional roasting vegetables and seasonings in one handy package.

“In today's busy, activity-filled world, consumers are looking for great-tasting products that are versatile and fit their lifestyles,” according to the National Pork Board, which honored the package with its Consumer's Choice Pork Award. The products rolled into supermarkets in December.

New Orleans-style meals in 60 seconds

The need for even more convenience never ceases to be a packager's goal, and Zatarain's from McCormick's U.S. Consumer Products Div. has gone one step further in its quest to provide consumers with foods that are ultra-convenient to serve. It has already developed packaging for ready-to-serve rice dishes; now it's unveiling a line of ready-to-serve rice-based meals that contain the meat—there's nothing to add. Zatarain's Ready-to-Serve Complete Meals (7), which also include rice, come in 6.5-oz, standup, retort pouches. McCormick's Laurie Harrsen says the products are shelf-stable for 12 months and can be heated in the microwave for a mere 60 sec. The high-barrier, nonfoil pouch contains one of five entrées that include tender, long-grain rice, red beans and meat such as sausage, seasonings and vegetables—all with a New Orleans-style flavor.

The packaging helps make dinner for one or a hearty office lunch in a snap, with nothing to add and no prep time. Unlike ready meals in other packaging, these pouches, which are notched on the top for easy-tear access, can be placed directly in the microwave and need no defrosting like a frozen meal would. Obviously, the convenience of the pouches and the quick, easy, heat-and-eat attributes and bold flavors of the products will be welcome additions to the ready meal market. The products comprise Jambalaya with Sausage, containing seasoned sausage and ham; Red Beans & Rice with Sausage; Dirty Rice with Pork; Sausage & Chicken Gumbo; and Blackened Chicken with Yellow Rice.

Harrsen describes the high-barrier pouch material as a nonfoil structure designed for microwavability. It contains two oriented films—one made of polyester and the other of polyamide—as well as a PP sealant film. The polyamide contributes excellent flex-crack-resistance, she tells PD, while the PP provides strong seals that are able to withstand the temperatures and pressures that build up during retorting.

Suggested retail prices for the new Zatarain's Ready-to-Serve Complete Meals range from $1.99 to $2.39. Available in the rice aisle of grocery stores nationwide, the single-serve pouches are decorated similarly to Zatarain's products in paperboard cartons and heat-and-eat rice pouches. Harrsen indicates that the pouch supplier and other specifics are proprietary. However, the retortable pouch structure seems to be growing in popularity for a number of food products from various consumer goods packagers.

Authentic Asian cuisine caters to the mainstream market

With packaging graphics tailored to appeal to younger, “food adventurers,” or “those folks who are used to eating bolder flavors and ethnic dishes,” the new Thai Thai line of frozen, microwavable meals (8) pairs authentic Thai cuisine with a Westernized marketing approach, explains David Light, national sales manager, retail programs, for distributor Captn's Pack Products. “You can see by the style of the logo that the product line is intended to be a mainstream item; it's not intended to go to an ethnic market,” he says. “But it's a little bit of an adventure into the culinary world.”

The Thai Thai line is manufactured in Thailand by CP Foods-Aquaculture Business, which Light says is the largest protein company in Asia. Since last September, CP Foods' U.S. distribution subsidiary, Captn's Pack, Columbia, MD, has been making five of the line's numerous soup, curry, noodle and stir-fried frozen meals available to U.S. retail businesses, including select Wal-Mart stores, Shaw's Supermarkets, Acme Markets, Harris Teeter and soon, Safeway. Because CP Foods faces regulations prohibiting the import of pork and chicken to the U.S., the five items distributed here are shrimp-based. These include Pad Thai Kung—or stir-fried noodles with prawns—Shrimp Green Curry with Rice, Shrimp Red Curry with Rice, Sweet & Sour Shrimp with Rice, and Tom Yum Kung (prawn soup). Light adds that two new items will be introduced in the third quarter of this year.

Capitalizing on U.S. consumers' desire for convenience, as well as their growing interest in Southeast Asian cuisine, Thai Thai items are packaged in microwavable bowls encased in stylized, paperboard sleeves with Asian-influenced graphics. For example, incorporated in the product logo and throughout the sleeve graphics is an illustration of a red pepper.

“People tend to identify bolder, spicier flavors with foods from Southeast Asia,” notes Light. The pepper is also cleverly used on the front of the sleeve to provide a “spiciness scale” for each product variety. One red pepper signifies a “mild” flavor, while three indicate a “spicy” flavor.

Paperboard sleeves, enticing with rich, full-color photography of the prepared dish, feature two square corners and two rounded, providing another cue to the foods' Asian origins.

According to Light, the Thai Thai line has been very successful in the markets in which it has previously been introduced, including Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe. In the U.S., he says, “retailers recognize that there's a lot of growth in this category, and that this is the place to be.” As for U.S. consumers? “Admittedly, demos and taste-testing opportunities have been beneficial,” he says. “This is one of those products that, once people try it, they love it.”

Prices for the frozen meals vary from the $3 range to the low $4 range, Light adds.

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