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Retorted pet-food pack is a breed apart

Juicy beef stew, simmered chicken medley, savory rice-and-lamb stew and roasted pork sound like tasty ingredients for a delicious family-style meal, right? Well as of March, these dinner combinations began going to the dogs. One of the country's top brands of dry dog food is barking up a new tree as Nestlé Purina PetCare launches Benefulw Prepared Meals.e While Beneful has experienced double-digit growth each year since its introduction in 2001, St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina hopes to reinvent the wet dog-food category by taking the can out of canned dog food and digging into new product-formula ground.

One look at the product and it's clear that this is not your typical "wet" dog food. Resembling more of a stew, a crock-pot meal or something at a Chinese buffet, the new products look more like "people food" than pet food, and that's by design. They're made with vegetables such as carrots, peas, spinach and green beans; real beef, chicken, turkey, pork or lamb pieces; and wholesome grains such as wild rice, barley and pasta. All eight varieties are designed to deliver the "perfect balance of taste and nutrition," the company says.

Equally breakthrough is the product's nonround plastic container, which is retortable. Probably a first of its kind in the U.S., the retortable container is shelf-stable for at least 12 months, similar to wet dog food in cans. It holds 10 oz of food, has no sharp or hard edges and incorporates a resealable, snap-on lid and a film/foil inner membrane seal. Introduced regionally in 24 states, which represent about half of the U.S. population and about 70 percent of wet dog-food consumption, Beneful Prepared Meals is available in pet specialty, grocery, mass-merchandise and clubstore channels. Produced and developed by Printpack's Rampart Packaging Div. (www.printpack.com), the package is thermoformed of a proprietary, clear, seven-layer polypropylene/ ethylene vinyl alcohol coextrusion designed to achieve specific barrier and performance requirements. The innerseal locks out air and other harmful elements to protect nutrients while the container's full-body, heat-shrinkable sleeve label includes product-viewing windows on three panels to clearly show off the food's chunky, multifaceted ingredients and to reinforce its quality and wholesome appeal. If the entire amount of Beneful Prepared Meals food isn't used in one feeding, consumers can easily snap on the lid back to reseal the container. Any unused product can be refrigerated after opening.

Says Steve Crimmins, vp of dog food marketing for Nestlé Purina PetCare, "Our extensive research with highly involved dog owners reveals that there is a sizable segment of consumers who are not currently satisfied with their existing wet dog-food choices. One of the biggest trends we're seeing among devoted pet owners is the desire to feed their dogs the way they feed themselves—choosing food made with real, high-quality ingredients that offer the perfect balance of taste and nutrition."

Crimmins goes on to say that more than ever, people want to pamper their pooches. They consider their pets to be highly important companions they treat as true family members. "With Beneful Prepared Meals, we've added epicurean polish to pet food to meet the needs of today's highly involved pet owners who want food for their dogs, not dog food," he says.

To position the new food distinctively among the competition, Nestlé Purina asked a group of involved dog owners to provide hands-on consumer involvement to help create Beneful Prepared Meals and its packaging, from test kitchens to the national store level. In fact, Beneful Prepared Meals is the most extensively tested, new item in Nestlé Purina's history, notes brand manager Mark Stoddard. "We spent three years bringing it to market. We used a methodology called 'consumer creation research,' where we bring people in and they created their ideal dog food, virtually from a 'farmer's market' of real, wholesome ingredients. Our nutritionists adapted the recipes to ensure that the food would provide one-hundred-percent, complete and balanced nutrition. We'd like to think that we may be re-inventing the wet-food category with this product."

What the company discovered is that consumers want a shelf-stable, plastic container. "The consumers we researched wanted a modern [container] design and definitely wanted plastic," Stoddard tells PD. "We asked consumers to bring in their ideal packaging for the meal, and many of them brought in the same type of package—a clear container with a resealable lid, which fits the trends we see in the category today. People want to eat food that's tasty and nutritious. It's apparent that pet owners want to provide the same thing, as well as a lot of variety, for their dogs."

Along with the trend toward more humanizing of pets, Crimmins says that pet-food packaging is also changing. "Dog owners have become more interested in the food they feed their dogs, including the ingredients on the label and the way the food is packaged," he adds. "We are the first pet food manufacturer to put such a clear container on the shelf."

Stoddard goes on to say that consumers had a few requests in common, such as a nonmetal and transparent container, which many brought in as examples. "Transparency and convenience were really important," he adds. "We worked really hard to try to incorporate that into the Beneful Prepared Meals package.

"Over and over, we heard from people who said they want to see what they're buying, so we left areas of the sleeve label completely unprinted, so that consumers can see the wholesome ingredients. The container is also stackable, and can go into a pantry easily."

Nestlé Purina also discovered that resealable packaging ranks high on the critical list, regardless of the package size. Since a lot of people have smaller dogs, the 10-oz size can provide more than a single feeding, so the request for a snap-on lid came in as loud as the bark of a German Shepherd. The materials incorporated in the coextruded PP/EVOH package structure were selected to optimize package performance, shelf life and cost, Printpack says.

Developing such a clear plastic container that could be retorted wasn't without its challenges. Working against an 18-month commercialization schedule, Printpack says Rampart had to develop a distinctive package that could appeal to pet owners, provide the proper barriers needed for extended shelf stability and provide the ruggedness and performance needed to withstand retort processing to achieve optimal food safety. It also had to preserve taste, flavor, color and vitamins. All of this was a tall order, considering that few, if any, plastic tubs can handle thermal processing at conventional, metal-can retort temperatures.

States John Kirouac, business development manager of the Rampart Div., "This container fits within the scale of generally recognized retort-processing conditions emerging in the market. It's designed to handle temperatures, pressures and cook times associated with standard air-overpressure retort-sterilization technology. From our perspective, the goal was to achieve a package capable of withstanding retort conditions for a highly sensitive product with a functionally challenging shape profile," continues Kirouac. "We recognized we had committed to a timeline and were determined to exceed expectations wherever possible."

The container graphics and different overlids are color-coded in a paintbox of hues to differentiate between product varieties. The attention-getting colors create a rainbow when the different containers are stacked on shelves or in displays. The colored overlids seem to pop on store shelves in bright orange, cranberry, aqua, purple, pepper red, cornflower blue and more.

"Color coding really helps pet owners more easily find the products they're looking for on the shelf," Stoddard points out. "Once they find the brand, they want to be able to differentiate between different products in the line."

To reinforce the wholesome, high-quality theme, sleeve-label graphics present an overall pattern reminiscent of Beneful Dry's existing brand imagery and visuals. The design showcases assorted key ingredients in the food, such as a chunks of meat, stalks of grain, pea pods and others against a clean, white background. The Purina and Beneful logos appear in large, black type, next to a photo vignette of the charming Beneful mascot, a furry Wheaton Terrier that romps across the main panel.

Printed with the same graphics as the sleeve label, the tabbed, peelable film/foil inner membrane provides a tight seal over the top of the filled tub. The plastic overlid on top of that is embossed with the Purina and Beneful logos. While retort equipment does include overpressure for the containers, which helps add processing protection, Printpack says it designed the container with functional sealing characteristics that match those of the innerseal so that the tub would perform well during the retort process.

Rampart's facilities in Williamsburg, VA, use a proprietary process to form the container to a 2:1 draw depth, based on surface area, using solid-phase pressure forming (SPPF). Kirouac adds that a combination of factors was key to the retort container's successful development, including the specific coextrusion and forming processes, a certain container geometry, profiling and the container's thicknesses.

Rampart sends the finished containers to a Nestlé Purina facility where they are filled, sealed and retorted on a new, dedicated packaging line installed just for the new Beneful product-line extension.

"It was an extreme challenge for our production team to come up with such a new package structure," says Stoddard.

"We also had a great working relationship with Printpack. They've been a great partner in bringing this package to market."

Echoes Kirouac, "We recognize the need for individual product-to-package harmonization and are very pleased with the results for Nestlé Purina. We are working on developing other opportunities with the technology. Probably the largest groundswell in packaging innovation is around meeting consumer demands with plastic alternatives to traditional containers (such as metal cans for single-serve pet food, in this case). At Printpack, we are aggressively commercializing programs to offer customers a choice of either rigid or flexible packaging options."

Available in singles, the new Beneful Prepared Meals 10-oz containers are shipped to stores in easy-to-stock, corrugated display trays that hold eight packs of a single meal variety. Retailers participated in the design of the display trays in order to streamline things on their end. "Retailers get a nice-looking billboard presentation on shelves for the entire line," says Stoddard. "We hope that the launch of Beneful Prepared Meals will allow us to bring the same innovation to the 'wet' side of the business as the original Beneful dry food brought to the dry side." Despite the ambitious investment in product development and packaging technology, the packs are reasonably priced at $1.59.


More information is available:
Printpack, Inc., Rampart Packaging Div., 404/691-5830. www.printpack.com.
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