Trends

Retort-pouched foods, once they were proven viable, shelf-stable items, resulted in considerable commercial interest and several test-market trials by major food processors. Since the initial rush, commercial interest has subsided, and current applications are centered on specialty gourmet-image foods: liquid diets as used in hospitals; health and calorie-control entrées marketed in conjunction with health programs; and convenience entrées through direct-marketing network systems. Nearly all of these commercial pouches are foil free, with ethylene vinyl alcohol resins providing the oxygen and water vapor barrier. Shelf life is 18 months, and products are microwavable and hot-water heatable. The nature of these applications requires a high organoleptic quality, a major factor in their successes.

The U.S. military remains steadfast as one of the major users of retort-pouched foods; in the combat ration, the meals ready to eat, the retort pouch continues to meet the requirements of rigorous storage (including serving as war materiel reserves), distribution (which includes occasional free-fall air drops), climatic and geographical environmental extremes, and ultimate consumer preferences. Some variations among entrées have been introduced so that the ration can be used to alleviate indigenous food shortages in strife-torn areas. The meals ready to eat now feature 24 menus, and the ration includes a flameless ration heater (water-activated controlled electrochemical reaction). Through 1991, just under 400 million meals had been procured. Since then, consumption has hovered at 2 million cases (24 million meals) per year, and all indications are that these levels will remain constant.

Now that the retort pouch has been technically feasible for nearly 40 years and several attempts have been made at introducing it into major market segments, its future is, in all likelihood, to remain with the applications listed earlier. Some reasons for this are:

1. The frozen food distribution system in the United States from the manufacturer to the home freezer has been well established and has provided products that the retort pouch has had difficulty replacing. Conversely, the pouch has done well in Japan, where competitive processes do not exist to the same degree.

2. Consistency in quality (not quality per se) for some lines of flavor-sensitive products has not been satisfactory; that is, because of deficiencies (mostly related to inconsistent time variables with unit operations) in filling, sealing, and processing, some package-to-package product variations have been greater than the manufacturers felt was acceptable. In addition, equipment was not available for highvolume production.

3. The boil-in-bag approach, even with frozen foods, has not appealed to customers to the degree manufacturers expected.

4. The greatest deterrent has been an outgrowth of the pouch and its technology; namely, the shallow, semirigid, thermoprocessable polymer trays with barrier properties suitable for an acceptable 12- to 18-month shelf life. These packages have a thin cross section so that high-quality products are achieved with minimum thermoprocessing. They also provide structural protection for fragile, placeable items; easy, direct consumption from the trays (seals are peelable); and, most significantly, the capability to be heated in a microwave oven for serving.

The retort pouch has provided an essential package for the military and a viable one for selected commercial foods. Its applications have generally stabilized. Increased usage will depend on innovative products and marketing rather than on further technical improvements. Its development and technical acceptance has broadened shelf-stable food packaging by demonstrating that another materials class—polymers, in pouch, tray, or tub form—provides quality and performance at least equal to more traditional materials. The existence of these packaging options has resulted in the National Canners Association becoming the National Food Processors Association.

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