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UK packaging scene reports hits, misses as shift in QFF trade keeps all on toes.

UK Packaging Scene Reports Hits, Misses As Shift in QFF Trade Keeps All on Toes

A good way to find out what is really going on in any frozen food market is to talk to the suppliers of packaging. Quick Frozen Foods International paid calls on eight such concerns during its two-week survey of the United Kingdom, and the findings are revealing.

"The trend is definitely toward smaller pack sizes," informed Donald J. Watts, manager of market and product development for DRG Cartons. He cited several reasons:

* Demographic changes have resulted in more single households.

* The move away from chest merchandisers toward upright cabinets in retail stores.

* The consumer's evolving preference for variety over bulk.

He elaborated on the shift from bulk commodities: "The amount of frozen food people are purchasing per shopping trip is lessening, but they are making more visits to the store. Today's buying habits are increasingly conditioned by the chilled food competition, as refrigerated recipe dishes are generally purchased twice a week due to shelf life limitations."

DRG, which was recently acquired by Manville Forest Products in the USA, produces cartons for just about all the QFF majors in Britain. Its client list includes Findus, Birds Eye-Walls, Sara Lee, Jus-Rol, Heinz, Safeway and Tesco.

Watts can tell you what's hot and what's not by the kinds of packs under design. Among the big sellers at the moment are gateaux and layer cakes, pizza, ice cream and health-oriented recipe dishes. That's some combination!

Based in Bristol, DRG does more that just turn out creatively-designed paperboard cartons in volume. It also supplies complete systems and customizes packaging equipment to meet individual, localized needs. "We've sold five Kliklok Concorde high speed end load cartoners," said Watts. "Popular with multinational companies, throughput is some 250 packs a minute."


Another packaging concern offering technical services and machine systems expertise as well as graphic design assistance is Waddingtons Cartons Ltd. Part of the John Waddington group, paper and board packaging account for 22% of 238 million [pounds] realized in sales last year, while the thermoformed plastics division brought in 38% of those revenues.

While turnover was up 15%, annual earnings through March 31 fell by 13.5% to 17.5 million [pounds] in what Chief Executive David G. Perry called "one of the most difficult trading periods in recent history."

The folding cartons side of the business reported good results in spite of pressure on margins and volatile product demand. Optimistic about future prospects, Waddington has broken ground two miles from company headquarters for construction of a $5 million [pounds], 290,000 square foot factory. It is expected to be operational by September of 1991.

Noting that 75-80% of the carton volume is in QFF and chilled food packaging, Marketing Manager John Hopkins sees continued growth ahead. "You can't call the frozen food business mature because it's changing all the time. There is more fragmentation within markets. Just look at the new opportunities provided by the demand for microwave packaging."

As the UK patent holder of American developed Qwik-Crisp receptor technology, Waddingtons is well placed to assist packers wishing to bring out products that can cook, crisp and brown in the microwave.

The company, whose client list reads like a who's who in frozen foods, tends to concentrate on highspeed applications, turning out innovative packs such as the McVitie's Croisanti and Nabisco Belin Tarte aux Champignons. It offers the Traytite dual-ovenable formed tray, and through its relationship with James River Inc. of the USA is able to pass on up-to-date technical advice to customers. In addition, Waddingtons' systems specialists have made numerous equipment installations tailored to fit special needs. Among the machines set up are Kliklok, Sprinter and Certipak units.

An Active CMB

QFFI went to Swindon to see Gerry Brunskill, general manager of CMB Carton Systems. With 28 licensees around the world, he reported that business has been good overall despite a generally sluggish domestic scene where many frozen food manufacturers are coping with high interest rates and flat volumes.

As a matter of fact, CMB has been particularly busy for three straight years, completing its largest job ever at the new Birds Eye fish packing factory in Grimsby. That contract was good for 1.6 million [pounds] in equipment -- much of it in robotics technology.

Meanwhile, a $1.2 million deal is being negotiated in the USA to supply five packaging equipment lines. And in East Germany a spinach processor has been the recipient of one of eight Diotite C90 high-spec three flap carton closers that CMB has sold within the past 15 months. Findus in the UK has bought two, as they are adept at packaging pancakes as well as fish fingers.

But it is in West Germany where CMB has installed what it calls the world's fastest fish finger line, where throughputs of up to 2,400 units per minute can be reached. Handling raw material in weights of 25g, 30g and 31g, the carton system operates at a rate of 260 cartons a minute on collations of five and six, at 230 a minute on 10s, 200 a minute on 12s, and 130 a minute on 15s. That's the equivalent of 4.32 tons per hour gross at the maximum throughput.

The system, which was installed at an undisclosed QFF plant in the Port of Bremerhaven, consists of two hydraulically driven vibratory decks, a 36 lane speed collator and an Embeeseal cartoner. The fish fingers are discharged at random from the freezer onto the vibratory decks where they are unscrambled and then passed into the 36 lanes of the collator.

Next they are selected in batches of five, six, 10, 12, 14, 15 or 18 and converged into collations as they pass over the marshalling deck. The product is then discharged into the pocket of the cartoner and transferred into the end load carton by a barrel loader/stabilizer unit. The double poly carton is finally closed and sealed using hot air.

Also very active in setting up cook-in-container Diotray systems that rely on hot air sealing technology, CMB has installed four such lines with United Foods in the USA and one with Swanson in Canada. Westvaco has been one of its three American licensees for the past year.

The use of primary Diotray packs -- which go straight from the packaging operation into the chill or freezer cabinet, and from there into the oven -- has caught on dramatically since the huge success of Budget Gourmet recipe dishes in the mid-1980s.

As for recent in-house machine development, General Manager Brunskill told QFFI that CMB is replacing chains with a computer-controlled eletronic system that has demonstrated per minute carton capacity of 500 compared to the old range of 150 to 200.

Trigon's in the Bag

Giving Cryovac a run for the shrink wrap money is Trigon Packaging Systems in Telford. A subsidiary of the Hamilton, New Zealand company that grew large along with that country's highly successful lamb and dairy export business, the UK operation is less than four years old.

"The British frozen poultry, red meat and wild game industry is a big customer of our second-skin Shrinkvac packaging, which not only hugs the contours of food products, but has print possibilities of up to six colors on both sides," explained Max Enterkin, sales manager. "We're also shipping to processors in Hungary, Poland, Scandinavia, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Greece, Spain, Israel and Iceland. But the big thrust now is to develop business with retailers.

Also in the company's line is the Trifresh system, which combines vacuum skin packaging with conventional thermoforming technology to offer improved product presentation by eliminating surface ice crystal buildup while also reducing dehydration and freezer burn.

Abuse-resistant Intact vacuum packaging is also available, providing two films that are oxygen-permeable to enhance color. This system is especially designed for delicate products such as shellfish. John T. Handy Co. in the USA uses the RM571 VSP and a clear PVC tray to package its upmarket frozen Louisiana Soft Shell Crawfish that are sold internationally.

Trigon is now targeting the Italian seafood sector as a growth area since fish in that country is said to be increasingly packed fresh and sold frozen.

On the domestic meat front, Enterkin confirmed that business is down because of the mad cow disease scare. "We've had more meat clients go bust this year than ever before," he said. But perhaps there is an upside: "We are now doing a naturally-reared meat pack for a company that is trying to address consumer fears of BSE."

As for new product development, Twin-Skin will soon be introduced to the trade. While few details were available at press time, the concept involves a two-bag package in which better merchandising will result since the outer bag's graphics will not be obscured in the least by ice or frost accumulation.

Fardem's Fortunes

Two polythene flexible bag printers were also on QFFI's itinerary, starting with Fardem Limited in Louth. The outfit specializes in new label accounts, with such names as J. Sainsbury, ASDA and McCain among its customers.

"Our order books are full," reported Andy Wardman, food packaging products manager. "The biggest problem is keeping up with lead times. But we manage."

While supplying vegetable packaging may be the foundation of operations, a 60,000 [pounds] investment is being made to convert some machinery to make pizza bags. And a new eight-color press has been ordered from Germany at a cost of 1.6 million [pounds].

"We anticipate steady growth overall in the frozen food industry," said Wardman, who predicted that in three years' time flexible packaging will make big advances at the expense of printed board cartons. "Asparagus, which has always been sold in boxes, is already switching to flexo."

The product manager boasted that Fardem's management is just as flexible as its packaging when it comes to getting a tough job done quickly: "We can go from start to finish from scratch in only nine days. Some 55,000 bags were recently delivered to a major client in just that time frame."

Busy Flexoset

In operation for six years, Telford-based Flexoset started off by providing six-color bags for the crisp (potato chips in American parlance) trade before branching off into poultry. Today, volume is divided evenly between the two segments.

"Business is so busy right now that we can barely keep up with it," said John Fletcher, commercial director. "And we can thank consumer worries about diseased beef products for our good fortune. Not believing government pronouncements about meat safety, they're buying chicken in record quantities."

But Flecther takes it all in stride. After all, it was not more than a few years ago when chicken sales slumped 20% because of another health scare.

Manufacturing bags for clients ranging from Buxted and Tesco to Sainsbury and Safeway, the company has 40 accounts in all. It has looked at getting into vegetables, but is reluctant due to that segment's dominance by film suppliers with a competitive advantage in raw materials. "However," noted the commercial director, "there are possibilities with processors who do small runs in the one-half to two-ton range, which is right up our alley."

As for exporting, such activity has only just begun through retail supermarket customers with distribution in France. But Fletcher views East Germany as a potential market. "It's not as though we would be pinching somebody else's business."

Thames Seals It

It's one thing to make a bag and print attractive graphics that will intice consumers to buy the contents. But it requires yet another specialist to keep the product inside until it's time to cook. So, QFFI went into London to pay a call on Thames Packaging Co., maker of hot air continuous heat-sealing systems.

Received by Michael Greisman, managing director, the Saxon 5 machine was prominently displayed for the magazine's editor in the show room. The versatile equipment, used to seal the tops of open-mouthed plastic bags holding everything from vegetables and fish to ice cubes and mushrooms, has been purchased by manufacturers in more than 40 countries. The system, which required no expensive sealing bands, employs opposing streams of hot air that create a molten band of plastic which immediately passes between pressure rollers to complete the weld.

Built of simple and rugged design, the equipment does not require experienced labor to operate. Polythene or other heat-sealable films and laminates of up to a thickness of 1,000 gauge (10 mil or 250 microns) can be accepted. And the infeed's deep throat allows up to 110mm of the bag above the seal and can accommodate certain proprietary handles.

While in the UK the frozen food business represents Thames' largest customer base, in the USA it is the mulch and medical product industries that are thus far keenest on the heat sealers. "The whole world is putting things in bags," remarked Greisman. "And while we have competition from form, fill and seal rivals, we're getting our share of the business."

Still, the managing director is pleased that 60% of his volume is in exports. "In Britain we haven't done too many new installations lately. But we're doing well on the replacement level."

In addition to the heat sealer, Thames sells a variety of ancilliary items such as coding devices and standard conveyors. Also, in conjunction with Marden Wolfe Packaging of Surrey, it recently unveiled the Saxon 500 tray-in-a-bag packing system.


Things are quiet on the aluminum packaging scene. "Perhaps it seems even more so because we had several years of solid growth," remarked William Garfield, general manager of Garfoil. The Birmingham-based division of Star Aluminum Co. supplies the frozen food industry with containers for prepared meals, meat pies and desserts.

Garfield, noting the business of making foil plates and dishes for the inexpensive ethnic food takeaway trade is brisk, suggested that an economic downturn has led to consumer spending cuts that have impacted on QFF sales. "And of course the food safety scares haven't helped, nor has the minister of Agriculture, Fish and Food's contention that microwaved foods properly cooked."

The general manager said that the bakery sector, which has been recession proof historically, remains the best QFF market for aluminum foil products.

Looking ahead, Garfield commented that environmental concerns about over-packaging and landfilling could work to aluminum's advantage as it is an infinitely recyclable material. Not only can it be re-melted again and again, but its high scrap value makes organized collections attractive to fundraising groups.

But the general manager hinted that the future for Garfoil may involve new vistas: "We're not wedded to aluminum, and are certainly interested in investing in other packaging areas."

PHOTO : Reflecting sweet growth in the frozen cake and pie dessert market are packs designed by DRG for McVitie's, Sara Lee and Marks and Spencer.

PHOTO : Gerry Brunskill, general manager of CMB Carton Systems, shows off a state-of-the-art packaging system that the company is marketing.

PHOTO : Trigon's Shrinkvac packaging has found lots of takers in the British poultry- and meat-packing segment.

PHOTO : Among bags made by Flexoset are the ones containing Tesco own label Spicy Chicken Flyers. The 510g unit contains wings marinaded in hot and spicy tomato sauce.

PHOTO : Andy Wardman, food packaging products manager at Fardem, displays some of the flexible bags his company manufactures.

PHOTO : Michael Greisman, managing director of Thames Packaging Co., demonstrates the heat-sealing technology of the Saxon 5 bag-closing machine.
COPYRIGHT 1990 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Great Britain, quick frozen foods
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Previous Article:UK frozen food equipment manufacturers look to exports for growth opportunities.
Next Article:Growing upturn in occupancy rates buoys British cold store operators.

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