LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — As rumors float of Coca-Cola Co.'s and PepsiCo. Inc.'s interest in aseptic PET bottles for milk-based and low-acid beverages, packaging experts wonder if PET can deliver at an acceptable cost in the United States.
"Aseptic technology is really not ready for low-acid products," said Anne Roulin, European Manager of PTI Europe, at the Nova-Pack Americas 2001 conference, held Jan. 29-30 in Lake Buena Vista.
"The capital investment in a complete aseptic PET line is very high. What was needed in the U.S. market were success stories with major companies," she said.
A Pepsi spokesman later would not confirm, by the way, that the company is looking into aseptic PET for its Starbucks Frappuccino-brand coffee beverages now bottled in glass.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Coke subsidiary Minute Maid Co. acknowledged that its parent company is developing a milk-based product but said aseptic PET is not a top consideration at this stage.
Milk and other low-acid beverages have been aseptically packaged in shelf-stable, multilayer paper-film-and-foil cartons throughout Europe and Asia for several decades. The liquid to be packaged is typically heated to high temperatures to destroy bacteria. The packages are then hermetically sealed to keep out air and light, which can deteriorate nutrients and flavor in products like milk.
Milk packaged in aseptic cartons in Europe tends to carry a shelf life of three to six months, Roulin said. PTI Europe, based in Yverdon, Switzerland, was founded about a year ago by Plastics Technologies Inc., a Holland, Ohio-based research and development firm.
Roulin said aseptic PET could match the shelf life of cartons — depending on several factors including the contents and the sufficiency of the bottle's light and oxygen barrier.
In the United States, aseptic dairy packaging is used mainly in markets where refrigeration is limited. Most Americans are more familiar with juice in drink boxes, and lately, soy milk packaged this way.
Several factors are keeping this technology from broader success for milk and milk-based products in North America, Roulin said, including Food and Drug Administration restrictions, stringent barrier and closure requirements, resin costs and equipment costs.
For instance, an aseptic PET filling line can cost 40-50 percent more than a traditional hot-fill line, according to a Procomac SpA sales manager who presented at the conference. The Italian company is a leading maker of aseptic filling equipment.
Additionally, Roulin said, aseptic PET filling lines have bottle size limits and changeover restrictions.
"In general, the approach to blowing bottles aseptically is for long production lines with the same bottle size," Roulin said. "It's not for very flexible or fast changeovers."
She did acknowledge, however, that filling speeds have improved. Japanese equipment makers have developed equipment that fill 54,000 bottles per hour. U.S. aseptic PET filling equipment, she said, can now reach 47,000 bottles per hour.
Just as important is PET's ability to protect the flavor and nutrients of milk and low-acid beverages.
After the conference, attendee Greg Rowley said his dairy company would have a lot to consider before switching to aseptic PET from its shelf-stable milk cartons.
"PET untreated starts to lose product quality very rapidly," said Rowley, chief operating officer for Gossner Foods Inc. of Logan, Utah. "Another issue is the degradation of the vitamin content by way of the light. [Ultraviolet] rays break down vitamins."
The people at Procomac are a little more optimistic about PET's potential for aseptic packaging in North America.
"Aseptic PET is here to stay," said Stefano Romanelli, sales area manager for Procomac. He said improved filling speeds and in-line sterilization should put aside doubts that this technology can be successful for milk and milk-based beverages.
"Milk and low-acid are likely to be the fastest-growing beverage segments in the next five years," he said. "Aseptic PET offers advantages for these new kinds of products."
Romanelli said aseptic PET already accounts for 48 percent of Procomac's $81 million business, now mainly in high-acid beverages.
Still, Roulin said the concern from companies like Gossner is justified.
"Water is obviously low-acid, but there are no nutrients in water. That's why it's easier to package than milk," Roulin said. "Some of the products we're talking about cannot be treated easily. Aseptic technology is very demanding."
One self-proclaimed PET user wannabe is J. Michael Wallace, director of process and package development with the Ross Products Division of Abbott Laboratories.
Ross is best known for nutritional beverages and baby formulas under brand names like Ensure and Similac. Wallace said while the majority of its products remain in metal cans, consumers responded favorably to some formulas packaged in polyethylene bottles. He's sure the response would be similar for certain products in PET.
So far, Ross Products has not been moved in that direction because of cost, barrier requirements and strict content requirements for shelf-stable products.
"Some of our challenges are a little unique. We have label claims that are extremely stringent," Wallace said during the conference, which was sponsored by Schotland Business Research Inc.
"We have very high concerns in making sure our products are safe and sterile when they get to the consumer," he said.
Wallace is not convinced those requirements can be met at this point by PET.
"Is PET ready for nutritional products today? I don't think so," Wallace said. "It does offer improved handling, but we still have to see that in practice.
"Every question still has to be answered."