A young homemaker returning from the market is putting away her groceries. Six gallown of milk and a pint of cream go on a cabinet shelf. What looks like three dozen packages of frozen food goes on the shelf beside them.
"well, so much for my monthly shopping," she tells herself as she selects one of the packages that looks like frozen food and pops it in a pot of boiling water. Three minutes later that night's dinner is done.
This is not a scene from life in the year 2000. In various parts of the world, such a scene could be taking place tonight.
Before long it can be the scene in your kitchen, too. Already in limited or experimental use are retort pouches; sterile, aseptically packaged milk and milk products; innovations in shrink wrap for perishables; modified-atmosphere packages for fish; and various bag-and-box techniques. Spurred by oil shortages and the quest could revolutionize both your supermarket and the way you feed your family.
The retort pouch is a thin, three-layer laminate of polyester, aluminum foil and a polyefin blend used to form a flexible package that stores food much like a frozen-food package does but without refrigeration.
The food -- ravioli, seafood, whatever -- is placed in the pouch; then the pouch is sealed and sterilized at temperatures of 240 degrees to 250 degrees.
Pouched food can be heated in its own container in boiling water or in a microwave oven, just as some frozen vegetables can be today. It has the potential to be superior in quality to frozen food because in the thin pouch the food needs less processing time and so undergoes less deterioration. This is particularly important for foods sensitive to long processing time, such as seafood and delicate sauces.
Retort pouch foods have a 23-year history of research and development and have been sold commercially outside the United States since 1967. The Japanese buy more than 1,500,000 retort pouches a day, and in 1969 the astronauts took retort pouches along with them on their trip to the moon during the Apollo mission.
In the United States, though, the retort pouch has traveled a long road to commercialization. The Department of Agriculture gave its approval in 1974, but animal feeding tests were required by the Food and Drug Administration before it would give approval, which it finally granted in 1977. By then Japan, Europe and Canada had been using the so-called shelf-stable food commercially for about 10 years with considerable success. Now, more than three years later, retort pouches have made it into U.S. test markets in Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Miami, Syracuse, Schenectady, Phoenix, Tucson and elsewhere, and contracts for 40,000,000 pouches for the armed forces are being completed.
Retort pouch promoters think most consumers will approach shelf-stable foods with the same reluctance they brought to frozen foods, introduced 50 years ago. wThey have found that not even talk show discussions, store demonstrations and point-of-purchase information can convience some suspicious customers that the shelf-stable food isn't saturated with preservatives or really freeze-dried. This skepticism is often intensified because supermarkets tend to display the pouched food with prepared, freeze-dried and canned foods.
Richard Abbott of Ludlow Packaging, one of the U.S. pioneers of retort pouches, forsees that "finger foods, such as ham sticks, spicy hot dogs, etc., will be sold either through vending machines or in snack packs through grocery supermarkets. . . You will simply open the package and eat the meat, since it is already thermally sterilized, without need for refrigeration."
The food industry has its eye on potential energy savings through shorter processing times, less storage space, less spoilage, lighter packages and no need for refrigeration. Industry studies say total energy costs for processing, packaging and distribution of retort pouch foods are 50 percent less than for frozen doods. Rapidly escalating utility costs will probably increase that margin.
Three suppliers so far have received government approval for their pouches -- Reynolds, Ludlow Packaging and American Can Co. Kraft and ITT Continental Baking are among the large food processors using the approved pouches to test product lines in the United States. Last spring Sky-Lab Foods introduced pouched foods to the camping and outdoor market (a natural market for the product), and Magic Pantry distributes throughout Canada.
There are problems, though. High start-up costs make the cost per package high, and the retail price must be competitive with frozen-and canned-food prices or shoppers may not try the new product. Companies like Kraft and ITT Ccontinental Baking probably won't see a return on their investment for at least three years, and many smaller proccesors will wait and see before investing in equipment to bring out their own lines.
Gearing up production is tough, too. Current equipment fils about 60 pouches per minute, compared with 200 to 400 cans per minute and 60 to 120 frozen-food packages. And as with any new product, advertising costs will be high.
So far more than 75 products have been evaluated and tested for retort packaging. Kraft's test products include creamed chicken, sweet-and-sour pork, beef burgundy, beef stew and beef stroganoff. Magic Pantry's entrees include cabbage rolls and salisbury steak. Packages are usually about eight ounces and sell for $1.45 to $2.20.
Meanwhile, the packaging industry seems to be wondering why anything has to be rigid anymore and has already developed flexible containers for meat, wine and milk.
If you have traveled in Canada or certain Western European countries you may have tried sterile, aseptically packaged (SAP) milk and not even known it.
SAP milk is sterilized at high temperatures to free it from the microorganisms that make milk so perishable and then quickly placed in germ-shielding packaging that keeps it from spoiling until it has been opened.
Some of the aseptic packaging resembles the rigid cardboard and plastic milk cartons we now use. One other type is a flexible bag of milk placed in a reusable plastic or glass pitcher. The containers are made of high-barrier materials that protect the food from light and oxygen but also make them a few cents apiece more expensive to produce than traditional containers. They keep the milk fresh for over two months without regrigeration.
The sterilization method for the containers, which was recently approved by the FDA, uses hydrogen peroxide. This will allow sterilized milk to be aseptically packaged in the U.S., although people in other countries have been driking milk processed and packaged this way for about 20 years. In Western Europe (excluding Scandinavian countries and the United Kingdom) SAP milk currently accounts for 35 percent of the packaged fluid milk sold. Sales of the milk are growing at the rate of 35 percent per year.
There is nothing new about subjecting milk to high temperatures. People for ages have scalded or boiled it to prolong its freshness. Even the 170 degrees usually used for pasteurization alters milk's taste, but the change has become accepted. The 300 degrees needed for sterilization simply alters the taste further, giving it a cooked, caramel, sandy or chalky flavor. The taste problem is why the DASI method for sterilizing milk, named after DASI Industries, was introduced.
This new development in ultra-high-temperature processing is said to produce a sterile milk, with taste qualities similar to pasteurized milk. Some participants in a taste test have liked it even better.
Students living in University of Maryland dormitories have been drinking milk sterilized by the DASI method since 1977. So have patients in a hospital near Baltimore.
Before non-refrigerated sterile milk can be sold, however, refrigeration storage requirements and "sell-by-date" requirements must be changed and shoppers have to be educated about its advantages. That takes time.
In addition, there are about 100 small processing systems that produce long-life refrigerated creams and other dairy by-products. Nearly 50 percent of all cream products are not sterilized but continue because the packaging and federal and state regultions require it.
The complete sterilization and packaging that eliminate the need for refrigeration provide many opportunities for saving energy, especially during transportation and storage. The new sterilization methods would also make it easier to supply fresh milk in special circumstances now served by dry milk, which is inefficient to produce and has taste problems of its own.
Besides those big transformations in the way you store your food, there are other improvements in packaging already in grocery stores or just ahead.
The American Can Co. and W. R. Grace & Co. recently introduced, with little fanfare, an improved version of a shrink wrap that is already in use. It is a highly sophisticated plastic wrap that, when used with vacuum equipment, can delay the disintegration of perishable products for days longer than the old wraps.
Shrink wrap allows meat to be centrally processed more easily and sent to stores in boxes. It reduces waste through spoilage substantially.
Lunch meats, cheeses, chicken, ham, produce and other perishables will also stay fresh longer, in the store and at home.
In the future we can expect to prolong the life of fresh fish and seafood through packaging techniques now being studied. Seafood is placed in packaging material called modified-atmosphere packages, and the air is pumped out and replaced with carbon dioxide. When the package has been sealed, the carbon dioxide inhibits the growth of bacteria, extending shelf life up to seven to 10 days.
For the consumer this process will mean a larger selection of refrigerated fish and less chance of spoilage. It will also be an appealing alternative to freezing, which can impair seafood's flavor and texture.
More will be done, too, with the bag-and-box technology, in which a bag collapses around a product as portions are removed. This prevents air from entering the package and degrading the product in storage. The bag is enclosed in a cardboard box with a screw cap or spout to dispense the product inside.
You will soon be seeing more products packaged in bag-and-boxes for home use, including applesauce, diced pineapples, even whole pears and other fruits. Products so packaged do not need to be refrigerated unless you prefer them chilled.