Military Packages Puttechnology to the Test
by Kate Bertrand Contributing Writer
Nanotechnology, scent-embedded polymers, biodegradable films, edible packaging and RFID drive next-generation packaging.
No one has more challenging requirements for food and drug packaging than the military. Packaging for products sold to the Armed Forces must stand up to everything from desert heat to being dropped out of a plane.
Many of the demands are less dramatic but just as crucial. For example, to satisfy military shelf-life requirements, primary packaging for food must provide an exceptional barrier to oxygen, moisture and light.
And for secondary packaging, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags at the pallet and case level will become the norm as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) phases in its new RFID policy.
This matrix of requirements is pushing government and commercial researchers in some intriguing new directions. Many projects are at the R&D level for now, but today?s research will spawn the next generation of packaging.
Ready for new films
Improving the individual Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) packaging is a key focus for the military. One step in this direction is the development of high-barrier, foil-replacement films.
The current package for retorted MREs is a four-layer pouch made from a laminate of polyethylene, nylon, polyester and aluminum foil. Non-retorted food items, such as crackers, are packaged in a three-layer foil pouch.
Although foil provides an outstanding barrier, it?s also vulnerable to pin-holding and stress cracks. And it reflects light, which could reveal a soldier?s position. In addition, the foil laminate pouches are neither recyclable nor biodegradable.
?We?re trying to get the same barrier properties or greater without the foil,? says W. Douglas Lilac, technical manger-innovation at Pliant Corp., a military contractor for flexible packaging.
According to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center, MREs must maintain ?high quality? for three years at 80° F. and for six months at 100° F.
One of Pliant?s research initiatives for foil-replacement films centers on nanotechnology. By embedding nano-size fillers within extruded polymers, the necessary barrier properties can be achieved. In a separate research project, Pliant is using microlaying techniques to produce high-barrier multilayer films with 50 or more coextruded layers.
Another area of interest for military food packaging is the preservation of food?s taste. Because of the long shelf life required for MREs, it can be challenging to ensure good flavor throughout the product?s life cycle. Over time, plastic packaging can impart an off flavor to food. Compounding the problem, retorting burns off food?s top flavor notes.
ScentSational Technologies LLC is working to overcome these problems for retorted and non-retorted MREs and for military water packaging. With the company?s CompelAroma Encapsulated-Aroma Release technology, food-grade flavors are encapsulated within the structure of plastic packaging materials during extrusion or molding.
The flavors are released from the packaging into the food during retorting and storage, adding a fresh flavor profile. Consequently, the food smells and tastes better when the package is opened. ScentSational is working with Pliant to apply this technology to flexible packaging, but the technology also can be used to manufacture rigid plastic containers and closures.
The company has successfully incorporated heat-stable flavors into packages made from polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride. The expansive list of flavors includes roasted garlic, macaroni and cheese, teriyaki and strawberry jam.
Barry Edelstein, ScentSational?s president and CEO, says, ?The primary focus of our work with Natick is to enhance the G.I.?s eating and drinking experience. Proper nutrition, hydration and morale are critically important for the G.I.s.?
Beyond the MRE
The research into military food packaging isn?t confined to MREs. For example, a research project that Foster-Miller Inc. conducted on behalf of the U.S. Navy focused on creating a biodegradable, five-gallon milk bladder.
The goal was to create a flexible package that could be shredded and thrown into the ocean without harming sea life. The filled bladder also had to be able to survive a five-foot drop. To meet these requirements, Foster-Miller developed a completely biodegradable, flexible material. A barrier film comprises the middle layer of the three-layer, laminated material.
Yet another of Foster-Miller’s R&D projects was to create a 100% edible ration pack. ?The concept was to take a food item and coat it with a barrier film that would protect it from oxidation but still be edible,? says Bob Kovar, who worked on the project. Kovar currently is a principal scientist at Infoscitex.
Kovar adds, ?The material we chose for the coating was Zein? protein. It forms a uniform, tough, flexible film that is a good barrier. It is not nutritious, but it is edible.? Zein is a protein isolated from corn, soy beans and other plants.
Innovative solutions to military drug packaging also are emerging. For members of the Armed Forces and the individuals they aid in humanitarian missions, pre-packaged drugs are filling a demanding niche.
In these deployments, which are often in third world locations, pre-packaged drugs make it fast and easy to dispense pharmaceuticals to local patients and to the U.S. military personnel who get sick in-country.
NuCare Pharmaceuticals Inc. supplies military pharmacies with pre-packaged ER Packs. These bottles feature proprietary label technology that lets the pharmacy technician quickly and easily put product, physician and dosing information on the package and in charting/dispensing logs.
In the past, in field settings, pharmacy techs would dispense drugs in small plastic bags. ?When people hear about that the first time, they?re shocked. I wouldn?t want my cat?s meds to come in a plastic bag,? says Michael McKenney, NuCare account executive and former U.S. Air Force pharmacy tech.
The pre-packs also make it easier for troops to pass through Customs in other countries. ?There were issues in the past, bringing plastic bags of loose tablets into a country,? McKenney says.
Packaging for both food and drugs will be affected by the DoD?s final RFID policy, issued last year. Phase 1 implementation, which includes packaged rations, was supposed to start in January but has been delayed. Pharmaceuticals and medical materials are included in Phase 2, which is scheduled to take effect in January 2006.
The DoD policy provides business rules for active tags on pallets and shipping containers, to support end-to-end supply chain tracking. The policy?s rules for passive RFID mandate tags at the case and pallet level?and at the unit level, if Unique Identification marking is required.
Looking toward the future, Natick Soldier Center is researching RFID applications beyond supply-chain visibility. In one project, the researchers are using temperature sensor-equipped RFID tags on pallets to conduct shelf-life modeling.
The goal is to rotate and distribute food items according to their actual remaining shelf life. ?Right now, all we have to go by is the date stamped on the side of the case when it was packed,? says Chief Warrant Officer Stephen Moody, team leader, Advanced Processes and Packaging Team, Natick Soldier Center, Combat Feeding Directorate.
?But a product that was packed this month and subjected to very high temperatures might have less shelf life remaining on it than one that was packed last year and kept refrigerated,? he explains.
When stationed in the Persian Gulf, Moody once checked the temperature of a container and discovered ?it was 155° F. on the roof of that container, and it had only been sitting in port for three days.? Food quality degrades quickly under such circumstances, interfering with the important mission of keeping soldiers nourished, physically and psychologically.
?Food has an intangible morale factor to it,? Moody says. ?People get together in a social setting, and it makes them feel better about where they are.? F&DP
Kate Bertrand is a freelance writer in San Francisco, Calif., who specializes in packaging, business and technology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
The following companies contributed to the research of this article:
781-890-1338, ext. 222; http://www.infoscitex.com/
NuCare Pharmaceuticals Inc.
ScentSational Technologies LLC
Plant ? At-a-glance
Location: Plainfield, Ill.
Size: 400,000 sq. ft.
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Products: Smirnoff, Smirnoff Twist, Smirnoff Signatures, Smirnoff Ice, Smirnoff Black Ice
AmeriQual wins battle against downtime
For packagers that supply the military with food and other products, meeting strict requirements on package structures and materials can sometimes cause operational headaches. Military contractor AmeriQual Group faced a significant challenge packing MREs into shippers because the mil-spec cases were too robust for the company?s case erector equipment.
The specified cases are made from V2s, triple-wall fiberboard. This board, which incorporates three solid sheets laminated to four flat facings, is the thickest fiberboard on the market. In fact, V2s features the highest burst strength of all board grades used by the military; cases made of V2s can survive a drop from a helicopter.
But the fiberboard?s performance features also make it difficult to run on conventional case erectors, because the material resists scoring and bending. And, because erecting the cases is the first step in case packing, problems at the case erector affected AmeriQual?s entire line.
The considerable downtime caused by equipment jams and improperly erected cases drove AmeriQual to replace its case erector with two Model R235-G automatic case erectors from Pearson Packaging Systems. Thanks to the switch, AmeriQual reduced downtime on the MRE case packing line by 10% to 15% and reduced equipment maintenance costs by 30%.
Nosco helps drug makers authenticate brands with multi-level technology and by developing e-pedigrees using mass serialization
According to the FDA?s May 18, 2005 Combating Counterfeit Drugs: A Report of the Food and Drug Administration Annual Update, counterfeiting investigations are on the rise ? from 30 cases in 2003 to 58 cases in 2004. The FDA continues to promote electronic pedigrees and the continued use of authentication technologies. As the potential of RFID continues to develop, alternatives are available today.
Mass serialization is a proven technology to authenticate and develop an e-pedigree. By utilizing an existing ?infrastructure of bar code technology,? mass serialized numbers can either be a ?bridge? to RFID, or complimentary. Randomly generated numbers can be delivered to the brand owner through secondary packaging. Mass serialized numbers are digitally printed stand-alone or incorporated into existing bar codes. At points in the distribution network, the code is verified against a database of authentic codes. Bar codes allow numbers to be authenticated throughout a distribution channel. When read, the bar code-enabled database begins developing the electronic pedigree for the product as it moves its way through established points throughout distribution. Information is accessed by the brand owner to determine if the product is at the correct point at any given time.
Nosco incorporates overt, covert and forensic security features – such as color shifting inks, taggants, Verify Brand mass serialization, and dynamic Orbid® codes – into folding cartons, labels, and Fix-a-Form® multi-panel labels. Nosco believes in a Life Cycle Management approach offering independent expertise to identify, select, and implement security technologies. According to Gregg Metcalf, Industry Market Manager for Nosco® Security Protection, ?Every situation is unique – Nosco?s approach is to help customers develop and implement a multi-generational security strategy over the life of their brands. Most options can be implemented immediately and are rotated over time.?