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Cup/lid combo is the cat's meow

For its new line of premium wet cat food, Meow Mix outsources processing and packaging to Thailand. Sophisticated machinery and complex materials work together.
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“We saw this as a way to combine product and package innovation in a way that would shake up this particular category. It’s wet cat food in a package format that people respond to because it says ‘fresh.’”

That’s how Scott Morris of the Meow Mix Co., describes the strategy behind the company’s new Market Select brand of wet cat food in a retortable plastic cup with heat-sealed foil-based lidding. Ruled traditionally by cans, the wet cat food category sees little innovation in packaging, says Morris, marketing vice president at the Secaucus, NJ-based firm.

“Retort pouches showed some innovation, and the pull ring on cans is worth noting, too,” says Morris. “But neither of those denotes freshness the way this package does.”

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The 78-g portions sell across the U.S. for 53 cents each or $6.00 for a variety pack of 12. The Market Select line is positioned as a premium product aimed at consumers who see their cats as members of the family, says Morris.

Unlike the dry cat food that Meow Mix makes in its Decatur, AL, plant, this product is processed and packed by contract packager Thai Union of Thailand. That firm already produces wet cat food in a retort pouch for Meow Mix, and since that’s where many of the ingredients are caught—shrimp, crab, salmon—it makes sense to have the new product packed there, too.

Four filling/lidding systems from Italy’s Mondini—represented in the U.S. by Harpak (www.harpak.com)—were installed at Thai Union to handle the launch.

Cups and lidding material come from U.S.-based firms. The Rampart Div. of Printpack (www.printpack.com) thermoforms the cups from a five-layer coextrusion of polypropylene/tie layer/ethylene vinyl alcohol/tie layer/PP. The PP is structurally designed to withstand the rigors of the retort process and provide a moisture barrier that is important both during retort and throughout the distribution and sales chain. EVOH provides the necessary oxygen barrier, and a pearlescent orange blended into the PP adds aesthetic appeal. Printpack also coextrudes the material from which the cup is formed.

Hermetic peelable seal

Oracle Packaging provides the PD-86405 peelable retort lidding material. From the outside in, the three-layer adhesive lamination is 48-ga polyester/foil/PP sealant film. The polyester is reverse-printed on a gravure press in eight colors. The .0005” foil provides barrier properties. The 2-mil coextruded sealant layer is specially formulated to provide a peelable seal when bonded to the cup’s PP flange. Also playing a critical role in achieving a secure hermetic seal of lid to cup is the consistent concentric flange of the Printpack cup. Considerable expertise in both coextrusion and thermoforming is required to produce this characteristic.

Equipment, too, plays a role in getting Market Select to the marketplace. Not only must it provide consistent fill weights, it also has to carefully control parameters such as headspace and oxygen.

“Getting these kinds of ingredients into a cup like this is no easy task,” says John Phelps, whose whimsical title at Meow Mix is vice president of yummy things for cats. “The core challenge is getting a hermetic seal yet being able to peel easily in the hands of the consumer. A big ‘no-no’ from a consumer satisfaction standpoint is getting the product on the user’s hands while the container is being opened.” Machines and materials combine forces to make sure this doesn’t become a problem.

“We relied pretty heavily on Printpack and Oracle,” says Phelps. “They had prototype materials that were close to what we needed. Once they were clear on just what kind of ingredients we wanted to package, they made whatever modifications were needed to get the seal/peel characteristics we wanted.”

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