Published on the Packaging World Web site
| February 29, 1996
When the package becomes the 'oven'
Designed for the military, a flameless ration heater is now used for a shelf-stable consumer entree that converts the carton into an oven. HeaterMeals packs 'everything but the appetite' into meals for people on the go.
Fourteen minutes--and a bit of faith--is all it takes to convert a plastic tray full of cooked retorted food into a hot tasty meal thanks to a chemical heater developed for military feeding. HeaterMeals Inc. Cincinnati OH markets several varieties of shelf-stable meals under that name that are now sold in truck stops and convenience stores around the country. What makes HeaterMeals unusual is described on a violator on the main panel of the folding carton: "There's a stove inside!" That "stove" is a flameless chemical heating system developed by HM's parent company ZestoTherm. It's sold 70 million of them to the U.S. military groups for heating up field rations especially the retorted pouches of entrees that are part of the Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE) program. "I give them a lot of credit for coming up with a way to adapt the military ration heater to a consumer product" says Henry "Bud" Strassheim of Land O'Frost (Lansing IL). Land O'Frost is a well-known packer of retorted pouches for the MRE program. In this case the company prepares the meals and packs and retorts the trays that HM uses. However stresses Drew McLandrich director of marketing and sales for HM "this is truly civilian food." A microwavable tray The primary package for the food a plastic tray and lidstock is Land O'Frost's contribution to the package. The tray is a nonfoil ethylene vinyl alcohol-containing barrier tray that was originally developed to make shelf-stable microwavable foods. LOF buys it from at least two different vendors. It's filled with cooked food on the company's standard filling/ sealing lines. The lidding film however is LOF's proprietary nonfoil membrane film that can withstand high temperatures without losing the hermetic seal to the tray. "The trick here is that we developed a high-temperature-resistant membrane that remains peelable even after retorting and exposure to the chemical heater" boasts Strassheim. He declines to identify the materials used but he stresses the difference between this peelable seal and the full fusion seal that's required on the all-flexible multilayer retortable pouch used for the MRE package. "The military pouch practically requires a weapon to open the pouch" he says. In contrast the lidding for the HeaterMeals entree needs just 6 ft/lb of pull to open the tray. The barrier tray and lidding when combined with retort cooking gives the product a minimum shelf life of 18 months. And Strassheim proudly points out that these are tasty meals. "These are all good dinners comfort foods that have been well received by the consumers they're made for" he says. Mashed potatoes that accompany a grilled turkey breast for example were specifically formulated to be lumpy so they'd be "like home cooking." A complete 'package' HeaterMeals essentially leaves nothing to chance. The folding carton contains more than the tray-packed meal and the heater. The box also contains a film pouch with knife fork napkin and seasoning packets much the same as those provided with airline meals. To ensure the heater works properly HM also packs a clear pouch that contains 2 oz of water the correct amount to activate the heater. The carton converted by The Garber Co. (Ashland OH) is 20-pt SBS printed flexo in five colors and finished with an aqueous coating. While the front of the box displays both the "stove" violator and the conventional vignette of the food inside the back panel of the box offers two versions of explicit instructions to make the heater work. The heating system simply uses the chemical reaction between magnesium and iron with salt water to create the heat. It's not a lot different from the magnesium reactions that are often demonstrated in school chemistry classes. To heat the food in the tray the printed instructions explain that one end of the box should be opened and the contents removed. The food tray is lifted off the heater tray a simple foamed polystyrene tray like supermarket meat or produce is packed in. HM affixes to that tray a spunbonded polyester pad that contains the magnesium and iron alloy along with salt. The water pouch is opened via a transverse tear and the water is poured onto the pad. The food tray is then replaced onto the heater upside down or membrane onto the heater pad. The food tray and heater tray are then slid back into the folding carton for 14 minutes of reheating. Essentially the water absorbs the salt and the salt water reacts with the magnesium and iron alloy to create heat that's contained inside the carton. Occasionally the carton emits some steam vapor while the entree is heated to become 100°F warmer than the food was before heating. After 14 minutes the tray is removed from the slightly soggy carton the lidstock is removed and the food is ready to season and eat. Hot food anywhere What makes HeaterMeals unique is that the box contains not only the food but the means to heat it for use. "Our goal was to make this a truly self-contained meal" says McLandrich. Or as one PW editor commented the package provides "everything but the appetite" a slogan that HM might borrow. The HM line has been available for nearly a year primarily marketed through truck stops convenience stores and outdoor shops catering to hunters hikers and anglers. The company is now looking at vending markets too. This technology comes at a price that won't make it competitive with some other convenience meals. The line retails for $4.49 to $4.99 but the 12- to 13-oz portions are larger than most other refrigerated or frozen meals. That's one reason that HM's heater is larger than its military counterpart; military heaters are designed to heat 8-oz retorted pouches. The negative is that one meal creates a lot of trash for disposal. "Our research told us that many people like long-distance drivers construction workers hunters boaters and sports fans want a hot meal" says Douglas Sell HM president. "But they can't get one because of the hours they work or their location." HeaterMeals gives them what they need.
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