Co-manufacturer help sambazon forge ahead in low-acid aseptics

California acai marketer taps Aseptic Solutions, which is poised to become a rare U.S. company capable of aseptically filling, low-acid products on a high-speed rotary filler.

As the leading global marketer of Amazon fruit acai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE), Sambazon Inc. faces the challenge of products that are susceptible to flavor degradation if bacteria are allowed to remain in the caps or containers. This is just one area where contract filling and packaging are proving invaluable to product marketers today. Sambazon is a case in point.

The San Clemente, CA-based marketer turned to Aseptic Solutions (www.asepticusa.com) of Corona, CA, for help. Aseptic Solutions is convinced that the U.S. marketplace is ready for much broader acceptance of rigid plastic containers filled aseptically, and it built a contract manufacturing and packaging facility to meet this anticipated demand. Why contract, as opposed to own-brand, manufacturing?

“Because we've heard from enough well-known brand owners who want an alternative to the brick pack for aseptic packaging of low-acid products,” says director of quality J. Scott Murrin. What these brand owners don't want, however, is the hassle of getting from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the letter of non-objection they need before they can market low-acid beverages packed aseptically in rigid plastic containers sterilized by paracetic acid.

Aseptic Solutions plans to work with customers from recipe to lab-scale tests to small market-test batches right on up to large-scale commercial production. To meet its objectives, Aseptic Solutions has installed a complete aseptic line, the Unibloc 2, from Procomac (www.procomac.com). Container sterilization, rinsing, filling, and induction sealing of aluminum foil to the filled containers are all done in a microbiological isolator chamber at rated speed of about 450 bottles/min. Anything from 6- to 32-oz containers can be filled.

 

Sterilization's benefits

These are the solutions that Sambazon was looking for in filling its smoothies bottles.

“Because Aseptic Solutions flash pasteurizes the product and sterilizes the bottles and caps, there's no microbiological load from the process or packaging to worry about,” says Richard Aust, Sambazon's vice president of technology. “Filling on this system lets us ship refrigerated product nationwide and guarantee that stores will have 40 days to sell it.”

Sambazon distributes its Sambazon Organic Açaí line primarily through health food stores and the produce section of supermarkets. Individual bottles retail for about $2.50 each.

The company formulates its own products. These are organic products made from the fruit of the Brazilian palmberry, acai, a fruit that is high in omega fatty acids and contains more anthocyanins than blueberries and pomegranate juice. Since 1999, Sambazon's products have included extended-shelf-life smoothie beverages, frozen grocery packs, frozen sorbets, powdered acai, and acai capsules. The company also makes frozen acai puree and dried acai powder that are sold as industrial ingredients and used to make Sambazon-branded products.

Aust adds that Sambazon purchases and ships all of the beverage raw materials to Aseptic Solutions. Aseptic purchases stock packaging materials such as corrugate, caps, and bottles, while Sambazon purchases custom packaging materials such as labels.

The Sambazon Organic Açaí containers that are filled at Aseptic Solutions are 10.5 oz, and they come from Graham Packaging (www.grahampackaging.com). Coextrusion blow-molded, they consist of high-density polyethylene/tie layer/regrind HDPE/ethylene vinyl alcohol/tie/virgin HDPE. Customized neck finish dimensions make the bottle suitable for the Procomac bottle-handling tools.

 

Filling the hopper

Production on the smoothies line begins with an operator who uses a forklift to dump bottles into a hopper that leads to a Procomac orienter. Once oriented, the bottles are air-conveyed to the enclosed and overpressured room, where aseptic filling takes place.

Inside this enclosed room is a glass and stainless-steel isolator cabinet that holds the sterilizer, rinser, filler, and induction sealer. The only access to this equipment while production is under way is through glove ports. Above is an air-handling system with HEPA filtration that ensures a positive pressure is always maintained inside, thus providing a contamination-free environment.

As air-conveyed bottles reach the isolator cabinet, they are suspended single-file by the necks and pushed forward by jets of paracetic acid. They're handed off to the Gripstar GX rotary sterilization block, a 135-station rotary system that inverts the bottles and sprays the insides with paracetic acid. According to Murrin, a bit of custom engineering makes the sterilization system especially reliable.

“When we first embarked on this, we needed to know for sure that the sterilant was flowing into the bottle from each neck,” says Murrin. “So Procomac created the Smart Sensor, which uses a pressure transducer to give you a binary feedback: on or off. If for any reason the nozzle isn't activated, that bottle will be marked for automatic rejection.

 

Pattern is mapped

“But we wanted to go beyond that, to know not only if the flow is on or off, but also the pattern and pressure of the flow of paracetic acid. So Procomac designed the pressure transducer in such a way that it maps out the pattern of the spray emerging from each nozzle. If this pattern falls outside predetermined parameters, the system comes to a controlled stop until corrective measures can be taken.”

As bottles near their discharge from the sterilizing block, they are returned to their upright position. A starwheel handoff takes them to the next block in the enclosed isolator chamber: a 90-nozzle Gripstar GX rinser. Outsides of bottles are sprayed with sterile water. The rinser then inverts each bottle, the rinsing nozzle enters the bottle, and sterile heated water is sprayed to thoroughly rinse the inside of each bottle. Bottles are turned right side up and another starwheel exchange sends them to the next block, a 70-nozzle Fillstar filler.

Filled bottles pass through yet another starwheel exchange to enter the next-to-the-last block in the isolator chamber, a 15-head Euro/PK rotary capper built by Arol (www.arol.com). A frequent partner with Procomac on aseptic installations, Arol relied on servo technology from Elau (www.elau.com) in building this capper. Each capping station has its own Elau SCL-055 servo motor/drive. Because they integrate drive and motor in a single unit, the SCL-055s overcome space restrictions as well as the complexity of connecting stationary drives to motors that are mounted on a rapidly moving rotating platform. Servo technology also minimizes the number of mechanical components and bottle guides, thus reducing the opportunity for microbial growth and contamination. That's welcome in any installation, but it's huge in an aseptic installation.

Closures applied by the Arol machine have foil liners in place that are induction sealed by a Lepel (www.lepel.com) machine just before bottles exit the isolator chamber. Closures also get special treatment that's in keeping with the stringent requirements essential in aseptic packaging. Before they leave the supplier's plant, they're bagged and sent to an outside party for irradiation so that the bio load is minimized.

“When the bags reach us,” says Murrin, “the 2,000 or so caps inside are sterile, but the outside of the bag is not. So we hang eight bags in a chamber beside the isolator chamber and sterilize the outside of the bags with hydrogen peroxide. This process takes about 20 minutes. Then, using the gloved intervention ports, an operator opens a tear feature on one bag after another and pours the caps into a hopper that takes them into the isolator chamber and ultimately into a capping head.”

Among the cap suppliers Aseptic Solutions relies on is Portola (www.portpack.com). “They've been helpful in bringing us the lift and peel feature we want,” says Murrin. “They also helped in the overall engineering behind the sterilization system we use for the large bags in which the closures are delivered.”

Sambazon's Aust specifies a Portola 38-mm DBJ-L closure that is compression-molded of HDPE. Inside is a lift-and-peel foil membrane that gets induction sealed to the opening of the bottle before the bottle leaves the isolator chamber. According to Aust, Portola is now working on a closure modification that will include a ring feature molded into the closure that will provide leak-proof resealability.

As soon as bottles exit the overpressured room that contains the isolator chamber and the aseptic filling system, they pass through a Procomac CheckStar system. Faulty containers are rejected.

Downstream from the x-ray unit is an ink-jet system from Videojet (www.videojet.com) that puts a production code on the bottom of each bottle. This is for internal use, not for consumers. “Should any bottle be faulty, we can trace back to determine why,” says Murrin.

A high-speed full-body shrink sleeve labeler is next. Situated upstream from the labeler, though, is a large Dynac Model 7100 bi-directional accumulation table from Hartness International (www.hartness.com). Should there be a downstream machinery problem, the filler stays in production while the jam is cleared.

Also ahead of the labeling machine are Procomac-supplied air knives to eliminate condensation, thus ensuring smooth application of the labels. As soon as bottles pass the air knives, they enter the Krones (www.krones.com) Sleevematic dual-head shrink sleeve label applicator. Capable of applying 600 labels/min, it's well capable of handling the 450 bpm line at Aseptic Solutions. Also, mounted on it is a Videojet ink-jet coding system that puts date codes and use-by date on each label.

Exiting the shrink sleeve labeling system, bottles pass a second Hartness accumulation table and then are directed to either a case packer from Ocme (www.ocme.it) or a tray pack/shrink wrap system from Arpac (www.arpac.com). All that remains are palletizing and pallet-wrapping systems, both supplied by Procomac as part of the turnkey installation.

The author, Pat Reynolds, is the Editor of Packaging World magazine. This article was adapted for Contract Packaging magazine.

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