Frozen baby food debuts in ovenable paperboard trays

When author O. Robin Sweet and her husband ventured to St. Petersburg, Russia, six years ago, writing two new books and starting a food processing business were the farthest things from her mind.

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She was intent on adopting a baby, which she and her husband did. But out of the experience came two books, The Well Fed Baby (Macmillan, 1994) and Adopt International (Ferrar Straus & Giroux, 1996), and a frozen baby food manufacturing business called The Well Fed Baby, Inc., San Diego, CA. When they returned to the U. S. with six-month old Nikolai, they nourished him on a home-prepared kosher vegetarian diet of organic fruits, vegetables, grains and soy-based products and infant formula. Today, that menu is at the heart of a frozen baby food line from The Well Fed Baby that eschews retorted, shelf-stable glass jars in favor of dual-ovenable paperboard trays (photo) and a cryogenic freezing process. In the days before she formed the business, Sweet gave her baby foods to friends in plastic bowls. For a production package, she chose a paperboard tray because of its dual-oven reheatability, safety (no metal components that might remain hot after coming out of the microwave oven), environmental considerations and cost. The tray vs glass jar economics are part of the company's marketing message. "Each Well Fed Baby container," notes the company, "is a complete, balanced meal. Other baby food requires two to three containers to be opened and mixed to prepare a complete meal, which leaves the consumer with leftovers that have to be consumed within 48 hours. Well Fed Baby focus groups showed that a significant majority of all babies consumed their entire container in one sitting allowing for no leftovers." From the outset, Sweet ("I'm a control freak") has kept her processing and packaging operations in-house, operating from a production plant in San Marcos, CA. Initially, four meal varieties were offered (Millet & Mangos, Baby Carrots & Green Beans, Brown Rice & Lentils and Tofruity--a mixture of mangos, bananas and tofu). Last month it added two more, Legumes & Lentils and Bananas, Mango & Congee (a Japanese brown rice), which were exhibited at Natural Products Expo West. Each is said to be a nutritionally balanced meal packed in a single-compartment Ovenware® tray from Westvaco Corp. (New York, NY). The 5"x5", 16-pt solid bleached sulfate trays hold 4 oz of food. The trays serve as both product containers and as serving dishes. All brand, nutrition and product information is offset-printed in six colors plus aqueous varnish. The company is currently receiving pre-erected trays from Westvaco's Newark, DE, plant. On the line, trays are filled via a six-head, volumetric piston filler from Accutek Packaging Equipment Co. (Vista, CA). Filled trays are transferred manually to freezers where in 12 minutes the temperature of the food drops from 160°F to 0°F. Trays are then fed manually into a rotary lidder/heat sealer from Visual Packaging Systems, Inc. (St. Laurent, Quebec, Canada). It operates at speeds to 70 trays/min. Manual off-loading, case packing (12 to a shipper) and refreezing follow. "We're currently expanding our operations," says Sweet. "Eventually, we hope to be more fully automated." 'Environment' packaging buzzword again If you thought environmental questions were no longer relevant to packaging, consider a handful of recent introductions where the E-word is playing a reinvigorated role: Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc., Burlington, VT, is dropping chlorine-bleach-ed paperboard for its ice cream pints, hoping to make unbleached brown cup interiors an industry standard (see Packaging World, March '99, p. 2, or Riverwood Intl. Corp. (Atlanta, GA) converts the SUS board; Sweetheart Cup Co. (Owings Mills, MD) makes them. Starbucks of Seattle, WA, is testing both reusable plastic and paper cups with recycled paper insulators. Solo Cup (Highland Park, IL) makes the paper cups, which will be tested in Washington, DC, and in San Francisco. Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI, is huddling with American Plastics Council (Washington, DC), Assn. of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (Auburn, MA), National Assn. for PET Container Resources (Charlotte, NC) in the wake of flak drawn by the company's multilayer PET/nylon beer bottles with oxygen scavenger, metallized paper label and aluminum roll-on cap. Owens-Illinois' Continental PET Technologies (Florence, KY) makes the bottle. Tracking the response to Miller's plastic bottle postpones Anheuser-Busch's, St. Louis, MO, introduction of its own plastic bottle. Even if you discount Ben & Jerry's move because owner Ben Cohen is on the board of Greenpeace, the marquee quality of these four companies, and their voluntary or enforced regard for the environmental effects of their packages, signals a resurgence of awareness and concern about the environment and packaging.

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