Is the Retort Pouch Really Ready to Replace the Metal Can?

Lately there has been a lot of press about the “second coming” of the retort pouch. Several industry pundits even have stated that in the next 3-5 years, the tin can will become a historical curiosity.

Others have theorized the retort pouch finally is slated for deep penetration onto supermarket shelves. It has even — perhaps in a bow toward patriotism — been touted as an American development initiated as a meal replacement for Army C-rations (MRE Program).

All this reminded me of a conversation I had with the person who first conceived of the retort pouch. It was more than 20 years ago in Germany when I met Dr. Rudolf Heiss. At the time, he was head of Fraunhofer-ILU, a leading food research institute based in Munich. I had just published my first book on packaging (Food Packaging, August 1970) and Dr. Heiss had just completed his “Principles of Food Packaging, an international guide” for the FAO organization of the United Nations.

Heiss told me the institute had received a request from the German high command during World War II to develop a convenient package to supply the Wehrmacht with tasty, nutritious, ready-to-eat meals. At the time, German soldiers were eating preserved sausages and carried crisp bread and dried vegetables, including sauerkraut, which were compressed into blocks and wrapped in foil or cellophane.

Heiss and his coworkers conceived of a thin-profile package with a high surface area to volume. The first retort pouch was cello/foil/pliofilm, and while it worked in theory, it failed in practice. He told me he thought it would never replace the tin can because of the huge investment in canning equipment.

Let's now skip to the present. From clear barrier pouches to zippers and laser scoring, there have been significant improvements in retort pouch technologies over the years. And there has been some soft penetration into some traditional metal can markets such as tuna fish and pet food. Flex-pack converters such as Fres-Co System USA and Sonoco have invested large sums of money in retortable projects, joining firms such as Pyramid Flexible Packaging, Curwood, Kapak Corp., and CLP Packaging Solutions.

At Pack Expo International 2002, Fres-Co System USA showed a superb video on retortable packaging of tuna. It seems the main reason for the success of the retort pouch in the tuna market is labor reduction over canning, not some inherent feature of the pouch.

Sonoco's introduction at Pack Expo of its retort line includes a three-ply foil pouch. Unless there's some proprietary technology, this is the same structure developed over 40 years ago by Reynolds Metals Co. It was PET/foil/CPP that was used to package peas and carrots, sauerkraut, and stews on a trial basis in the mid-1960s and almost a decade before by Luchow's, a now-defunct German restaurant in New York City.

So, will the retort pouch replace metal cans in the future? There are introductions scheduled for 2003 that will increase retort pouch volume significantly. There also are problems in the international metals market playing havoc with tin can supply. And, if one looks at the now-mainstream success of the stand-up pouch, a concept also developed over 40 years ago, you can draw parallels between both forms.

But Dr. Heiss's comments still seem to ring true. The huge amount of capital invested in can lines, coupled with their speed and efficiency, will preclude their major replacement by pouch machines. In spite of the big advantages of flexible packaging over rigid packaging, the lions' share of supermarket packaging is still metal cans. For the retort pouch to capture additional market from metal cans, an entirely new supermarket infrastructure is needed.

While all sorts of comments fly around the industry about “huge contracts to the retort pouch in 2003” and “outstanding appreciations,” it still seems to be all hype. For the immediate future, the “consumer size” retort pouch will remain what it has been for more than 40 years — a brilliant but elusive flex-pack.

(P.S. Dr. Heiss, over 90 years old, still works actively at Fraunhofer and was awarded the ITF's coveted Appert prize in 1997.)


Stanley Sacharow has been in the flexible packaging industry for more than 35 years. His company, The Packaging Group, is an organizer of targeted conferences and a consultant to the international packaging/converting industry. Contact him at 732/636-0885; univpac@aol.com.



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