Airlaid Grabs Hold In Food Packaging

June 6, 2005

manufacturers develop new uses for technology

McAirlaid’s SuperCore technology is the first commercial airlaid made for food pads without latex or synthetic binders.

Nearly five years ago, as optimism for the future of airlaid reached its high water mark, several companies were predicting that its increased capacity would lead to new applications. Currently, a much different reality exists, and the landscape for airlaid application is more a vast, mysterious tract than the land of milk and honey.

Companies such as Concert, Buckeye and BBA Fiberweb were the major contributors to this airlaid expansion which was driven for use in medical, diaper and wipes applications. Yet, when these markets failed to explode as anticipated, all was not lost and food packaging emerged as a ripe new application for airlaid. Some industry experts estimate that the use of airlaid in food packaging has increased ten times since 2000, most notably in the application of meat trays and absorbent meat pads, a market previously dominated by multiply laminated tissue.

In the past five years, the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of certain superabsorbents in both granular and fibrous form for indirect food contact has provided an excellent opportunity for airlaid manufacturers. Airlaid technology now represents an ideal vehicle for efficient use of superabsorbents in food packaging and a variety of new product formats have been designed for this growing market. A recent study conducted by The Freedonia Group, Inc., a Cleveland-based industrial market research firm, forecasts that “...U.S. foodservice packaging demand should climb 4% per year to $7.6 billion in 2008.” This growth is not limited to airlaid, but the material consistently takes a larger share of the the food packaging market every year.

The Door Is Open
Traditional food packaging products have been made for years utilizing multiple plies of absorbent tissue products that are typically stitch laminated to a barrier film material. While these products have served as effective, low cost absorbent pads for poultry and red meat packaging, there are some significant drawbacks.

The film tends to delaminate from the pad when it is wet, and the lack of wet strength in the tissue results in an unattractive pulp mass at the bottom of the tray when the meat is removed. Most significantly, the tissue product will absorb fluid but has poor retention properties so fluid can re-emerge into the pack. Recent advances in commercial technology have prompted a new phase of growth and product diversification. In the early days of airlaid there were primarily three properties that airlaid products brought—absorbency, wet strength and softness. Today, the picture has changed.

The ability of modern airlaid systems to incorporate a broad range of synthetic fibers and diverse bonding technologies has yielded a new range of properties, particularly controlled absorption, wet strength and hydrophobic zones and surfaces as well as the ability to present the technology in multiple ply structures. These properties are all attractive to food package manufacturers. Additionally, airlaid products can provide cost-effective absorbency, which is the Holy Grail of all interested parties.

The final product is an attractive-looking packaging tray or a meat pad that retains its integrity when wet and has better fluid retention properties that together, provide an attractive case-ready package that satisfies customer demand.

McAirlaid’s SuperCore is also found in absorbent meat pads.

Complex Cycles
Supply and demand issues have most recently hampered extensive growth of airlaid in the application of food packaging with a number of complex cycles. Most recently, the availability of superabsorbent fibers—a component common to airlaid food packages and absorbent meat pads—is in short supply for this market. While plenty of airlaid exists worldwide, the type ideal for food pads is limited due to limited raw material supply. Another factor that dictates the food packaging market is the price of meat itself. Currently, with poultry prices at an all-time high, poultry producers have been able to upgrade the quality of the packaging used to deliver their products. Yet, when chicken prices are low, producers look to cut costs by lowering the quality of packaging. Packaging materials will literally change with the state of the market, forcing cost sensitivity into the equation. An example of this would be last year’s chicken flu outbreak in the Netherlands which forced the EU to immediately adopt a ban on movement of poultry within the Netherlands and also any export of poultry and eggs from that country. In the beef industry, the recent infection of mad cow disease prevented the export of beef from the U.K. and forced the destruction of hundreds of thousands of cows in that country. Events like these can cause severe economic damage to the respective industries and cause heavy fluctuations in pricing. However, Europe is traditionally a more advanced market for food presentation with the U.K. leading this trend. Within nonwovens airlaid is the dominant material used for food packaging and as becoming more predominant in U.S. food packaging.

Ahlstrom is making inroads in food packaging with the use of wetlaid technology.

Technology Beckons
Advances in technology is matching changes in food packaging trends. No longer a niche, airlaid food pads are becoming a viable market that is vulnerable to technological changes in packaging. Literally, the way meat is sold drives food packaging development. Food packaging producers say their customers are looking for a high degree of absorbency, controlling the liquid that is secreted from the meat. As always cost and wet strength-- problems associated with earlier tissue pads, are important considerations.

Steinfurt, Germany-based McAirlaids has focused on technology in meat packaging with its current offering, SuperCore. The first commercial airlaid food packaging material without latex or synthetic bonding fibers, SuperCore uses a proprietary patented thermo-mechanical bonding process. The flexibility of its production process enables McAirlaid clients to tailor make SuperCore to the individual needs and requirement of its customers. “Currently, the economic situation in Europe is on a downturn, due to governmental and economic restructuring. But, the introduction of our new product should keep us ahead of the competition,” said Alex Maximov, managing director of McAirlaids.

Ahlstrom’s wetlaid technology is already used in products such as tea bags and coffee filters.

Airlaid Alternatives
Recognizing the potential for growth in food packaging markets Ahlstrom, Windsor Locks, CT, is making a play with its offerings of absorbent food packaging applications in wetlaid technology. Ahlstrom’s initiative is banking on what it claims is wetlaid’s ability to process more efficiently than airlaid in the production of food pads.

“Wetlaid is the company’s core technology, and we have been successful with wetlaid in other market segments in food packaging,” said Brian Koscher, director of marketing for meat packaging products at Ahlstrom. “We are the market leader in the reinforcement substrate used in fibrous meat casings, so what we have commercially available, what we are using today, is what we at Ahlstrom are using to increase our sales by expanding into new categories of food packaging by starting with what we know best.” Mr. Koscher said his company recognizes there are an ample number of airlaid suppliers active in the food packaging industry, but feels that Ahlstrom’s flexibility with wetlaid technology can take advantage of his customer’s desire for differentiation in the form of more colorful finished product’s functionality, and potential additional features such as anti-microbial treatments found in its products.

“If you establish yourself as a value-added supplier, you certainly can earn pricing to meet your objective,” he said.

Staying The Course
Since experts in the food industry say package leaking is a huge complaint among customers, superabsorbency will increase airlaid’s potential for incremental growth in meat packaging. However, this growth hinges on its ability for constant improvement of product offerings. Increased competition among end users and alternative technologies, such as wetlaid, can only cause further development. Food packaging experts claim those in the game are converting to airlaid due to customer demand for a premium product, thus, development and upgrading is bound to happen.

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