Food Pads: A Great Market For Airlaid

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | February 12, 2007

absorbency requirements open up opportunities in food packaging

As the absorbency requirements for the packaging of meat, poultry and fish continue to become more stringent, the role that superabsorbent-containing airlaid material plays in this segment is growing. Add to this an end to the supply shortage of superabsorbent material as well as airlaid producers’ constant search for value-driven segments, and food pads are becoming an important market for airlaid.

“Food packaging is a market where we can get some value out of airlaid,” said Ken Squires, director of sales for Concert Airlaid. “The customers are looking for value and innovation. It’s not a market where someone is beating you up for one-tenth of a cent.”

During the past two years, Concert has been limiting its role in unprofitable businesses, like some areas of consumer wipes, and is instead focus on areas where innovation can be appreciated. Food packaging is one of these areas, said Mr. Squires.

Concert’s proprietary composite structures offer a cost-efficient absorption system designed to increase product shelf life. As the thermal bonded composite absorbs liquids in meat, poultry and other food packages, the growth of microorganisms within that package is reduced, keeping the product fresher, longer. Last year, Concert introduced an updated airlaid product containing superabsorbent fiber.

Concert is not alone. During the past several years, food packing has become a major market for many airlaid producers, particularly those with large concentrations in Europe, where airlaid-containing food pads dominate multi-ply tissue, the material largely favored in the U.S. food industry. However, even North American-based airlaid manufacturers are banking on a market conversion from ply to airlaid as absorbency requirements continue to grow, allowing manufacturers to better ensure freshness and extend shelf lives.

“Given that there is a lot of tissue in the U.S. and people seem to be looking to upgrade from that product, there seems to be a lot of potential for growth in that product segment,” said Peter Gawley of airlaid producer McAirlaid. McAirlaids last year set up a U.S. operation in Rocky Mount, VA to position it closer to the North American markets for all of its key business segments, one of which is food packaging.

Absorbent Airlaids

Part of the driving force behind airlaid’s growth in food packaging is the approval of superabsorbent
material for indirect and direct food contact by regulatory agencies. Additionally, as the shortage of superabsorbent material—caused by limited supply of acrylic acid, a major component of the material—has come to an end, it has been easier for manufacturers of superabsorbent powders and fibers to meet demands of airlaid manufacturers seeking to target this market.

“The whole shortage problem, which was affecting the superabsorbent industry as a whole, was driven by acrylic acid shortages, which was largely caused by increased demand in Asia,” said David Hill, business development manager of superabsorbent fiber manufacturer Technical Absorbent Ltd. (TAL). “Everyone in the supply chain was affected but now there is plenty of acrylic acid available so supply has not been a problem.”

The end of supply shortages has allowed TAL to go ahead with a delayed capacity expansion project at its Grimsby, U.K. facility. The expansion has doubled the company’s output and all of this new capacity will target food packaging, according to Mr. Hill.

“Airlaid’s growing role in food packaging is being caused by two factors,” he said. “One is the ever-increasing demand of legislation, particularly in the EU, banning free exudates in food packaging. In the supermarket, there can be no free juices in the packaging of meats, poultry and fish. Additionally, elsewhere manufacturers are realizing the benefits of not having meat or fish swimming in their own juices. It extends their shelf lives.”

And, materials like TAL’s Oasis superabsorbent fibers have been a major choice of food packagers looking to best contain liquids. Though more expensive than powders, superabsorbent fibers are easier to handle in food packaging applications, allowing manufacturers to produce thinner, more absorbent pads that don’t have to be sealed.

“Powder can form a lot of dust so it can be hard to contain. You have to put it into an airlaid material or sealed products, basically creating absorbency in a bag,” said Mr. Hill. “Superabsorbent powders have to be contained because of the risk of leeching but on the other side they are less expensive and more widely available.”

Currently, global production of superabsorbent fiber capacity is about three million tons, including a large-scale expansion project recently initiated by TAL, which will largely target the food pad market. This is considerably smaller than capacity for superabsorbent powders, which is hundreds of millions of tons.

That’s not to say, of course, that superabsorbents in powder form, are not making inroads into food pads. While these materials, thanks to their large-scale global production levels are more widely used in the manufacture of absorbent hygiene products—a massive market compared to food pads—superabsorbent polymer producers are looking to the food industry to better diversify their customer base. BASF, for instance, recently received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the use of its Luquasorb FP 800 superabsorbent for indirect food packaging. The authorization covers packaging for poultry, meat, fish and fruits and vegetables.

These high performance superabsorbent granules can be incorporated as a filler in the manufacture of soaker pads used in packaging. According to BASF literature, Luquasorb’s ability to absorb large volumes of liquid means only small amounts of superabsorbents are necessary, helping to make the packaging economical.

The Choice Is Yours

Most of the airlaid manufacturers in the absorbent food packaging business said they use both superabsorbent fibers and powders, depending on the dynamics of the application being served. McAirlaids’ SuperCore soaker pads for meat packaging, for instance, contains 20% more superabsorbent fibers than many other food pads. Unlike traditional airlaid food pad materials, which are composite materials put together offline, Supercore is made through a manufacturing process  featuring online lamination. “This gives a performance benefit and it cuts out one of the processes,” Mr. Gawley explained. “The main thing is that this product is more flexible in its absorbency level. From an aesthetic standpoint, we appear to be able to control the liquids that are exuded from the meat and fish so the trays remain dry without drying out the meat or fish. This is attractive package that consumers are happy to buy.”

According to Mr. Gawley, McAirlaids’ is achieving growth both at the expense of other airlaid manufacturers as well as by displacing multiply tissue and other materials common in food packaging.

Also adding to the growth of the food pad market in general is the move toward central packaging of meats, poultry and other foods in European grocery stores. While consumers in the U.S. and Europe already purchase much of their meats and poultry prepackaged, this is a new phenomenon in Continental Europe. As in-store butchers become less popular, groceries are requiring more food packaging options. “So what we are seeing is growth in the U.S. as manufacturers move away from multi-ply tissue and growth in Europe as central packaging requires that food companies find a way to put pads into trays,” Mr. Gawley explained.

Not Too Big, Not Too Small

Newcomer Danish Airlaid will initially focus much of its new capacity into food packaging when its new airlaid operation enters commercial production in June, according to sales director Mogens Oleson. “Food packaging will be significant in the short term,” he said. “We have short, medium and long term goals and getting into the market like food pads will be a big short-term goal.”

Estimating European demand for airlaid food absorbers at 20-25,000 tons, Mr. Oleson described this market as somewhere between a commodity and a niche—big enough to be interesting but relatively small compared to feminine hygiene. “A big portion of the food pad market contains niche applications and they fit right into our production capabilities,” he added. “We hope to help companies develop new applications.”

Danish Airlaid’s technology allows the company to produce a nonwoven and film inline to create a semi-finished food pad product that needs only to be cut to the right length by the customer. “This skips a step and gives us some flexibility. The film is thermally laminated without any solvents.”

One of the company’s products features foil on the topside, an absorbent core in the middle and a thin, liquid-permeable nonwoven on the backside. This product can be produced in all absorbency ranges.

Once up and running, Danish Airlaid will be able to make 6000-8000 tons of airlaid material per year, depending on the product mix. It will mainly target Europe but is open to focusing on regions beyond if the right opportunity arises. Once it establishes itself in food pads, other interest areas include healthcare, high-end adult incontinence and other value-driven airlaid markets.

As the reasons for airlaid’s growing popularity in food pad applications are multifold, one that is expected to stand out in coming years is increased awareness of the benefits of the absorbent pad. While some European regulatory agencies are already banning free liquids in food packaging, this is not a major market driver, according to experts. Instead, it is manufacturers and consumers seeing the benefits absorbent pads can provide—chiefly improved freshness and extended shelf life—causing demand for these materials to grow even where government has not intervened.

“Some regulations are already in place but it’s not what you would call a heavily regulated market,” said McAirlaids’ Mr. Gawley. “But, what it will come down to is the awareness that once a liquid is eliminated from thee tray, there will be fewer microorganisms so it’s increasing shelf life.”

Industry stakeholders throughout the food pad supply chain will work to help drive this awareness as well as quell rumors that superabsorbents are not food-friendly.

“The dynamics of the market tend to dictate everything,” TAL’s Mr. Hill said. “There is a lot of what we will call mudslinging going on in the food packaging community with regard to what is safe and what is not safe. We are working with EDANA and the other superabsorbent companies to let the industry know that our products are safe to use with food and that they have been approved by FDA.”