Pick up a package of chicken at your local supermarket and you’re likely to see that the messy juices that were once pooling in the packaging or oozing from the sides are absent. The reason for this tidiness: airlaid nonwovens.
While the number of nonwovens players in the food packaging sector is relatively small, their importance is growing as food producers increasingly recognize the benefits of airlaid for their food packaging and pads.
According to consultant Phil Mango, airlaid started to gain market share in 2000 when the Food and Drug Administration approved superabsorbent for food grade nonwovens because it was a more cost effective carrier for superabsorbents compared to other structures.
“Superabsorbents are expensive compared to pulp and putting superabsorbent in with fluff pulp or tissue is inefficient. It’s hard to keep it in place. You usually have to add more because you aren’t getting good distribution and there’s a lot of waste. There’s superabsorbent that will drop out or fall out of the pad when it’s being made. Older traditional methods of forming pads are much less efficient at containing superabsorbents. The cost of airlaid can be justified once superabsorbents are involved because an airlaid pad will require less superabsorbent, but it will utilize it more efficiently so you save the cost of superabsorbent,” said Mr. Mango.
Airlaid Takes Center Stage
One player betting on growth in the food sector is U.K. superabsorbent maker Technical Absorbents. “Food producers are realizing that absorbing excess liquid results in significant improvements of product shelf-life and provides optimized presentation to the customer,” said Dave Hill, business development manager at Technical Absorbents, adding, “There is increasing legislation which is now making its way over to Asia as they address the need to regulate food production practices.”
Technical Absorbents manufactures Super Absorbent Fiber (SAF), in a wide range of high performing and versatile grades for a variety of applications including manufacturing absorbent food pads which manage free exudates found in fresh produce. “The versatility of SAF allows for the design of the fabric constructions which absorb and lock away excess liquid from the foodstuff within its core. Given the non-migratory properties of SAF, SAF fabrics can be cut and shaped to suit the packaging,” said Mr. Hill.
“An increased product shelf-life delivers food that meets retailer’s demands and customer expectations for high quality food. There is continued development of food packaging design of which food absorbent pads play a major part, ” said Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill went on to say that meat, fish, poultry and a whole range of perishable foodstuffs need to be packaged in optimized conditions. “Control of exudates results in significant improvement of product shelf-life. The versatility of SAF allows for the design of fabric constructions which absorb and lock away excess liquids from the foodstuff within the SAF core, also giving optimum presentation to the customer,” said Mr. Hill.
Another experienced player that is concentrating on the food packaging sector is airlaid manufacturer Glatfelter. Glatfelter’s Composite Fiber Business Unit (CFBU) is a leader in material supplied to tea and coffee filter manufacturers. Glatfelter’s Advanced Airlaid Materials Business Unit (AMBU) supplies the absorbent roll goods to food packaging manufacturers who convert the material into meat pads for trays.
CFBU offers sustainable filter material to a variety of manufacturers to produce tea bags and coffee pads, for example, single serve coffee machines). AMBU’s main product is an airlaid material that can be cut into pads and directly bonded to the trays. It does not require a pouch or laminated film. AMBU also offers airlaids that can be laminated to films or inserted into pouches.
Christophe Guillaumot, general sales manager global industry and specialties, AMBU, said airlaid offers several benefits to the food industry. “AMBU’s airlaid pad material offers easy converting since the pads are directly cut from the roll and do not require any lamination. They are composed mainly from cellulose, which is a renewable resource, and they reduce plastic waste from films. The pads also offer excellent absorption properties for all meats due to the superabsorbent fibers in the airlaid. This allows the pads to be thinner, yet absorb the same quantity of juices as much thicker fluff pulp pads. Another benefit of airlaid is reduced inventory at the converter. The airlaid pads are cut on the machine to the desired length, so the manufacturer only needs to stock a few widths. For other types of pad materials, manufacturers need to stock a wide variety of widths and lengths to serve their customers’ requirements,“ said Mr. Guillaumot.
Another longstanding player that is focusing on the food packaging business is Ahlstrom. The company makes tea bags and casings as well as cheese wrap, fish or meat wraps and absorbent wrap for microwave applications. Eric Breton, sales and technical service manager for Ahlstrom’s food and medical business area, agreed that airlaid is growing. “This growth is tied to growth of the global chain food stores and growing demand for meat/protein in the developing world and centralized meat process and packaging direct to supermarkets,” he said.
SAP Versus Powders
Airlaid manufacturers in the absorbent food packaging business use both superabsorbent fibers and powders, depending on the dynamics of the application being served.
What are the benefits of superabsorbent fibers versus super absorbent powders? Mr. Hill said super- absorbent fibers (SAF) are easier to handle than powders, allowing manufacturers to produce thinner, more absorbent pads. “Superabsorbent powders (SAP) needs to be contained. They have to be put into an airlaid material or sealed product. They can form a lot of dust so it can be hard to contain. SAF’s non-migratory properties allow food packagers the ability to cut and shape the pad without causing the insides to fall out, thus diminishing the chance of the food being contaminated,” said Mr. Hill.
While the food packaging sector appears poised for continued growth, playing in this market is not without its challenges. “For a product that is not seen, or necessarily understood, by the final consumer, development of food pad technology is driven by minimization of cost impact, balanced against delivering a highly uniform, substantive and precise absorption performance, which delivers the key benefits of product shelf-life extension and presentation,” said Mr. Hill.
Mr. Guillaumot agreed that consumers’ perceptions of food packaging present a challenge.
“Currently, most customers are used to seeing pouch pads or cheaper fluff pulp/tissue pads. They do not see airlaid pads as often, as they are currently mainly used for packaging chicken. We need to better market the advantages of airlaid to the end users for a variety of meats to increase our share of the market,“ he said.
Meeting consumer’s increasing concerns for environmentally friendly products is another challenge, according to Mr. Breton. “Customers are asking for biodegradability of nonwoven products and characteristics of ‘former’ paper products. There will be a growing demand for nonwoven products that add value to consumers,” he said.
Down The Road
The use of absorbent food pads within the pre-packaged fresh meat, fish and perishables markets is expected to grow considerably, particularly in Asia as lifestyles and attitudes become more westernized. “In Asia there is a move away from purchasing fresh meats from open markets toward the introduction of supermarkets,” said Mr. Hill.
Mr. Guillaumot is also optimistic about future growth. “We will seek to leverage the strengths of new and innovative products using airlaid and wetlaid technologies to the food packaging industry. We will be looking for opportunities throughout the food chain, from farm field to the consumers’ table,” he said.
Mr. Hill predicts that a key trend will be the introduction and growth of food pad technology in countries, particularly in Asia, that currently see little need and opportunity for such technology. “The driver will be the market push and resultant consumer demand for deliverance of food stuffs in pre-packaged form,” he said.
Mr. Breton agreed that growth will come from some eastern European countries as well as Asia as they “go to the same kind of food as in Western countries. The segment is estimated to grow by 3-5% per year.”
Glatfelter also envisions a bright future for nonwovens in food packaging. “We will seek to leverage the strengths of both AMBU and CFBU new and innovative products using airlaid and wetlaid technologies to the food packaging industry. We will be looking for opportunities throughout the food chain from farm field to the consumer’s table,” said Mr. Guillaumot. ❖