So You Think You Can Package?

Jim Wagner

The vast majority of natural products go to market in easy-to-use, easy-to-produce bottles, jars, blister packs, and cartons. But packaging isn't always routine.

The vast majority of natural products go to market in easy-to-use, easy-to-produce bottles, jars, blister packs, and cartons. But packaging isn't always routine. There are times when controversy rears its ugly head-and packaging requires attention before consumers decide to find another place to spend their money.

The debate over bisphenol A (BPA) is such an example. A chemical building block used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins for metal cans, BPA is well on its way to becoming a packaging pariah. The concern is that unchecked consumer fears will create the belief that plastic containers as a group are harmful and should be avoided at all cost.

BPA had been on the radar screen for about a decade. It became a major issue in 2007, after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported uterine damage in newborn animals exposed to BPA. Since then, dozens of health organizations have entered the fray, including FDA, NIH, and several well-known consumer and environmental groups such as Consumers Union and the Sierra Club.

The key issue is whether infants and toddlers can be exposed to BPA from plastic bottles and formula in containers with epoxy coatings. FDA spent considerable time and effort evaluating the possibilities and concluded that food packaging does not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and babies.

That finding may change soon. Pressure is building on FDA to reevaluate BPA data and restrict its use in packaging. In October 2008, the agency issued a 107-page assessment of BPA in food packaging. A review panel of seven scientists strongly criticized the assessment soon after its release. Among other things, the scientists critiqued the small number of actual infant formula samples used in exposure measurements, the determination of the safety margin, and the failure to consider BPA intake from various sources. The panel's conclusion: lack of consideration of the totality of exposures from other sources severely limits the usefulness of the safety assessment with respect to food-contact applications.

New FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg signaled in June that she takes BPA issues very seriously. FDA's new acting chief scientist, Jesse Goodman, will take a close look at BPA with a review due in the fall.

Meanwhile, states took action to limit or ban the use of BPA. Suffolk County, NY, became the first local government to ban BPA. It enacted a law in March that prohibits empty beverage baby bottles and cups from being made with BPA. "In this day and age of prevention, we owe it to our youngsters to minimize their exposure to potentially harmful products, especially when there are safe, toxin-free alternatives readily available," said Steve Levy, legislator. "Of all the things a parent must worry about, whether or not their child is being harmed by a baby bottle should not be one of them."

California is the latest state to join the anti-BPA movement. Senate bill 797 mandates that after July 1, 2011, "no person or entity shall manufacture, sell, or distribute in commerce any infant formula in a liquid form in a can or plastic bottle containing bisphenol A or lined with a material containing bisphenol A." However, the bill encountered resistance in the California Assembly, where the debate centered on the California Environmental Protection Agency's decision not to label BPA as a carcinogen under Prop 65.

BPA's fate may be decided in the marketplace, where Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods, and others have begun phasing out baby products with BPA. In addition, bottle manufacturers such as Playtex Products, Gerber, Evenflo, Avent America, Dr. Brown, and Disney First Years have committed to stop selling hard plastic baby bottles made with BPA. More are sure to follow.

A Door Opens

What lessons can be gleaned from the BPA debate? For one, controversy paves the way to new opportunities.

Dr. Andrew Weil may be renown as an integrative-medicine pioneer, but he's also no slouch when it comes to product development. In light of demand for BPA-free items, Key Baby LLC (Lutz, FL), a manufacturer of infant-care products, worked with Weil to launch a new line of baby bottles and sippy cups.

The line is molded from Eastman Chemical Co.'s (Kingsport, TN) Tritan EX401 copolyester, a BPA-free material that offers good clarity, dishwasher-safe durability, and above all, toughness. Key Baby says that Tritan was also suited to the infant-care products because the material is biocompatible for tissue contact, ensuring that the plastic bottles will not irritate an infant's sensitive skin. Finally, Tritan also made flexible, sustainable processing possible. Key Baby is the first company to use Tritan EX401 copolyester for baby bottles in an injection-stretch blow-molding process. Tritan is also suited for extrusion blow molding and injection molding.

"We wanted a material that allowed us to create a practical product that combined superior durability with unique style and design," says Steve Schmidt, CEO of Key Baby. "Eastman Tritan copolyester offered us the best of both worlds, and we are looking forward to giving parents a new option in infant-care products."

Key Baby worked with HLB Inc., a product design firm with offices in Chicago and Boston, to design the innovative bottle as well as a specialized venting system. The AirWave venting system allows air to flow between the threads of the ring and neck and into waves located at the bottle neck's top, reducing normal pressure from infant sucking. This helps to minimize colic.

The Weil Baby infant-care line includes 5- and 9-oz bottles, a variety of sippy cups, as well as traditional glass bottles. Unique colors and sleek designs also set Weil Baby apart from other infant-care product lines.

Clean and Green

Processing with Tritan is also sustainable because no separate annealing step is required during production. This can result in energy savings. "Environmentally conscious consumers are looking for durable products that can withstand repeated dishwashing and everyday use, but also [ones that] offer peace of mind and are affordable," said Schmidt.

The Weil Baby infant-care line is packaged with tray inserts from renewably sourced, compostable Dupont (Wilmington, DE) Biomax TPS thermoplastic starch. The material enables consumer-goods companies to reduce their environmental footprint by allowing them to create high-performance packaging from high-amylose starch for thermoformed trays and articles for food or nonfood packaging.

The trays are formed from sheet material that contains 85% to 90% renewably sourced content. The sheet is then thermoformed by Plastic Package Inc. into trays that hold the Weil Baby products in place inside a box. Biomax TPS is also certified for home and industrial composting.

"We worked with DuPont to take advantage of the high performance of Biomax renewably sourced TPS to expand our offering and to provide more-sustainable solutions," says Doug Hawkins, director of product development for Key Baby.

Plum Pouch

While it doesn't sell infant formula, Plum Organics, makers of premium organic baby food, announced the introduction of an intriguing new line of products packaged in flexible pouches.

Baby Food Pouches comprise a portable pouch that allows for the natural preservation of flavors and freshness, without using additives or preservatives. Plum Organics believes that it is the first company to offer the innovative baby-food format in the United States.

Plum Organics Baby Pouches contain USDA-organic baby food made with 100% fruits and vegetables, with no added sugar, juice, concentrates, colors, or flavors. The organic fruits and vegetables are gently cooked and pureed until smooth, then packaged in a BPA-free pouch that pours product out easily into a spoon for a mess-free eating experience-a method that eliminates the need for double dipping and concerns of cross contamination. Each 4-oz meal can be served at room temperature, warmed, or chilled, depending on preference.

"Plum Organics Baby Food Pouches serve those families that are constantly on the go," says brand founder Gigi Lee Chang. "I see this innovative packaging as a great, modern alternative to traditional glass jars. As parents, we need flexibility and convenience. The resealable, soft-sided pouch allows you to serve as much as you need, and you can toss it in your bag without the mess."

Pouches have other advantages beyond convenience, according to Chang. "The freshness and nutritional integrity of our baby food is paramount," she says. "The unique pouch preserves the freshness of the meals and allows for a much lower cooking time than traditional jarred baby food. This ensures that babies still get the nutritious meal they need, without sacrificing the taste of real flavors, that will start them on a lifetime of healthy eating."

The new line is available in six fruit and veggie blends: sweet potato, corn, and apple; spinach, peas, and pear; pumpkin and banana; pear and mango; peach, apricot, and banana; and apple and carrot.

HOW NOT TO INFLUENCE FRIENDS

There are two sides to every story. While consumer and environmental groups have one view of BPA, container manufacturers and food companies have another. In the best of all possible worlds, science vis-à-vis FDA would make the decision on whether or not to allow BPA to remain in the market. Instead, allegations are flying left and right, with the winner likely to emerge from the side that wins the public-relations war.

Tactics are getting dirty. After a group of packaging companies and trade associations met in Washington to discuss BPA, a memo was leaked to the Washington Post, which ran the juiciest bullet points under the headline "Strategy Being Devised To Protect Use of BPA." The article described how "frustrated industry executives" from "manufacturers of cans for beverages and foods and some of their biggest customers, including Coca-Cola," huddled to "devise a public relations and lobbying strategy to block government bans of a controversial chemical used in the linings of metal cans and lids."

According to the Washington Post article, agenda items included how to use $500,000 to tamp down public concerns over BPA, the use of fear tactics, and the idea of a pregnant young mother as a BPA spokesperson.

The North American Metal Packaging Association (NAMPA) sees the meeting differently. Responding to a similar article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, NAMPA wrote that it should come as no surprise that the industry seeks to defend the legitimate, scientific process that has concluded that BPA is safe to use in food-contact applications. It should also come as no surprise, NAMPA wrote, that a blatantly inaccurate and fabricated memo is now being waved as evidence that the industry is colluding to cover up the facts.

The facts are that the war of words will continue until manufacturers either remove BPA from all infant-formula containers, or FDA issues definitive guidance based on its latest research. Neither is likely to happen in the near future. Who said packaging wasn't exciting?