Retort pouches have healthy image in Japan

Retort pouches have gained great popularity among consumers in Japan, especially for curries and sauces. Adoption has been faster than in the United States, where the packing method was developed in the 1960s by the US Army’s Natick Laboratories, Reynolds Metals Company and Continental Flexible Packaging for military Meals Ready to Eat.

Made of laminated plastic and aluminum, retort pouches are able to withstand the thermal processing used for sterilization, and can replace traditional cans. However, American consumers have been reluctant to accept the packaging technology, and its adoption has been slow. The most notable consumer foods available in retorts in the U.S. market are tuna and Campbell’s soup. Tuna canners StarKist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee all offer tuna in pouches, but Bumble Bee suffered a USD 40 million (EUR 34.6 million)setback with retorts when its subsidiary Castleberry’s Food Co. had to recall hot dog chili sauce due to botulism poisoning caused by a leaky valve, which led to inadequate sterilization.

In the Pacific Rim, including Japan, the main factor driving adoption is that pouches are less expensive to produce than cans, especially in countries that must import the metal for canning. But even in Japan, cans still dominate the market for shelf-stable fish, mainly because their stackability makes them more compact.

But pouches are gaining. Equipment sales are an indicator of a shift from cans to pouches in Japan’s food industry. Pouch forming and filling machines saw the highest demand among all types of packaging machinery in Japan last year, with a total of 5,686 units delivered, for total sales value of JPY 60.5 billion (USD 509 million; EUR 441 million). Meanwhile, can-making equipment sales were just JPY 1.7 billion (USD 14.3 million; EUR 12.4 million), with just 130 units delivered.

Several companies are now associating the pouches with an image of health and convenience for marketing seafood. The pouches are easy to open by hand and easy to dispose of; the thinness of the pouch allows sterilization with a shorter cooking time to keep more of the natural color, flavor and texture; and the vertical shelf display of stand-up pouches with a bottom gusset allow printing of large, appealing images. 

In August 2014, Hagoromo Foods Co. Ltd. reported strong sales in a limited introduction of new products like “Healthy sardines with sesame-miso flavored sauce” and “Saury with sweet and sour sauce,” both of which retail for JPY 150 (USD 1.27, EUR 1.07) before tax. The company announced that the line would be sold nationally. This product line is focused on healthy blue-skinned fish high in DHA, EPE and calcium. Fish content is 60 grams, and the total contents (with sauce) are 90 grams. Shelf life is two years. Hagaromo’s “Iwashi de kenko” (healthy sardines) has salt reduced by 20 percent from the canned equivalent. This is not a function of the packaging, but rather the image the company is trying to cultivate for the pouched line.

The graphics on Maruha Nichiro’s “Tuna Flake” show a large salad serving suggestion, and note the product is packed in water, with no salt or oil, and is domestically made. It contains 70 grams, and has 66 kilo-calories.

Co-op brand “Mackerel water packed” notes that it has “the simple flavor of mackerel flavored with salt” and that it is “easy to open using just your fingers.”
The sales of retort pouches fish are not yet large enough to have a clearly measurable effect on sales of canned fish. An informal survey of consumers indicated they bought the pouches more for the healthy-style contents than for the packaging style. Yet, the sales of packaging equipment indicate that pouches are on the way in and cans are on the way out.


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