Why Don’t All Food Cans Have Pull Tabs?

Almost everyone has a can opener available to open a can but it’s way more convenient if that can comes with a pull tab. So, why do some cans have them and not others?

The story goes that in 1959, a humble engineer from Dayton, Ohio, named Ermal “Ernie” Fraze was enjoying a family picnic when he realized that he forgot to bring a “church key.” A church key is an old-school can opener that, in the era before pull-tab cans, was used to pop two holes in a can of beer.

Fraze searched in vain for something to open his beer and settled on the bumper of his car, which resulted in a messy beer geyser. Always the engineer, Fraze vowed to come up with an invention that would eliminate the need for a church key altogether.

In 1963, Fraze patented the “easy open” lid, a scored aluminum top that could be cracked open and peeled back with a pull tab. Fraze’s first customer was Iron City Beer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which marketed the revolutionary pull-tab technology as the “snap top.” Fraze died in 1989, but his company, DRT, is still making its patented easy open “ends” for food and beverage cans.

Tom Crothers has worked at DRT for 40 years, most recently as its VP of sales. We asked him why — nearly 60 years after the invention of the easy open can — only some canned foods come with pull tabs while most still require a can opener.

“I wish all cans had easy open tabs — we’d be even busier,” jokes Crothers. “Basically, what it gets down to is a cost issue. Easy open ends are more expensive than ‘sanitary ends’ [the sealed lids that require a can opener].”

How ‘Easy Open’ Cans are Made

You’ve probably never thought twice about how your can of pineapple chunks was made, but this is precision engineering. Crothers says that the metal packaging division at DRT — which designs and sells the industrial machines that stamp out easy open ends — is “much more precise” than even the company’s aerospace or medical divisions.

“The tolerance we run on our metal packaging products,” which is the “permissible variation” in product measurements, “is in microns (one-thousandth of a millimeter),” says Crothers.

There are two parts to every can:

  • the “shell,” which is the aluminum body of the can (including the bottom)
  • the “end,” which is a separate piece of aluminum that’s sealed to the top of the can using a process called “double seaming

For a can with a plain-old sanitary end, the ends are stamped from a flat sheet of metal and double-sealed to the shell. Nothing too tricky.

Cans with a pull tab are more expensive because there are more steps to the manufacturing process. First, the end piece has to be scored with incredible precision. The scored end needs to be strong enough to hold the contents inside — often under pressure — or to withstand a fall from the store shelf, but the lid also has to pop open easily when the tab is pulled. That’s why DRT’s machines are tuned down to the micron.

And then there’s the pull tab itself, a separate piece of aluminum that needs to be stamped from a sheet of aluminum and riveted to the end. That extra material and tooling also costs money, which is passed on to consumers in the price of a pull tab can.

Pull Tabs Aren’t for Everybody (Or Every Market)

There’s no argument that easy open lids are, well, easier to open than containers that require a can opener. But that convenience comes at a cost. According to a survey from 2014, American consumers were willing to pay 40 cents more for a can with an easy open lid.

That’s why you’re more likely to find pull tabs on name-brand items with a higher price tag.

“A lot of the decision about whether to use an easy open end had to do with brand image,” says Crothers. “If you pick up a can of Progresso or Campbells soup, you’re going to find easy open ends. If you find a smaller brand or a store brand, those will most likely have sanitary ends.”

In some markets, particularly in the developing world, cost is the primary consideration. Even big brands might forgo pull tabs in those markets to keep the price down. And then there are transport considerations, says Crothers. Since easy open lids are scored, they are slightly more likely to puncture if traveling over rough roads. A sanitary end is going to be “more robust” in countries with less-developed infrastructure.

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