Fresh-cut sector diversifies in response to new consumer trends

June 6, 2017

Like many with longtime experience in the produce industry, Kathy Means can remember a time when fresh-cut meant celery and carrot sticks.

Not anymore.

The vice president of industry relations for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Means said the fresh-cut sector has grown into a highly dynamic industry that is working continually to respond to what consumers want.

“They appeal to consumers’ desires for convenience, flavor, health/ nutrition, variety and more,” she said.

And products have expanded well beyond what we typically think of when we picture fresh cut.

“We often talk about this as value-added produce because not all of these consumer-friendly solutions are cut,” she said. “Many are, but not all.

“But they are all born out of a desire to meet consumers’ needs for solutions – ways they can more easily use fresh produce.”

A growing number of products now fall under the “fresh-cut” classification. Photo: Safeway Group

All about solutions

The industry is bursting with solutions. Value-added produce represents about 17 percent of total produce department sales, based on 2016 figures Means supplied from the Food Marketing Institute.

Other solution-based items provide produce combined with grains or proteins, like Mann Packing’s Nourish Bowls; the company said the line is the fastest-selling warm veggie meal in produce.

Ready-to-cook single items or mixes such as washed and halved brussels sprouts and washed small potatoes are being offered with seasoning packets and yield a side dish in minutes. Or products like Simply Spuds Bakeables deliver a cleaned potato individually wrapped and ready for the microwave.

Carolinas Steamables offer a similar option. Charlotte Vick, partner and sales manager at Vick Family Farms in Wilson, North Carolina, said her family’s company recently made a “minor investment” in equipment at their packing facility so they can seal hand-filled 24-oz. bags of fingerling- size sweet potatoes that are ready for the microwave. Their new product, which includes recipes on the package, began hitting store shelves in the Northeast in January. They hope to add an organic line.

Chef Joel Minkoff helps determine whether prospective new products can pass the test for Safeway Foods. Photo: Safeway Group

Bob Whitaker, PMA’s chief science and technology officer, said the last five or six years have especially brought innovation in the industry.

“We see diversity of the things going into lettuce bags – the reds, the greens, different flavors,” he said. “We see protein added to some of these salads…it’s more of a meal approach.

“They’ve all come as a result of consumers wanting different experiences.” As for the next big thing, spiralized vegetables seem to be in the running. “One of the things that is starting to grow is the vegetable noodle lines,” said Dan Vache, United Fresh’s vice president for supply chain management. “They take vegetables, whether squash or beets, sweet potatoes or zucchini, and put it through a process and make it look like a noodle.”

FreshPro just bought two machines to produce them. “That has exploded,” said Pat Mele III, executive vice president and CFO at FreshPro Food Distributors, noting that spiralized veggies come on the heels of the cauliflower and broccoli rice trend. “Everybody wants it.”

Examples of spiralized noodles, a niche growing rapidly in popularity. Photo: FreshPro Food Distributors

Whitaker expects technology to develop that will make it possible to cut a broader selection of fruits, and possibly vegetables, along with the delivery systems for such expansion.

And snacking? The industry delivers with snacks in every shape and form, combining fresh-cut produce with proteins, grains, nuts, dips and more. Means also points to the proliferation of store-prepared convenience items like yogurt with fresh-cut fruit and granola and cut fruit cups that fit in cup holders.

“Organic is a big driving force in the industry,” Mele said.

A barrier to organic in fresh-cut has tended to be that it cost so much more to produce that the price would be too steep at retail.

“Organic has always been more expensive,” Mele said. “Then you take organic and make it into fresh cut and it’s even more expensive.

“The gap used to be very big, but now it’s getting much smaller … people are willing to pay a little bit more for organic.”

All parts come together

Behind all of the growth and diversity of products is an ever- improving infrastructure that includes packaging, supply chain, food safety and the commodities themselves.

“They’ve (processors) improved the packaging, and that has helped,” Vache said. “And quite honestly, I think they are being more critical in maintaining the cold chain because that is so important.

“They’ve put in regional facilities to get closer to their customers.”

Cold chain tracking technologies have also been instrumental in helping to maintain temperature throughout shipping.

“With real-time monitoring, the truck is loaded and leaves the shipping dock and we now have monitors using GPS or cellular tracing the temperature,” Vache said. “So if you have a temperature excursion, the shipper can be alerted, the driver can be alerted and fix it now … before you go another 100 miles.”

Whitaker said growers and researchers have been instrumental in helping develop produce varieties that are more suited to fresh-cut processing.

“They made carrots sweeter, and lettuce varieties that didn’t turn brown when you cut them,” he said. “You are no longer just growing for commodity and using the leftover (for fresh cut), you grow for processing now.”

Planting and harvesting techniques have evolved, too. Whitaker uses the example of spinach, and how growers went to cutting it earlier, when leaves are shorter.

“That was the birth of baby spinach,” Whitaker said. “It tasted a little better, it wasn’t as rough or chewy (and) it would fit through these form and fill machines.”

Carrots can be grown long and thin so they can easily be cut into multiple pieces and rounded into what consumers know as baby carrots.

And keeping consumers coming back is about delivering a product that has the taste and quality they expect, Whitaker said.

“It goes back to the whole system,” he said. “You’ve got to develop the varieties, how you’re going to handle, cool it, package it and deliver it. I see that work being done by some of the bigger berry players now.”

R&D employee Tom Crawford evaluates a potential new product in a Safeway research kitchen. Photo: Safeway Group

And strides in training, processes and equipment have helped build food safety awareness and results, Vache said.

“It’s not a perfect world, but they are much more in tune with food safety, from the top of the organization to those loading a forklift,” Vache said. “There’s an awareness now that everyone has a part in food safety.”

Rudi Groppe, president and CEO of Heinzen Manufacturing International, said advances in sanitary design and knowledge of how pathogens can migrate and hide in equipment have helped enhance food safety in the processing plant. He adds that internal food safety personnel are front and center in driving equipment and processes.

“(At one time) we had a maintenance guy picking components based on replacement costs and not necessarily on sanitation and safety features, which could quadruple the cost,” he said. “Now (such decisions) are made by a group (based on) what’s the food safety side.”

Put it all together and it seems this processing sector that promotes health is pretty healthy itself.

“I think we are only limited by our imaginations, as long as we are responsive and proactive with customers,” Means said. “Real people are using these products, and how do we make that easier for them?”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer