Convenience drives fresh-cut produce packaged with carbs and proteins

The fresh-cut industry may have started with plain lettuce washed and bagged, but it’s grown into a multi-billion dollar industry that is increasingly changing product mixes to appeal to a wider audience. Many salads now include a meat or pasta item, and fresh-cut fruit and vegetable snacks often include a side dip or another product.

“I think the old business models have become commoditized, so they’re very high volume and low profit, so people are looking for new ways to generate revenues,” said Jim Gorny, executive director of the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California, Davis.

Items such as bagged salads are produced in such quantity at sold at a relatively low price that they’re no longer as profitable as they once were, but new products that incorporate proteins and carbohydrates are attracting new customers and increasing profits.

“People are looking for higher-margin items,” Gorny said.

Convenience Factor

With convenience driving fresh-cut growth, processors are looking for ways to increase consumption and meet the demands of their time-starved consumers. Retail supermarket shoppers are making more trips to the store, but spending less each trip. Intermediate shopping trips to buy immediately consumed products are the most common supermarket stops, according to research conducted by the Perishables Group.

“I think it’s certainly the trend. It takes value-added to a new level,” said Matthew Caito, president of Imagination Farms, which markets fruits and vegetables to children under the Disney Garden brand. “You have to continue to innovate.”

The company introduced a line of products called Foodles that are aimed at kids. The Foodles incorporate different textures, flavors and colors into one convenient package. The three-compartment package in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head has a main item of fresh-cut apples, along with a side of low-fat caramel dipping sauce and raisins. The packaging stands out, and the feedback Imagination Farms and Crunch Pak have received has been excellent.

Retailers and their suppliers are focusing on those quick-stop shoppers to drive growth in the produce department and the deli by marketing in-home-meal-replacements – complete fresh meals that require little or no preparation.

“Fresh cut is, of course, synonymous with convenience,” Gorny said.

It’s common to see fresh-cut products incorporating proteins and carbohydrates in Europe, but there are differences between the U.S. market and European customers. Shoppers in Europe make more trips to the store and the distribution area is much smaller. Shelf life in the United States is often expected to be at least 14 days because of the shear size of this country, but the European continent more compact, so shelf life doesn’t have to go beyond a week.

“In Europe, they expect ready-to-eat products to be sold out at the end of the day, as opposed to the United States where we have the mentality of ‘stack it high and watch it fly,’” Gorny said.

European fresh-cut processors have been innovative in producing value-added concepts that offer a variety of products in one convenient package. In some cases, a three-compartment microwavable tray will have one side item of fresh-cut produce, one will have a protein and one will have a pasta dish or other carbohydrate. The film covering the tray has different oxygen transfer rates so that the products aren’t over- or undercooked.

“There’s a lot more science and a lot more technology that goes into it,” Caito said.

Packages with multiple oxygen transfer rates are making their way to U.S. shores as the technology advances. They’re primarily for microwaveable applications, but processors are always looking for new films that will give their fresh-cut products an acceptable shelf life with a unique product mix.

“How do you approach the shelf life issue?” Caito said. “You’re certainly limited by the component that has the shortest shelf life.”

That’s what makes packaging so important, he said. The Foodles line took 14 months to develop, with much of that spent developing the correct packaging to reduce spoilage of each component. The only protein that Foodles contain is a cheese sauce, and the development could have taken longer if other proteins were included, Caito said.

The difficulty with introducing new elements to a fresh-cut fruit or vegetable item is the change in respiration rates caused by the item. But in most cases, the fresh-cut fruit or vegetable is the component that is most likely to spoil first, so processors can benefit from knowing their product and controlling that part of the process well.

“If you can do the produce, then the protein and carbohydrates are easy,” Gorny said.

Food Safety

But with more inputs being added to fresh-cut products, there are added risks associated. Some proteins have been associated with outbreaks in the past and can be carries of listeria, salmonella or E. coli.

“One of the things you’re changing is the microbial growth rates,” Gorny said.
Preventing cross-contamination always is important in a processing facility, but even more so when incorporating a wider range of products. That’s why some salads come with a “bag within a bag,” with the proteins individually packed before the product comes into the processing facility. The single-serve bags can then be added to the salad product at the end of the line, and the customer does the “final assembly” after purchasing the product.

Many regional processors that supply delis use a similar technique. The ingredients for salads containing meats or cheeses are packaged separately and shipped to the retail customer, which then assembles the “kit.” The practice reduces the labor for the retail store, provides a fresh private label product for the supermarket and eliminates the need for federal inspections of the processors’ facilities.

Fruit and vegetable processors are under the jurisdiction of FDA, but anytime a facility manipulates meat, poultry or egg, it falls under the jurisdiction of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). FSIS issued the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points rule in 1996 that applies to all meat and poultry processing plants in the United States. The rule was implemented in 1997 and was fully in place by January of 2000.

Many produce processors have HACCP in place, but implemented on a voluntary level because customers have demanded strategies for food contamination prevention. With meat and poultry components, FSIS must inspect the facility, and in the event of contamination, can issue a recall.

And to make matters more confusing, if a processor wants to include a seafood item into a packaging, the facility then falls under FDA jurisdiction, which requires a different HACCP.

Fresh-cut fruit and vegetable processors have done a good job of knowing the laws and preparing for this type of consolidation in the market, Gorny said. Some large processors maintain a plant that is FSIS-inspected and they’re being diligent in sourcing proteins and carbohydrates to make sure suppliers are maintaining sanitary facilities to reduce the chance of contamination at any step.

“How and where the final product is assembled is just as important as where each component is assembled,” Caito said.

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