Food safety, convenience drive innovation in fresh-cut packaging

December 11, 2008

Packaging in fresh-cut produce can be as important as the product inside. The package not only acts as a preserving agent, often serving as a barrier for a modified atmosphere, it also serves as a marketing tool to attract first-time consumers and build a brand image. Food safety and sustainability are the driving forces behind innovation in the fresh-cut packaging industry, according to industry experts at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit, Oct. 25-27 in Orlando.

Food Safety

In the retail and foodservice environments, food safety is the No. 1 concern, and processors are taking every precaution, from the field through washing and cutting. The final packaging of a fresh-cut product is becoming just as important as the HACCPs and GMPs in the plant – the packaging material has to keep pathogens out while preserving the product for a 14-day or longer shelf life.

Flexible packaging is often used with modified atmosphere, so the material has to be able to breathe. The film itself regulates how much oxygen can pass through and how much carbon dioxide can leave the bag, which requires a precise understanding of the respiration rate of the produce being packaged and limits the materials that can be used. Modified atmosphere also requires that the supply chain work together so the cold chain isn’t broken.

“The technology is real and the value is real,” said David Rieser, general manager for Georgia-Pacific. Rieser, who works mostly with growers and shippers, said one of those values is a better quality product, and distributors have to communicate that to customers and buyers.

Communication with retailers, consumers and throughout the supply chain is even more important with the Country of Origin Labeling guidelines that went into effect at the end of September.

“A lot of what you see that goes through plants all have the ability to be jet printed,” said Leonard Batti, senior partner with the MIXTEC Group.

Bags or trays can have the lot information and the country of origin information printed directly on them, with that information changing as new product is introduced. With printing technology already in use in most fresh-cut plants, the transition to COOL guidelines was easier for processors than their whole product distributor counterparts.

“It’s all about communicative labeling,” Rieser said.

Many distributors and growers in the fresh industry are moving toward reusable plastic containers (RPCs) that reduce waste and are more sustainable wood and cardboard. An RPC can’t be printed on like cardboard can, however, so shippers have had to innovate by introducing labels to RPCs to comply with COOL and trace back information, Rieser said.

Whole produce, which makes up more than 80 percent of produce sales in the United States, can be handled and visually inspected by shoppers. Even if the person is uneducated about that product, they’re still looking for visual cues as to the quality and freshness of the product. The visual aspect of packaging is important to buyers of fresh-cut produce as well. Clear plastic rigid and flexible packaging is used so consumers can see the quality of the product inside, but that’s kept the fresh-cut packaging industry lagging behind Europe, said Shannon Boase, president of Earthcycle Packing.

“The consumer wants to see and wants 100 percent visibility,” Boase said. “That’s slowing innovation because Europeans trust what they’re buying so there are more cardboard packages and lower-visibility packages.”

Earthcycle manufactures a biodegradable tray that comes from palm trees. The material isn’t clear, so the company is investing in research into a biodegradable, compostable laminate that could cover the tray, Boase said.

Sustainability in packaging is a trend that won’t go away soon. Retail giant Wal-Mart has a sustainability index scorecard that encourages the reduction of packaging and the use of sustainable materials, but there are additional challenges for fresh-cut processors. A common sustainable material, polylactic acid or PLA, can’t be microwaved because it loses its rigidity characteristics. PLA also can’t be recycled with polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and neither material truly breaks down in a landfill, Boase said. But consumers and retail buyers are demanding sustainable packaging, and Wal-Mart has acknowledged that PET and PLA don’t get recycled any more than plastics, but the sustainable material encourages the move away from petroleum-based products.

Convenience

resh-cut produce is all about convenience, and the industry is making packaging of fresh-cuts more user friendly. For grab-and-go convenience there are stand-up rigid containers that can fit in a car’s cup holder and for reusability some bagged salads have a resealable band on the flexible packaging and rigid trays are coming equipped with resealable lids.

Convenience can also apply to how a consumer uses the product. Shrink-wrap bands aren’t popular with consumers – they can be difficult to open and result in waste. The process of applying the shrink wrap also introduces heat to the cold chain, and although it might just be a degree or two, processors are monitoring and controlling temperature at every step. The bands also aren’t usually sustainable.

“Mostly the shrink bands are PVC and that’s a bad material these days,” Boase said.

Tamper-evident packaging is important for fresh-cut products, especially trays with removable lids or clamshells. Two products at Fresh Summit received Impact Awards from the association for their use of tamper-evident packaging without the use of shrink-wrap bands. A Del Monte Fresh bowl and a Mann Packing square tray had removable tabs that would let customers know if the product had been opened. The packages were easy to open and have been a hit with consumers, said Odonna Mathews, principal of Odonna Mathews Consulting. Mathews was one of the judges of the Impact Awards.

Price

Consumers buy fresh-cut fruits and vegetables because they’re looking for healthful, convenient meals or side dishes. But with consumers’ dollars not going as far as they used to, shoppers are choosing between fresh-cut, whole fresh produce and canned fruits and vegetables.

“They may trade convenience for price at supermarkets,” Mathews said.

Private label brands can benefit because of their lower price points. Low-cost retailers also are seeing increased sales as earnings drop at higher-end retailers. Wal-Mart’s private label sales were up 40 percent this year, and total October sales for the retailer were up almost 7 percent on the year – and 5 percent over September sales – and sales at Sam’s Club stores were up more than 7 percent on the year. Whole Foods Markets, on the other hand, reported a sales increase of 13 percent in October – to $1.8 billion – but earnings fell to $1.5 million from $34 million in the fourth quarter of last year.

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