Produce packaging is becoming a starting point, not an afterthought

March 2, 2016

Which comes first, the product or the packaging?

In fresh and processed produce, consumer preferences are creating opportunities for new products that are driving innovations in packaging technology, according to a recent report from PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.

Proper packaging keeps the product visible and of high quality. Photo: Temkin International
Proper packaging keeps the product visible and of high quality. Photos: Temkin International

Growing consumer demand for products that promote health and wellness, that are convenient to use in the kitchen as well as on the run, and don’t harm the planet is having major implications for packaging and manufacturers, said Jorge Izquierdo, vice president of market development for PMMI. Between 30 and 40 percent of the 160 manufacturers of packaging and equipment who completed surveys for PMMI’s 2015 “State of the Industry: U.S. Packaging Machinery Report” are involved in produce, he said. And that’s a segment particularly positioned to align its products with what consumers want.

“Consumers’ evolving needs are a huge driver of current innovations in produce — portability for out-of-home eating, portion control, easy storage, visibility of freshness, tamper-evident packaging, recyclability and the desire for more complex and sophisticated product offerings,” said Anne Byerly, vice president of marketing at Apio.

That means a need for continuous collaboration between consumer goods manufacturers and technology suppliers to develop new processing and packaging solutions — sooner rather than later.

“A kind of more complicated problem for manufacturers of different products is the combination of the explosion of SKUs plus the different delivery methods that are evolving,” Izquierdo said.

Types of packaging have evolved with new kinds of produce products.
Types of packaging have evolved with new kinds of produce products.

Individual retailers from big box stores to supermarkets to convenience shops have varying needs for product range and package sizes. Online services that deliver fresh produce on its own or as part of a meal kit are growing fast — and packaging technology is helping to make that possible.

“Home delivery has been around for a long time, but not in the fresh market,” said Jeff Brandenburg of the JSB Group, an international consulting company with a specialty in packaging design and technology. “That’s what’s really taking off is the fresh food home delivery. And packaging technology allows you to do that.”

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) technologies that make it possible for manufacturers to adjust the atmosphere inside containers and bags to extend shelf life and preserve freshness based on the characteristics of individual products have made a big difference, and continue to.

Modified atmosphere packaging and other technologies make grab-and-go products attractive.
Modified atmosphere packaging and other technologies make grab-and-go products attractive.

“Modified atmosphere packaging has really come a long way,” said Joe Bradford, vice president of sales for Temkin International, which provides packaging for a variety of industries including produce. “It has really changed the market for French green beans, sugar snap peas. We’re now seeing it take over for all of our fresh-cut herbs, leafy items.”

With that, flexible packaging has also exploded. Another 2015 PMMI study shows it’s become the second-largest packaging segment in the U.S.

Besides being compatible with MAP, pouches can be made from thinner, lighter films. That cuts the amount of source materials needed to produce them. And the high product-to-package ratio and lighter weight means more units can fit into a shipment, reducing costs and carbon footprint.

“We’ve seen tree fruit completely explode into pouch bags — grapes, apples, tangerines, cherries — they’re all going to that pouch style,” Bradford said. “Modified atmosphere packaging is compatible in a pouch, it’s compatible in that grab-and-go-type package.”

In fact, Temkin’s customers are increasingly seeking packaging for snack packs as they move to expand their niche for easy, healthy snack options.

“Maybe instead of buying a bag of potato chips, I might buy some carrots and hummus or cucumbers and blueberries,” Bradford said. “It’s not just a cucumber grower competing against a cucumber grower, it’s the cucumber grower competing against someone buying a chocolate bar.”

Bolthouse Farms’ Shakedowns line of single-serve or multi-pack fresh-cut baby peeled carrots that come with seasoning packets is one example of packaging innovation and product working hand in hand.

“We make a bag they (consumers) pull apart,” Bradford said. “The flavor falls into the carrot, they shake it up … and that grab-and-go item now becomes an alternative to a candy bar.”

Catching Up

Bradford said the produce industry has lagged behind confectionary, bakery and dairy in terms of taking advantage of packaging to promote and provide information about their products. But that’s been changing. Fast.

“Produce has always lagged behind, but now it is grabbing consumers’ attention and fighting for retail space,” Bradford said. “What we’ve seen in the last maybe 18 months is that companies are incorporating brighter colors.

“Instead of the traditional farmer pack … it’s now a grab-and-go presentation.”

Brandenburg said that some of the most exciting advancements have been in the ways manufacturers are using packaging for marketing and branding. He cites citrus and table grapes as leading the charge here.

“People are using produce packaging as a point of differentiation — more so than they ever have before,” he said. “You’re now getting high-end stand-up pouches with great graphics.”

Byerly said the high-graphic board sleeves previously seen in frozen and deli are moving their way into produce.

“This type of package design offers greater visibility and print quality while allowing the consumer to see the freshness of the product by removing the sleeve from the container,” she said.

Licensing for Sesame Street characters means Temkin has printed a variety of bags with the likenesses of well-known images like the Cookie Monster and Big Bird.

“Now you have Cookie Monster on an eggplant bag,” he said.

Why the push for attention-getting graphics? The way consumers shop, for one.

“(Before), produce was a destination item — you went specifically to go buy eggplant,” Bradford said.

“Now … it’s an item people walk by, that catches the eye.”

Package designers get involved at the beginning of new product development.
Package designers get involved at the beginning of new product development.

And before, the produce aisle primarily offered bulk shopping. But demand for convenience coupled with MAP technology that extends the viability and shelf life of fresh produce — making it more appealing to consumers as well as reducing shrink and overhead for retailers — are driving growing trends to prepackage for the produce aisle.

“Now everything is (available) preloaded,” Bradford said. “It’s ready to go, grab and go.

“We have had requests from literally every type of grower from corn, to peppers, to all of the hothouse growers — cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, they kind of lead the forefront on this. It’s convenience for consumers, and consumers really drive the market.”

Packaging that is easy to open and recloseable — long a staple in snack foods, confectionary and coffee -— is surfacing more in produce, Brandenburg said. But there’s room for improvement here.

“One of the challenges with fresh-cut produce is when you open the bag, it doesn’t last very long, but with whole produce, you can open and close that bag multiple times,” he said. “You still have a lot of packages out there where you’re cutting it open — you don’t have an effective open and reseal feature.”

Symbiotic Design

Back to the opening question: which comes first, the packaging or the product?

It seems they go hand in hand — one following the other, over and over again.

“What people are finally starting to do with packaging instead of doing new product development and at the 11th hour saying, ‘Oops, I need a package to put this in’ and going out and finding a tray and hoping it works is, they’re actually bringing the packaging designer into the new product development process at the very beginning,” Brandenburg said. “So they’re developed in parallel.”

Bradford said Temkin seeks input from growers, marketers, manufacturers and retailers, depending on the product and its intended distribution and use.

“The challenge comes to us as ‘I need X,’ and that might be ‘I need a six-ounce pack for cucumbers in a bag that has a grab-and-go feature that may have modified atmosphere technology that will be grown in South America and sold in North America,” Bradford said. “We look at it and say, ‘We can design a bag that may meet 80 percent of your expectations, or grab-and-go features, and I give you a budget. We can add a zipper, a handle, microperforation, two compartments to a bag, one compartment.’

All of those possibilities — MAP, so many new design technologies — mean new product rollouts continue fast and furious.

“New vegetable products are being introduced almost weekly,” Brandenburg said, citing Green Giant’s new line of fresh-cut Cauliflower Crumbles as just one product that didn’t exist even a year ago. “Five years ago, there was hardly any Brussels sprouts on the market, and now they’re everywhere — halved, whole, Brussels sprout slaw. Kale is the same way.

“So packaging in modified atmosphere packaging has allowed the introduction of a variety of new produce items.”

And they’ll keep coming, Brandenburg predicts, right along with developments in active packaging and technologies that make it possible for new products to be introduced.

“A lot of it is just trying to meet a need,” Bradford said, “and trying to be innovators.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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