Produce packaging companies improve on atmosphere, appearance

September 20, 2017

When it comes to fresh-cut and value-added produce, what’s on the outside truly counts.

Processors working with packaging companies continue to develop new technologies that help improve quality and shelf life while ensuring food safety and also doing some selling with graphics and messaging.

That’s a lot to ask of one bag or container.

But the industry continues to push the possibilities as they roll out bagged salads and mixes, cut fruit in myriad forms, snack packs and ready-to- microwave or cook combinations — and need just the right package to contain it.

“Sometimes new packaging technologies are developed that will allow new products to be developed because of the new packaging,” said industry consultant Jeffrey S. Brandenburg of the JSB Group. “Very often it’s the produce industry looking at their products, coming up with ways to differentiate themselves and the packaging companies react.”

Photo: Maxwell Chase

Improving the atmosphere

Brandenburg said today’s newest fresh-cut packaging developments are in many ways “variations and refinements on a theme.”

For example, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) to modify the atmosphere inside a package with a targeted atmosphere tailored to the properties of the commodity isn’t new. But technology continues to fine-tune the process for better results.

“People have used MAP, but more recently, they’re trying to dial in to make sure they have the optimal MAP,” Brandenburg said. “Part of the problem with some of these technologies is people would introduce them, but there wasn’t a lot of science to back it up. So they’re applying more science around the quantification of produce. Moisture management has become a big deal.”

Brandenburg cites the Landec BreatheWay membrane as one cutting-edge development. Used by Landec subsidiary Apio, as well as commercially globally, BreatheWay membranes draw on Landec’s Intelimer polymer technology to manage the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen within the package and compensate for fluctuations in temperature along the supply chain. The membranes are applied over a small hole or cutout in flexible film bags or plastic trays.

“Because of that, (Apio) is looking at packaging of certain items they couldn’t do before,” Brandenburg said.

The ante gets upped as mixes of commodities go in the same package.

“Certainly you’re getting more and more ready meals inside a package, and whenever you combine produce with a carbohydrate and protein, the challenges go up exponentially,” Brandenburg said. “Those products don’t want necessarily the same atmosphere inside the package.

“That’s an area that’s getting a lot of work — an area that’s been around a long time in Europe, but it’s really picking up steam here.”

Photo: Temkin International

Temkin International licenses a patent for laser microperforation technology that Vice President of Sales Joe Bradford said can be applied to “a million different bag converting styles” of packaging to establish and maintain respiration rate specific to each commodity.

“You didn’t see it before because shelf life wasn’t that important, it wasn’t the driving force — cost was,” he said. “Now it’s different. We can’t sell produce that is double and triple the price because of added value. But if we add a laser perforation, the consumer will pay for it, the retailer sees value in it — and it works.”

Temkin recently took on a challenge to package two pounds of green beans into one unit, divided into two sections.

“When you open two pounds, you can’t eat two pounds — you see it all the time in box stores, take two packages and band together,” Bradford said. “We wanted to do something different.”

So they created a double-compartment MAP bag with two one-pound compartments, each filled with the same beans.

“It had a handle, it looked fantastic and now instead of modifying atmosphere for two pounds in one package that is 7-by-13 inches, now you modify two packages together with one piece of film, sealed into two separate compartments … you now control a 6-1/2-by-7-inch bag each with a pound of beans in each half of the bag.

“The consumer can take it and consume half the bag, while the other remains fresh.”

Rising to the challenge

All of the new commodities and mixes of commodities with items like protein coming out in fresh-cut are also driving packaging developments, Brandenburg said, using the examples of kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower rice and shredded broccoli stems that he said weren’t on anyone’s radar just a few years ago. Ditto spiralized vegetables, which are getting a lot of attention as a substitute for pasta.

“We’ve had to create packaging that can handle all of that,” he said, “and it’s different than iceberg lettuce.”

Bradford said that six or seven years ago, the industry saw what he called a “box-store push.” That meant packages that went big — green beans in two- and three-pound bags, tomatoes in flats.

“Now we’ve seen the shift probably starting back a couple of years ago to snack packs, grab and go, the convenience of portion control,” Bradford said. “What’s changed for us is that instead of everything getting bigger, now it’s got to be more value- added, from the produce and the packaging, on both sides.”
Bradford cites the example of grapes that used to come in a simple polyethelyne bag with a PLU number. Period.

“Now you look at it, and the grape bag, the apples, the oranges, the lemons, the limes — they’ve all gone to handle pouches … and whatever the commodity is, that changed to a smaller pack,” Bradford said. “In the past, (it was) the more you buy, the better price you get per pound of piece. Now it is washed, it is cleaned, cut, peeled, diced and packaged in a medley.”

Bradford points to products like Bolthouse Farms’ Shakedowns — peeled baby carrots with a seasoning packet — “What an innovative way to sell carrots,” he said, as well as Naturipe’s ready-to-eat blueberry snack packs as examples of ways processors are meeting consumers’ demand for quick, healthy snacks.

Photo: Temkin International

Multi-compartment bags are addressing the trend of offering ready- to-mix salads that may include greens, nuts, croutons and protein in the same product.

“The grains or the breads, nuts, croutons are prepackaged, keeping moisture out,” Bradford said, “Where the fresh-cut vegetables and lettuce need the moisture. All of those components can be prepackaged and carry it together.”

Brian Hill, president of Palcon Systems’ equipment design, engineering and fabrication, said one of the challenges new multi-compartment trays for various fresh-cut products present is in production.

“If you’re just doing one or two products in a tray, it’s not difficult,” he said. “But look in the store and you see a fruit tray with five compartments, or broccoli, cauliflower and carrots … you’ve got all these different products in a tray and it’s very difficult to automate that. So, what we do is try and design a line, it’s more like an old-fashioned assembly line … and as the tray travels down the conveyor, employees stand and fill the tray as it passes.”

A relatively recent development in the category, Bradford said, is top-seal, or lid-stock containers, which he describes as a tray with a sealed top, akin to the technology of a yogurt cup, and often seen in snack packs that combine fresh-cut produce with add-ons like cheese, lunchmeat or dip.

“Rather than have a lid, they just have a piece of film … with holes or microperforations to control the atmosphere,” he said.

The film can also carry graphics while providing a view to the product.

“Most recently, I saw pomegranate arils put into a PET container and it had lid stock on it,” he said. “You could see into it. It adds great value.”

And value is what it’s all about, Bradford said.

“Price isn’t the number one issue,” Bradford said. “It’s still competitive, but the value add of extended shelf life, graphics, maybe a handle slider zipper, perforation, double- compartment bag putting two commodities together — those components that add value for a consumer are now at the forefront.”

Sustainability is also on the packaging industry’s mind

“We talk about compostable film — biodegradable,” said Temkin International Vice President of Sales Joe Bradford. “That market is still very expensive — in most cases, two or three times the cost of a normal package.”

However, as newer films and technologies become available, he expects the costs to come down.

Photo: Temkin International

In the meantime, the industry is doing its part to develop films that are lighter weight and more eco-friendly, along with other sustainable products. For example, Biodegradable Food Service is offering its Earth Maize line of compostable PLA (polylactic acid) foodservice trays as an alternative to polystyrene.

“A lot of people refer to reducing the carbon footprint if you use less packaging, or if we can remove from the clamshell to a flexible package, a lot of times you can reduce your waste by half,” Bradford said. “That is more ecofriendly, reducing the amount of waste.”

And that waste can be recycled.

Photo: Temkin International

“America, in general, we are a recycling country,” he said. “We don’t compost that much.

“We really tout that recycling is available. … Today, that model is more accepted than an eco-friendly option like a biodegradable bag.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer