Convenience, safety, variety and quality help distinguish packaged fresh produce from bulk offerings.


Fresh produce is subject to the same packaging pressures and imperatives as other foods. Only more so.

Because of its relatively short shelf life and other factors, protection is especially tricky. Because it’s firmly established in the “healthy” niche, it attracts the kind of consumers to whom sustainability is important (especially when it’s marketed as organic). And because it’s unprocessed or minimally processed, convenience becomes an important potential point of distinction for its packaging.

Fresh produce has consistently been one of the fastest-growing food segments. Consumption of fresh produce rose from 287 pounds per capita in 1990 to about 330 in 2004, according to the Produce Marketing Association. As health continues to resonate with American food shoppers, produce probably will continue to grow.

Convenience is, in a sense, the raison d’être of packaged produce. One of the main attractions over bulk produce is the perception of cleanliness-an especially important factor in the wake of high-profile food scares like the salmonella this spring that was first attributed to tomatoes, then jalapeño peppers. Other factors include extra-premium product, size reduction (in some cases) and added shelf life.

“The challenge is to meet the needs of busy consumers who want fast, convenient, healthy meals for their families that are no mess, no fuss,” says Sarah Wangler, marketing manager for The Sholl Group II, which markets produce under the Green Giant Fresh brand.

Sholl was the first fresh produce marketer to come out with packaging that allows vegetables to be steamed in a microwave. They were introduced last year as Freshtables; this year, Sholl is changing the name to Green Giant Fresh Steam Line, to better leverage the Green Giant name. These products are vegetable medleys, like Broccoli and Baby Slim Carrots, that include seasoned pucks of butter or cheese sauce.

Giving the package microwave capability requires Sholl’s flexible packaging supplier, American Packaging Corp., to do some extra engineering to attain the right permeability for each product. “It does complicate the model, but luckily, they’re very smart people at American Packaging,” Wangler says.

The film for Green Giant Freshtables is a two-ply lamination of 48-gauge polyester to retort-grade polypropylene. The PP layer has to be especially heat-resistant because the butter or cheese sauce puck reaches temperatures significantly higher than the vegetables, says American Packaging Corp. spokesperson Tom Triggs.

One step at a time

Cryovac is another film supplier that has been prominent in the development of microwave-steam packaging for fresh produce. Its Simple Steps package was originally developed for microwaveable proteins, but has been adapted for vegetables, says Myra Foster, manager of new business development. It’s now offered in two forms: a rigid tray topped with laminated film, and a vacuum-skin package with coextruded film.

Cryovac can engineer the permeability on Simple Steps to get up to 14 days’ shelf life for some products. Del Monte Fresh Produce has offered products in Simple Steps packaging for about 18 months at Giant Eagle stores in the Pittsburgh area.

Safety is one of the primary considerations for produce packaging. This concern has been heightened in light of high-profile food scares like the recent salmonella crisis, identified in July as originating with jalapeño peppers (although tomatoes were first thought to be the source), or the 2006 E. coli scare with spinach. Foster says packaging suppliers must be careful not to create potential safety issues by promising more than they can deliver.

“I think what’s incumbent upon us as a supplier is to understand the limitations of packaging,” Foster says. “Certainly there are a lot of resin technologies out there, there are a lot of other techniques you can do to modify a material to try to make it permeable, but you have to balance that against what are the potential food safety implications.”

Foster mentioned mushrooms as one of the most challenging products to package. “We continue to get inquiries on how you package fresh mushrooms to get some extension of shelf life,” she says. “That particular product is always going to be a challenge, because there are some food safety implications that make it a little bit more difficult to deal with than, say cut broccoli or cut lettuce.”

Hard to clean

Cryovac is another film supplier that has been prominent in the development of microwave-steam packaging for fresh produce. Its Simple Steps package was originally developed for microwaveable proteins, but has been adapted for vegetables, says Myra Foster, manager of new business development. It’s now offered in two forms: a rigid tray topped with laminated film, and a vacuum-skin package with coextruded film.

Cryovac can engineer the permeability on Simple Steps to get up to 14 days’ shelf life for some products. Del Monte Fresh Produce has offered products in Simple Steps packaging for about 18 months at Giant Eagle stores in the Pittsburgh area.

Safety is one of the primary considerations for produce packaging. This concern has been heightened in light of high-profile food scares like the recent salmonella crisis, identified in July as originating with jalapeño peppers (although tomatoes were first thought to be the source), or the 2006 E. coli scare with spinach. Foster says packaging suppliers must be careful not to create potential safety issues by promising more than they can deliver.

“I think what’s incumbent upon us as a supplier is to understand the limitations of packaging,” Foster says. “Certainly there are a lot of resin technologies out there, there are a lot of other techniques you can do to modify a material to try to make it permeable, but you have to balance that against what are the potential food safety implications.”

Foster mentioned mushrooms as one of the most challenging products to package. “We continue to get inquiries on how you package fresh mushrooms to get some extension of shelf life,” she says. “That particular product is always going to be a challenge, because there are some food safety implications that make it a little bit more difficult to deal with than, say cut broccoli or cut lettuce.”

Plastic additives

Bio-derived packaging is not the only option for produce packagers who want biodegradability. There are additives on the market for polyethylene and other mainstream polymers, for both film and trays, that are claimed to cause the polymers to break down in a few years, even in landfills.

One such company is Maverick Enterprises, marketing what it trade-names Green Film Additive. This additive, added to polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene or polyvinylidene chloride, will cause it to biodegrade in one to five years, according to company president Leslie Hardy. Maverick is in development with a California produce packer for bags for carrots and palm hearts, and also supplies a Boston-area distributor with liners for supermarket produce bins.

As health continues to be a vital concern to consumers, the fresh produce market will undoubtedly continue to grow-and with it, the need for packaging innovation.

“The whole notion of healthy convenience is what I think the fresh-cut industry is going to continue to move towards,” Foster says.  F&BP

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The following companies contributed to the research for this article:

American Packaging Corp.
800-551-8801

Cryovac Food Packaging, Sealed Air Corp.
800-845-3456

Earthcycle Packaging Ltd.
604-899-0928

Maverick Enterprises
704-291-9474