Kathy Means, vice president at the Produce Marketing Association, minds her peas and cucumbers. “Produce is something we all need to eat more of,” she says, pointing to the government’s new 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in early 2011, which offers six guidelines including “make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”
Packaging is not only helping make that more feasible through convenience, preservation and shelf life extension, it’s central to what she identifies as the industry’s three main market drivers: increased consumption, marketing and sustainability.
“Packaging has always been a critical component of produce distribution because the products are perishable, have to breathe, and are often wet,” says Means. “We’re seeing increased packaging at the consumer level.”
Produce packaging developments represent two aspects, according to Sal Pellingra, Ampac’s director of innovation: functionality for shelf life and aesthetics for shelf impact. Functionality is through customizable breathable film structures that address the particular item’s respiration rate. Ampac is also bringing in-bag microwavability beyond frozen foods into fresh produce like carrots and broccoli.
For aesthetics and differentiation, in 2011 Ampac’s Seattle plant was the first operation in the Americas certified for High-Definition (HD) flexographic printing with the help of EskoArtwork. HD Flexo uses high-resolution optics and advanced screening technologies to deliver 150-line screening at 4,000 dpi with a smaller dot size and imaging quality that rivals offset. Several companies have already moved their frozen vegetable packaging to HD print to add graphics impact and differentiation, Pellingra says.
That’s among the latest of a long series of graphic improvements in this market. The industry has progressed from what used to be brown corrugated containers with a check mark noting the specific product inside the box to today’s full-color spectrum that’s as colorful as the produce itself, Means says.
“Packaging can enhance the display and increase the marketing messaging for the grower,” she says. “At the consumer level, members are very cognizant of branding and attractive packaging. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the marketing sophistication of produce packaging.”
More 'green,' more packagingThen there’s that “green” thing that’s taken root in produce as with all product markets.
Sustainability has commanded the attention of PMA members, which comprise companies along the supply chain from “seed to store and restaurant” such as Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita Brands/Fresh Express, Walmart and Kroger, Means notes. A trend toward more packaging over the past decade appears to fly in the face of sustainability, Means admits. But the reality is that packaging helps prolong the shelf life for highly perishable products or those that have a particular need for packaging to avoid a problem. An example of the latter is grapes, which “shatter” (i.e., break loose of the stem), causing retailer and consumer problems. Packaging contains the clusters and reduces waste and shrinkage, Means points out.
Pellingra feels that sustainability is the key to this market. “The main consideration is how to use the least amount of film and still protect the product,” says Pellingra. “We’re working hard with our suppliers on improving the strength of the film without hurting breathability, improving sealant properties and at the same time ensure that the film runs well, too.”
A recent development that has drawn criticism for overpackaging is wrapped bananas. Del Monte has told media outlets in England that it will sell individually wrapped bananas in a unique bag that keeps out oxygen and moisture and slows the ripening process. The company also is increasing trials of the bagged bananas in the United States.
Dubbed “controlled ripening technology” by Del Monte, the packaging claims to extend the shelf life of the fruit by six days. The company will begin selling the more expensive packaged bananas in convenience stores, gas stations, and gyms, among other outlets. The first iteration of the barrier-film bananas was launched in 2009 at 7-Eleven stores.
Competitor Chiquita Brands has its own plastic bag technology from Landec Corp. that uses a breathable membrane that allows oxygen, but not carbon dioxide, to pass into the bag of fruit to enhance shelf life. Chiquita has also started packing avocados in similar bags.
Means understands criticism related to perceived overpackaging, but says “there’s a give and take in everything. [Managers] in fresh produce pay a very strong mind to sustainability and want packaging that delivers to the consumer the best possible product with a good shelf life, which helps consumers to eat more produce. The health of consumers is directly tied to the health of our industry.” F&BP
SIDEBAR: Mariani continues fruitful innovationMariani Packing Co., Vacaville, Calif., has a solid history in packaging innovation, from introducing the first rehydrated, ready-to-eat dried fruit in a clear cello package to introducing the first stand-up gusseted bag to the consumer package goods industry.
In March 2011, it debuted “TouchLock”, a Velcro-like micro-hook reclosure system that allows consumers to simply touch to lock and close their dried fruit bag. Mariani will use TouchLock on all stand-up gusseted packaging-more than 150 dried fruit products-as an alternative to zipper reclosure.
Mariani’s TouchLock self-gripping fastener does not have to be perfectly aligned to seal properly. “As long as the micro-hooks on the sides touch, you’ll get the bond you need to reseal your bag and keep your dried fruit fresh,” says Miranda Ackerman, marketing director.
The material is a food-grade, heat-sealable polyethylene. Aplix, the manufacturer of the micro-hook closure system, has granted Mariani U.S. exclusivity on usage for an undisclosed period of time.
To listen to an interview on controlled atmosphere packaging with Kathy Means, VP of the Produce Marketing Assn., visit our podcast page at www.foodandbeveragepackaging.com/Links/Podcast