DALLAS -- The high perishability of fresh produce makes it one of the more difficult products to handle and preserve. With the increased demand for fresh-cut produce, problems of appearance and spoilage have multiplied and forced a need for more options in the field of modified atmosphere packaging, as well as a greater understanding on the part of the packagers as to how to find the right product for their delicate goods. Members of the industry gathered here during the 13th annual International Fresh-cut Produce Association's Conference and Exhibition to learn more about their options.
Why use MAP? According to Jim Gorny, Ph.D., of Davis Fresh Technologies, a post-harvest consulting firm located in Davis, Calif., the proper packaging can increase a product's shelf-life, improve the appearance and quality of an item and increase its marketability.
Gorny said MAP can achieve these desirable results by reducing product respiration; slowing the ripening and aging of the fruits and vegetables, including pigment degradation, softening or toughening of the product; and by carbohydrate conservation. "MAP alters package oxygen and carbon-dioxide levels," said Gorny. "It can keep your products out of danger zones and prevent problems like fermentation, water condensation and accelerated deterioration."
He was quick to point out that while all packaging that falls under the MAP headline does have the same intention, one package does not fit all products. The question Gorny is asked most frequently is "What bag do I use for [this product]?" He said there are many factors that contribute to the answer.
"You need to define your target atmosphere, define the product weight and the package size, define the film thickness," he said. "You will probably need quite a variety [of packaging] to suit the needs of [each item]."
Gorny added that while many packagers have typically gone about selecting the proper packaging by either bringing in multiple options and testing them all or spying on their competition to see what they use and how successful it has been, there is information available to them that can help make this process more accurate and eliminate much of the trial and error. One such research volume, "Fresh-Cut Fruits and Vegetables and MAP," edited by Gorny, is available through the University of California at Davis. The text addresses common issues facing those in the industry and offers solutions for packaging dilemmas.
"There is a lot of advanced technology out there that can be of great benefit to you," said Elizabeth Marston, Ph.D., E.V. Marston & Associates, a consulting firm in Windham, N.H. "The variety of microporous films available today is there to help you better control the atmosphere within your packaging, not to confuse you."
Marston explained the technicalities of determining and maintaining the right atmosphere for each individual product and stressed that a packager's greatest asset is understanding how to distinguish the needs of each item. She provided conference attendees with formulas to calculate the right balance of elements for their packaged fruits and vegetables.
In addition to what it can do for your product, Gorny said, there are other factors to consider when choosing the right MAP.
"Clarity, stiffness, sealability, machinability, printability," he said. "These are also of great importance."
Gorny said those responsible simply need to understand the vast possibilities of MAP and what it can and cannot do for their products. "It can increase shelf-life, it can slow microbial growth and maintain nutritional quality and it can slow browning," he said. "But it cannot serve as a substitute for temperature control or stop microbial growth altogether. And it cannot improve the quality of any product."