Instead, these temperature-sensitive products thrive, in environments of 34 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and more retailers are putting in equipment that allows them to give fresh cuts the big chill.
Nonetheless, there remains a large number of retailers who don't maintain their fresh-cut produce at optimum temperatures. At best, they risk spoilage, shrink and lost sales from dissatisfied customers. At worst, there is the ever-present threat of food-borne illness.
Checks on temperatures of modified-atmosphere packages of fresh-cut salads over the past three years have showed a high level of abuse, according to researchers. Of 300 packages tested, 78% had a temperature greater than 45-degrees Fahrenheit, said Richard W. Daniels, president of Audits International, a technical consultancy based in Highland Park, Ill. What's more, 17.5% of the 300 packages had a temperature greater than 55 degrees.
Debbie Segal of Audits International pointed out that the tested packages were taken from the front of the middle facing of the display, which is "the worst-case scenario" in terms of proximity to the source of cold air. "However, this is [the area] where people often shop from," she added.
Similar findings come from Jeff Leshuk, marketing quality manager for Fresh Express Farms of Salinas, Calif. As part of Fresh Express' Retail Quality Improvement Program, "we will do audits of customers' stores to check the equipment and product temperatures. There is a fairly high percentage that is higher [in temperature] than we would like. In some instances, we will find as much as 75% of the product above 40 degrees," he said.
While such figures are not a surprise to Edith Garrett, president of the International Fresh-cut Produce Association of Arlington, Va., she thinks the situation is improving rapidly.
"In just a year's time, we have made progress," Garrett said, noting that the association has come out with new handling guidelines and has made other educational efforts.
"There are indications that retailers are looking for as many solutions as possible for the best refrigeration."
"I think the awareness now is 100%," said Thomas A. Meyers, general manager of Carlson AirFlo Merchandising Systems, Brooklyn Park, Minn., manufacturers of refrigeration equipment. "Every retailer we go to is aware of the refrigeration issues. It is on everyone's front burner."
Meyers estimated that "at least 50% of the major chain stores" have refrigeration equipment to maintain fresh-cut produce at optimum temperatures, and he adds that "certainly in every new store" such equipment is installed.
The reason that fresh-cut needs lower temperatures than traditional produce is that the products respire faster due to the trauma of being cut. The best way to slow down respiration and the spoilage process is a lower temperature, according to Garrett.
While temperatures of 41- to 45-degrees Fahrenheit or above may be fine for heads of lettuce or broccoli, the corresponding cut product will stay fresh longer at a temperature of 33- to 41-degrees Fahrenheit, according to Garrett.
Although Garrett and others cite 34 to 35 degrees as ideal, she says the IFPA's new handling guidelines cite 33 to 41 degrees as a "proper temperature range."
Most retailers are aware of these requirements, but some say that practicality has to play a large part in whether or not they can meet them.
Fresh Express' Leshuk estimates that the cost of installing a 12-foot upright dairy/deli cooler is about $18,000 to $20,000, including labor, plumbing, compressors and other expenses. Many retailers say that while most of their new stores are installed with the multideck cases for fresh-cut, retrofitting the old ones is an investment that takes some serious consideration.
"For a couple of our stores, we have bought the new multideck cases, and for a couple, we have converted dairy cases," said Jeff Witt, director of produce operations for Smith & Woods Foodcenters, Maryville, Tenn. "If the stores have the sales [of fresh-cut] to justify the expense, that is what we base it on. Is it realistic to convert them all? No."
Not only must the expense of the refrigeration unit be a consideration, but the space within the entire produce department sometimes must be reconfigured to accommodate one of these large cases, noted Scott Streeper, director of wholesale operations and produce buyer for 20-store Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev.
Although Streeper said that several of the newer Scolari's stores have new upright multideck units, it is not feasible for all stores.
"The [dairy/deli] units are at least $12,000, and that is not including the labor and cost of redesigning the department," said Streeper.
While many retailers are utilizing inserts in traditional flat-rack produce cases, Leshuk of Fresh Express noted that these cases "are typically designed for 40- to 41-degrees Fahrenheit -- an intermediate temperature for all types of produce."
The upright dairy/deli cases are preferable, he said, because they are designed to maintain a 34-degree temperature. And the ultimate, according to Leshuk, is the doored, refrigerated case that a handful of retailers are using. However, "some retailers feel the door is a barrier and the customer won't notice the product," he added.
Bob Huey, produce merchandiser for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores' 114-unit Tampa, Fla., division, estimated that as many as 65 of the division's stores now have the upright dairy/deli cases for fresh-cut produce. "We have been adding the upright cases instead of our traditional flat refrigerated tables, and we have found that the shrink is definitely reduced and the presentation is better," said Huey, who estimated at least a 20% reduction in shrink for fresh-cut in stores with the new units.
Another significant benefit, said Huey, is better utilization of space within the produce department. "We have been pulling out a 12-foot standard wall case with one shelf, and putting in an upright 12-foot case with five shelves," he noted. That translates into "a tremendous increase in space -- 60 linear feet vs. 24 linear feet."
As a result, Huey said that the company is dedicated to converting all stores to the upright multideck cases. "Every time you expand the section, the sales get better," he noted. "In the future, the whole company will have the upright cases."
Jaime Abutin, produce merchandiser coordinator for Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., estimates that "we probably have 65 to 70 of the upright multideck cases."
Abutin said he has seen the benefits of these cases. "It keeps the product a lot cooler consistently, and it gives better exposure for the product," he said. "Most of the stores are looking at these right now because they know you can improve the shelf life of the product."
Although the investment may be daunting, Leshuk of Fresh Express said the reduced shrink and increased sales from better presentation are very tangible payoffs. "Changing to a dairy-deli case will pay for itself in less than two years," he estimated.
Garrett of the IFPA agreed that refrigeration equipment is an investment that pays for itself. "Fresh-cut produce is a proven winner in terms of improving your profit," she said. "If retailers can improve the quality, it gets the customer to come back. I think it is a smart investment."