Retailers, consumers and the environment are all benefiting from recent advancements in packaging technology
Forget common clamshells and Plain Jane containers. Modern produce packages have multiple compartments, are adorned with colorful graphics and are more environmentally friendly than their predecessors.
One growing trend is resealable bags. Modified atmosphere packaging [MAP], or packaging that controls humidity levels inside each container, is another.
Whatever the ingenuity, the latest package designs are nothing short of impressive, retailers told SN.
Technologies that have caught the attention of Ron Williams, produce manager at Dorothy Lane's Washington Square store in Columbus, Ohio include resealable bags and modified atmosphere packaging.
“We move a lot of produce in resealable bags, salad greens being one of our top sellers. People tell us that they keep the product fresher much longer than bags that don't reseal,” he said. “We've also been able to carry a larger selection of value-added fruits and vegetables because of advancements made in modified atmosphere packaging.”
Apple slices are a newer addition there. They can be stocked in stores for days without oxidizing due to breakthroughs in MAP, he added.
Presently, everything from carrot and celery sticks to diced onions and sliced peppers come in MAPs. Soon, shoppers will be able to select from an even larger assortment, said Jeff Brandenburg, president, JSB Group, a package consulting firm in Greenfield, Mass.
“Modified atmosphere packaging used to be fairly basic, but each type of produce really requires a different type of packaging to truly be effective,” he said. “This technology is getting more specific every year. I have one client company that recently came out with an MAP for sliced apricots and nectarines.”
Increasing shelf-life has long been a goal in produce packaging. But the discussion has suddenly evolved from extending the freshness of fruits and veggies a few extra days to a week, two weeks or longer, Brandenburg added.
While some package makers focus on value-added offerings and longevity, others are centered on environmental sustainability, according to Lorna Christie, executive vice president and chief operations officer for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. During it's upcoming Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition in October, PMA will once again recognize produce packaging innovators with its 2010 Impact Awards (see sidebar).
“There are a ton of companies that make packaging using recycled or recyclable materials. That has become very common,” said Christie. “There is also a movement to reduce the use of oil-based plastics and another push to use fewer materials overall.”
Fresh Express is reducing its use of plastic. The food maker just launched a new line of Artisan salad greens in “NatureSave” bags that say, “50% less plastic,” right on the pack.
Regarding recycled wraps, Aunt Mid's celery stalks, Bolthouse Farms' baby carrots and Green Giant's cauliflower are just a few of the products in supermarkets packaged in recyclable plastics.
Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill., believes that even more manufacturers will curtail their plastic consumption in the future. He cited skinnypacks as one viable possibility for produce packagers.
“Skinnypacks are somewhat new, but I can see them becoming more prominent in the produce department,” he said. “They have plastic panels that protect the fruits and vegetables, but the panels are very thin, so they are made using a lot less plastic overall than traditional containers.”
Skinnypacks are made to contain a variety of produce. Grape or cherry tomatoes and mushrooms are just a few foods ripe for this type of container, said Wisner.
Brandenburg applauded industry members for trying to reduce their carbon footprints. Any effort to cut back on packaging in stores and throughout the supply chain is valiant, he said.
However, he recommended that retailers do their research before simply selecting something that touts sustainability.
“Decisions have to be made based on science, not just consumer demand,” he said. “Some packages are supposed to be compostable, but are only slightly so. Others might be made of alternative materials that are deemed ‘better’ than oil-based plastics, but they could require more energy to produce and therefore, leave an even greater carbon footprint.”
That said, some of the products out there today would not be here if no one considered the possibilities. Brandenburg suggests that buyers continually review all options. One day, technological advancements could render the same energy-inefficient packages practical, he said.
Christie concurred, noting one example of a creative product that is not yet widely available.
“I have heard of a type of packaging that is completely edible. It's supposed to taste like popcorn,” she told SN. “I haven't seen it on the market anywhere, but it is one more idea that could be in stores someday.
Many produce packages have earned passage into stores because they answer the consumer demand for convenience. Value-added packaging is a prime example.
At Dahl's Food Markets, Des Moines, Iowa, more shoppers buy precut items each year to use as snacks, side dishes or ingredients in recipes, said Dick Rissman, produce buyer there. They also go for multi-cell packs that provide a complete meal when blended.
“Containers with salad in the bottom and separate compartments on top for the toppings are popular,” said Rissman. “People also like any type of produce in a package with a lid or zip feature. These allow them to have the convenience of value-added for more than one meal.”
Party trays with four or five different fruits or vegetables and a complementary dip sell well at Orchard Markets, Spring Lake, Mich.
According to Randy Weck, director of produce there, the compartmentalized containers are in such high demand, he could stock virtually any combination of produce and shoppers would buy them.
“We order our trays pre-made from Round Lake. We can get anything we want in these packs and have tried various mixes of fruits and vegetables,” said Weck. “We especially sell a lot of these in the summer and during holiday seasons. Some shoppers buy one with precut fruit and another with a mix of precut vegetables during the same trip.”
Throughout the school year, snack-sized packs are in high demand at Orchard Markets. The supermarket makes its own belly cups filled with pineapple chunks, carrot sticks and other kid-friendly fare.
As more produce moves away from bulk bins and into containers, a few issues arise, said Christie. Consumers voice concerns about freshness. And, the entire department stands to lose some of its aesthetic appeal.
“People perceive a reduced quality when buying fresh produce in packages,” she said. “There needs to be better information on the packages to help combat this misperception.”
The plastics themselves also need to be more transparent so people can clearly see what is inside, she added.
Rissman reported a noticeable improvement in package graphics in recent years. He's seen shoppers at Dahl's stopping more frequently to pick up produce containers and read about the items they contain.
“The colors are much more vivid than they used to be,” he said. “When mixed in with bulk produce, the packages actually add another layer of color rather than detract from the overall look.”
Whether the focus is increased freshness, environmental regard or enhanced graphics, produce packaging as a whole is progressing. Some companies are even experimenting with tie-ins with electronic devices.
“With Gen X and Gen Y out there, we'll soon see digital codes on packaging that allow people to scan each item directly into an iPhone and learn about the product, look at nutritional content and access recipes,” said Christie.