The Evolution of Fresh-Cut Packaging

Fresh Cut PackagingPhoto Courtesy of Inline Plastics and Mann's Packing

What do executives need to know? What should they look for in the coming years?

Fairway MarketThe fresh-cut packaging revolution is most noticeable in bagged salads, where the moisture-controlled plastic bags created a whole new category. However, it’s since moved into many additional sections of the produce department. What do executives need to know about it? And what does the future of fresh-cut packaging look like?

Jacob Shafer, senior communications specialist with Mann Packing, a Salinas, CA-based provider of fresh and ready-to-use fresh-cut vegetables, provides a basic definition: “Fresh-cut packaging allows manufacturers to sustain product quality and provide consumers with a fresh experience without the use of preservatives.” Jeffrey Brandenburg, president of the JSB Group, a Greenfield, MA-based consulting firm specializing in package design/technology and food safety, has a more in-depth explanation for what he refers to as modified atmosphere packaging. “Almost always, you’re packaging something that’s inert,” he says. “It just sits there. With produce, it’s alive and breathing. It breathes in oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide. Once you seal the bag, the atmosphere begins to change; and by definition, you’re in a modified atmosphere package. The trick with modified atmosphere packaging is designing a package around that breathable produce that achieves an optimal modified atmosphere with steady conditions that extend the shelf life.”

According to Brandenburg, a good modified atmosphere package will do three things. “By reducing the oxygen, you put the produce to sleep. You slow down its physiologic properties, and that extends the shelf life. By getting the oxygen down below 3 percent, you reduce enzymatic browning reactions or ‘pinking.’ By increasing the carbon dioxide in the package, you also slow down the growth of spoilage bacteria, as well as yeast and mold.”

“The trend toward fresh-cut packaging is in response to the increase in demand of grab-and-go eating patterns among consumers,” says Jack Tilley, market research manager at Inline Plastics Corp., which designs and manufactures clamshells and two-piece packaging. The company is based in Shelton, CT. “These can be time-stressed parents who want to grab something healthy for themselves or their family, as well as Millennials, who often embrace four to five smaller meals during the day, which translates to more snacking occasions.”

Steamable Packaging

A fresh-cut packaging type that’s been around for a while but is getting more popular is steamable packaging. “As ready-to-eat foods get more popular, consumers are flocking to vegetables that can be steamed in the packaging,” says Shafer. That can include cut vegetables, such as broccoli florets or green beans, or whole foods like microwavable sweet potatoes.

Stores that want to create their own steamable vegetable packets should take care to select the right type of packaging. “You want the container to be able to sustain the heat so it doesn’t melt all over the product,” says Brandenburg.

Anti-Fogging Properties

Fogging occurs when water beads up on the front of the bag. It doesn’t affect the quality of the produce at all. However, “a fogged container reduces the merchandising value of the product because consumers can’t judge the quality of the food contents,” says Tilley.

To create anti-fogging bags, manufacturers typically coat the material with a chemical from the surfactant family. The chemical changes the surface tension of the water. “It’s the same idea as wax on a car,” says Brandenburg. “The chemical makes the water lie flat instead of beading so you can still see through it.”

Micro Perforated Bags

Mann's Fresh Cut BroccoliBesides using bags with an anti-fogging agent, Tilley says a good way to deal with fogging issues is to offer containers with venting to release outgassing from produce outside the container.

Another option for venting is micro perforation. “Micro perforated bags have tiny holes not visible to the eye that allow gases to move in and out,” says Brandenburg. “They’ve been around for a while, but they’re getting much more accurate.”

A newer technology is bags with breathable membranes. “They can adjust their breathability with the temperature,” says Brandenburg. “So if the produce gets warm, the membrane allows more gas to move in and out.”

“The pouch bags make it a lot easier to display products on the shelf. For grapes and cherries, it also helps as a safety issue. You don’t have loose grapes rolling all over the place like you did years ago.”

— Rick Rutte, North State Grocery

Packaging Geometry

Brandenburg calls fresh-cut packaging in the form of stand-up pouches “the most innovative thing that’s come along in a while. It’s not the packaging per se, it’s the new geometry.”

“The pouch bags make it a lot easier to display products on the shelf,” says Rick Rutte, produce director for North State Grocery, which operates stores under the names Holiday Markets and SAVMOR, and is headquartered in Cottonwood, CA. “For grapes and cherries, it also helps as a safety issue. You don’t have loose grapes rolling all over the place like you did years ago.”

The other advantage to the pouch bags is the ability to print brand names and marketing messages on them. “We do really well with Welch’s grapes when we have California grapes in season,” says Rutte. “That Welch’s label is obviously well-known. It gives that sense of freshness and quality. Companies are also able to provide recipes or health information on the back of the bag.”

“The quality of the graphics, the message that’s getting across and the brand management is becoming a big part of produce packaging,” says Brandenburg. “It’s all about differentiating yourself from your competition and having it pop at the retailer so it’s noticeable.” Being able to print on packaging also helps from a regulatory standpoint, he adds. Printable packaging can be used to share details such as country of origin, allergens and food safety information.

Fruit In Fresh-Cut Packaging

Because bagged salads have been such a hit, people tend to think of fresh-cut packaging as a way to manage vegetables. But placing fruit in modified atmosphere packaging is a big part of the market segment.

“You’re going to see more and more different types of produce items in packages, and in different configurations — shredded, chopped, sliced, etc.”

— Jeffrey Brandenburg, JSB Group

“Fruit tends to be the strongest in-house category we do,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce director for New Seasons Market, a 20-store chain headquartered in Portland, OR. “That stands in contrast to most vegetables. We’ve found it’s a good skinny category,” he says. “We haven’t found that the sales continue to ramp up.”

Rutte agrees the fruit category is an important one. North State Grocery has been purchasing fresh-cut packaged fruit for a year now and the program has grown. “I see a lot of people buying it for lunches,” he says.

The store doesn’t add its own marketing materials to the packages, but it does have a marketing program. “If there’s something I want to promote, I’ll have in-store signage in the refrigerator case,” he says. “The signage on the doors draws attention.”

Uniquely Cut Vegetables

Mann's Sweet Potato RibbonsAs gluten-free, Paleo and other diets gain in popularity, many shoppers are looking to substitute vegetables where they used to use carbohydrates. Produce departments can cash in on this trend by selling spiralized vegetables, cauliflower “rice” and similar products in fresh-cut packaging.

“Spiralized vegetables like zucchini and sweet potatoes have done pretty well,” says Fairchild. “Those have a pretty strong pull right now.”

“You’re going to see more and more different types of produce items in packages, and in different configurations — shredded, chopped, sliced, etc.,” says Brandenburg. “There will be more and more blends, even whole meals where you make a mixture of produce, protein and carbohydrates. We’ve seen some of that, but I think you’ll see more of it. That’s something that’s been very common in Europe for a long time.”

Sustainable Packaging

Another area of growing interest is sustainable packaging. “Shoppers are very conscious of it,” says Rutte, especially his organic customers.

Some eco-friendly fresh-cut packaging does exist already. NatureWorks LLC, Minnetonka, MN, manufactures film and sheets for rigid packaging under a product line called Ingeo. “Plants produce sugar in the form of starch,” says Stefano Cavallo, global segment lead for films and cards at NatureWorks. “The starch is fermented using advanced and patented processes and eventually polymerized into Ingeo plastic pellets.” Those pellets are then sold to converters and turned into the materials produce managers see on their shelves.

“Ingeo films use 50 percent less non-renewable energy and results in 75 percent less greenhouse gases to manufacture than films made from non-renewable fossil carbon,” says Cavallo.

The company is also working to develop a film that may be as much as 50 percent thinner than current polypropylene film. “Thinner film contributes to more sustainable packaging through less material sourced,” says Cavallo. “In terms of film used for commodity products, consumers care about freshness, not necessarily what those films are made of,” he adds. “For differentiated high-end organic products, which command higher prices for product and package, the fact that they are packaged using renewably sourced plastic helps generate consumer satisfaction.”

JSB Group’s Brandenburg sees demand for eco-friendly packaging growing. He also sees more interest in using science to deliver packaging that fits with other consumer demands, including products with antimicrobial properties.

No matter what type of bag or box a product is packaged in, the best way to keep its contents fresh is to store correctly. “That affects shelf life more than anything else,” says Brandenburg. Generally, bags and containers should be kept at less than 5 degrees C.