Smart packaging gives retailers a hand in reducing shrink and marketing to consumers.
In a little over four decades, the average produce department has gone from selling almost exclusively bulk produce to selling significant amounts in packaging. “Forty years ago, maybe 5 percent of the mix was bagged,” says Rick Rutte, produce director for North State Grocery in Cottonwood, CA, with 19 stores. “Today with the bagged salads, veggies, and all the rest, I’d say a third of our product line is packaged.”
Somewhere along the way, packaging evolved beyond the fundamentals of containing/protecting/transporting and became “smart,” spurring a packaging revolution. As defined by Packaging Digest (a Santa Monica, CA-based trade magazine for packaging executives and engineers), smart packaging provides enhanced functionality and is generally divided into two submarkets: active and intelligent. Packaging Digest clarifies that active packaging provides functionality such as moisture control, and intelligent packaging incorporates features that indicate status or communicate product changes and other information.
“Smart packaging provides an opportunity for manufacturers to differentiate products and build greater consumer confidence in brands.”
— Dr. Eva Almenar, School of Packaging at Michigan State University
“The Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA) reports U.S. demand for active and intelligent packages in food and other industries will reach $3.5 billion by 2017,” recounts Dr. Eva Almenar, associate professor at the School of Packaging, Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. “Demand for intelligent packaging, in particular, is expected to grow by double-digit percentage each year — hitting $1.3 billion by 2017 as reported by AIPIA.”
According to a report from The Freedonia Group in Cleveland, OH, demand for active and intelligent packaging in produce applications is forecast to climb more than 10 percent annually to $255 million in 2019.
With such a high-growth rate, smart packaging trends are quickly evolving. The Freedonia report notes in 2014 gas scavengers (additives with capability of absorbing gases) were the leading active and intelligent packaging type for produce. However, the report further explains though scavengers will experience solid growth, intelligent packaging demand will expand at a significantly faster pace based on increased adoption of temperature monitoring products and the growing presence of smartphone-enabled barcodes for tracking and marketing purposes.
“Trends show the most widespread application for smart packaging is QR (Quick Response) codes and time-temperature indicator labels (TTIs) on food packages,” agrees Dr. Almenar.
In Pursuit of a Longer Life
Primary applications for smart packaging in produce typically revolve around quality and distribution factors. The Freedonia report notes advances in packaging will be supported by heightened demand for fresh-cut, ready-to-eat produce, which offers increased convenience and uses more sophisticated packaging than bulk. Indeed, the explosion of the pre-packaged industry is supported on the shoulders of packaging technology.
“The biggest help from smart packaging so far is in the availability of packaged vegetable items,” agrees North State’s Rutte. “Without active packaging, the bag salad category would not exist.”
According to Joe Bradford, vice president of sales for Temkin International in Payson, UT, French green beans are a prime example of smart packaging driving a market. “This commodity, mainly from Guatemala, had a limited market, because it was very expensive since it had to be flown,” he relates. “Now, with the advent of a smart modified atmosphere bag, it’s still grown in Guatemala but packaged and shipped via ocean. The process made it affordable and extended shelf life. This is all due to the packaging. The bean didn’t change, the packaging did.”
The Freedonia report also references niche applications for self-venting and antimicrobial packaging as representing additional potential in fresh-cut produce. “Such packaging provides convenience of preparation for fresh vegetables often microwaved, such as green beans, broccoli, asparagus, and various blends,” according to the report.
“As busy as consumers are, microwaveable packaging offers convenience for cutting down on cooking times needed to produce a healthy meal,” concurs Joseph Bunting, produce business director for The United Supermarkets in Lubbock, TX with stores throughout West Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Eastern New Mexico. “We saw microwaveable packaging grow over the past few years and become more important to offer.”
Mounting a Defense
Food safety concerns provide fertile ground for smart packaging. The Freedonia report forecasts smart packaging growth to be aided in part by the
prominence of food safety issues and regulations spurring greater need for electronic tracking. It states: “Robust advances for intelligent packaging will be driven by the growing need for traceability in fresh produce due to the Food Safety Modernization Act’s emphasis on prevention-based measures to improve food safety.”
“We witnessed an evolution from no packaging to a transformation of packaging that makes produce more safe,” concurs Temkin’s Bradford.
Inline Plastics Corp. in Shelton, CT, sees tamper-evident packaging as a front-line defense and is extending its Safe-T-Fresh line of tamper-evident containers to include cups and containers for grab-and-go applications.
“Tamper-resistant containers are now common in the food industry,” states Jack Tilley, market research manager. “Rigid containers are moving toward a tighter, more secure perimeter-sealed closing system as opposed to button or slide lock containers.”
With respect to tracking, the Freedonia report also highlights how the development of more cost competitive TTIs and barcode-tracking systems will boost opportunities in intelligent packaging for produce.
Enhancing the Customer Experience
Marketers aim to harness intelligent packaging to enhance the customer experience in-store and at home. “Smart packaging provides an opportunity for manufacturers to differentiate products and build greater consumer confidence in brands,” advises Dr. Almenar from Michigan State University. “This virtual space has endless possibilities for the producer in terms of advertising and marketing.”
The industry already embraced QR codes, and technology developers are looking to take the next step. “We had some innovative ideas similar to a QR code,” shares Temkin’s Bradford. “We’re looking at applications for traceability, marketing and consumer education,” says Bradford. “The code can provide variable data, and we can accommodate this now on a variety of substrates, from sleeves to clamshells.”
Intelligent packaging technology also enables shoppers to be more informed about the products they are consuming. “Knowing where fruits and vegetables come from will not only aid the consumer in being conscious of what they are eating and increase the freshness of the produce but might also help stop food safety issues from spreading,” suggests Dr. Almenar. “Codes on food packages have the ability to increase consumers’ confidence in the produce they are purchasing and their trust in a brand.”
Beyond usage and production information, the next generation of intelligent packaging hopes to inform consumers on ripeness, thought at this point, it is primarily at the R&D stage. The Freedonia report remarks how Ripesense labels, used to detect the ripeness of pears, were developed by the Plant and Food Research Institute of New Zealand. The report explains: “These labels work by detecting certain aroma compounds given off by pears as they ripen. The aromas change the label color in a range of colors, conveying to consumers the degree of ripeness.”
The Future is Already Here
Several smart packages are already currently used in produce. Packaging offered by Apio Inc., as explained by Dr. Almenar, is capable of varying permeability to oxygen and carbon dioxide in response to changes in temperature occurring during storage, distribution, and marketing.
“This occurs due to the presence of a membrane (the BreatheWay membrane) attached to a cut-out section of a flexible bag or tray,” she says. “It is customized according to the type of produce and the package size to passively maintain the ideal oxygen and carbon dioxide levels independently of the surrounding temperature. Essentially, the package is able to sense the surrounding environment and change as needed to ensure produce freshness for extended periods of time.”
“It is already realistic to think of a packaging talking to the consumer via a smart device. You can have a computer chip communicate with a smart device and pull up recipes, production information or recall information instantaneously.”
— Joe Bradford, Temkin International
Currently, United stores carry the Apio packaged vegetables. “The BreathWay bags help keep the product fresher longer, extending the shelf life,” describes Bunting from United Supermarkets. “Because this technology allows a longer shelf life, it reduces shrink in the stores and keeps product looking better longer which helps sell the product.”
Temkin manufactures a film designed to have different seal strengths and currently used by Bolthouse in its Carrot ShakeDowns and Veggie Snackers (bagged baby carrots with a special seasoning compartment).
“The side seals and top seal are stronger than the seal separating the carrots from the seasoning,” explains Bradford of Temkin. “The film is converted into a bag with two compartments. The bag has atmospheric control along with a laser score for easy opening. The bag when pulled, allows the separation seal to pull apart, so the seasoning can be mixed with the carrots while maintaining the integrity of the side seals.”
In the future, smart packaging may focus even more on eco and sustainability issues. “There is an eco-friendly line on the forefront,” says Bradford. “Reducing the carbon footprint is on everybody’s mind. Currently, most of those options are not viable either because of cost or because they don’t compost, but they’re coming.”
Bunting hopes to see smart packaging aid shrink in fresh berries. “While we sell a tremendous number of fresh berries, we also seem to have high shrink levels,” he explains. “We are evaluating technology already in the works to be packed in our strawberry containers. Time will tell if this new technology works or not, but the goal is to extend shelf life and decrease shrink.”
Packaging developers foresee a future where packages might even talk directly to shoppers via smartphones or devices. “The industry metaphorically asks, ‘What can I do so the package jumps out and talks to people?’ But it may not be just a metaphor in the future,” suggests Bradford. “It is already realistic to think of a packaging talking to the consumer via a smart device. You can have a computer chip communicate with a smart device and pull up recipes, production information or recall information instantaneously.”
Dr. Almenar advocates how smart packaging could enable shoppers to be more informed. “Shoppers using smartphones could instantly know the period of best flavor or highest nutritional content,” she says. “Or it may someday have the ability to tell consumers when a package has been tampered with.”
Retailers look to developments in smart packaging to help with inventory as well. “Inventory control could be enhanced with RFID labels our store systems could read,” says North State’s Rutte.