Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Consumers must see the produce and the message.
The steady increase in conveniently prepared produce has brought improvements in packaging from the days when salads went bad quickly because bags could not be resealed, allowing ethylene to age the produce, and had no ability to maintain the proper balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Above all else, the packaging that keeps the product fresh and safe must also allow consumers the convenience that draws them to fresh-cut in the first place.
“For us, it’s all about convenience. Packaging features such as easy opening, being re-closable and portable continue to drive our packaging innovation,” says Jacob Shafer, senior marketing and communications specialist at Mann Packing, Salinas, CA. “A clear, large viewing area for the product is popular with consumers.”
Mann Packing, acquired this year by Del Monte, is an 80-year-old Salinas Valley firm specializing in innovative products based on fresh-cut vegetables. Most recently the company expanded its Nourish Bowl line with Basil Pesto and Tomato Bolognese, two new fresh veggie pastas featuring plant-based protein.
But, in addition to offering convenience, the fresh-cut package must also be adept as a merchandising tool.
Allow A Good Look
One unfortunate aspect of fresh-cut produce is consumers cannot hold, feel and smell the food before they make a purchase decision.
At the least, then, the package should let shoppers get a real good look at the fruits and vegetables it holds.
“While packaging information provides the story behind the product, businesses should not lose sight of the fact consumers really crave a clear view of the food they purchase,” says Sarah Hobson, product manager at Inline Plastics Corp., Shelton, CT. “Finding the right balance between visibility of food and messaging that covers it will continue to be important.”
Inline Plastics produces Safe-T-Fresh Pagoda Ware, a line of resealable, tamper-evident, clear plastic containers that afford an unobstructed view of the contents.
One innovation that may be coming to fresh-cut is the doypack, named after its French inventor Louis Doyen, which is a flexible pouch that stands up and provides a larger area to see the product or information about it.
“The Doy-style is a rounded pouch,” says Hans Schur, chief executive of Schur Star Systems, Carlsbad, CA. “It allows you to brand better. In a small-format pouch, you can have a tear strip, or include a spoon or a fork. There are concerns of leakage in flexible packaging, but the seals hold fine.”
Schur Systems is a sixth-generation family company, started by Johan Wilhelm Schur in Denmark in 1846, that provides packaging, packaging machines and packaging systems.
Although pouches are commonly used for juices, they are rarely, as of yet, employed as containers for cut fruits and vegetables.
“There are few who have taken the step of putting individual servings of fresh-cut into a pouch,” notes Schur. “It is in cups with a lid. Compared to flexible packaging, this limits exposure.”
Seeing Product Clearly
Another packaging technology that helps maintain a view of the product is use of anti-fog film.
“Anti-fog can assist in keeping the moisture from adhering to the plastic, allowing the consumer to see the contents clearly,” says Hobson. “Anti-fog can result in added cost, so we typically see it with high-value contents like sushi. We also get requests for anti-fog where the contents are packaged in room temperature and immediately put into the cooler. However, typically the moisture dissipates as the contents meet the cooler temperature.”
While anti-fog materials might be most prevalent in high-value products, some fresh-cut vegetable companies see it as a necessity.
“Mann’s has anti-fogging on our packaging, and we believe it is critical in providing our customers and consumers with packaging where they can clearly see the product,” says Shafer. “Film companies are always looking for ways to enhance packaging of fresh-cut vegetables — whether it is through texture and color of the film, the material and clarity of the film, re-close and cook-in-bag features and film breathability.”
There are important packaging products that do not meet the test of offering the prospective consumer a clear view of the food.
“Peakfresh [plastic bags] are cloudy, so you’re not going to see it on the retail shelves,” says Greg Ganzerla, president of Peakfresh, Lake Forest, CA. “We have a sister company, Image Plastics and Packaging, where we’re doing high-clarity laminate films. You can go up to nine or 10 colors, and it is laser-perforated to create the atmosphere that makes the produce last longer.”
Peakfresh supplies produce box liners, pallet covers, floral packaging and sheets that maintain freshness by inhibiting ethylene and preserving moisture, and recently introduced a line intended for consumers.
Make It Last
The potential for reducing food waste by storing produce at home in packaging that inhibits spoilage is staggering.
“The average family of four is throwing away 24 pounds of produce a month,” says Ganzerla. “We have a Peakfresh bag for consumers so they can have the same material as growers use to ship across the country. Peakfresh is all-natural materials that control the ethylene.”
Peakfresh is carving out a niche in making this material available to smaller customers such as consumers, and independent or small chain stores.
“For the longest time, people didn’t want to pay the extra money for modified atmosphere, especially the smaller people,” says Ganzerla. “We made it easier for people to purchase smaller quantities. The grocery chains are making it so they want fresh-cut in modified atmosphere.”
Many of the recent innovations in fresh-cut packaging contribute to protecting the integrity of the food.
“The last decade has seen many significant changes to fresh-cut food packaging,” says Hobson. “Features that were in their infancy then are now standardized. For example, Inline Plastics pioneered the tamper-evident/tamper resistant packaging in 2006 with the introduction of our Safe-T-Fresh line. Since then, sales of Safe-T-Fresh have skyrocketed as consumers regularly look for and expect this product safety assurance.”
There are even modified atmosphere materials specifically tailored to the needs of different individual produce varieties.
“Inline Plastics uses PET to provide rigid and secure packaging,” says Hobson. “When it comes to extending the shelf-life of food products, a modified atmosphere is required to control the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Each produce product has its own unique atmospheric properties that enable the proper speed of maturation. Inline Plastics is partnering with experts in this field to offer packaging automation solutions that address these needs.”
Ready To Heat And Eat
The growth of fresh-cut produce is driven by the convenience of fruits and vegetables that have been washed and cut, and begs to be eaten.
Packaging solutions are continually developed to meet the needs of the growing number of consumers who are time-strapped.
“Consumers are more time-starved than ever with their hectic schedules and two income households, making convenience the primary value-added component they are willing to pay extra to obtain,” says Hobson. “Additionally, snacking throughout the day is replacing the Baby Boomer generation’s typical three meals. Products that can support quick, healthy, ‘grab-and-go’ items for eating on-the-run will benefit from these trends.”
One packaging feature for the busy consumer is the ability to steam vegetables right in the bag.
“Many of our products lend themselves well to steam in bag including our new lines of Fresh Veggie Noodles and Rice,” says Shafer. “All the veggies are washed and ready to use, and they are versatile enough for multiple uses such as in stir-frys and casseroles. Ideal for a pasta swap, Mann’s Fresh Veggie Noodles and Rice are on trend, and are preservative-free and gluten-free. The veggies are cut into distinctive shapes, including Butternut Squash Rotini, Kohlrabi Linguini, Sweet Potato Fettuccine and Cauliflower ‘Rice,’ Broccoli and Sweet Potato ‘Rice’ Blend and Cauliflower ‘Fried Rice’ Blend.”
Microwaveable, like steamable, is an attractive feature for many fresh-cut vegetable packages.
“There is more interest in convenience with things like steam bags and microwaveable bags,” says Schur.
There is a considerable list of specifications for the packaging that holds fresh-cut produce.
“Other features that are now commonplace include leak-resistance, visibility and convenient packaging sizes,” says Hobson. “Consumers want clean and secure containers, where fruit juices do not spill and leak, causing sticky messes during consumption and when transporting. They also want a clear and unobstructed view of the food products and contents they are purchasing. Lastly, they demand convenience and smaller packaging sizes for grab-and-go snacks.”
You can add to this list of specifications that many customers desire when buying products — a small environmental footprint.
“We conducted research into what consumers wanted in fresh-item packaging, and we found 92 percent of consumers we asked did not use the black tray (lids) for serving, per the package design,” says Shafer. “So we redesigned our vegetable platter/tray and removed the black plastic ‘lid’ of the package. Our new large tray has 38 percent less packaging material than the old tray (small trays have 43 percent less) — and 50 percent less packaging than other trays on the market, reducing 1.4 million pounds of plastic from our landfills annually. Additionally, removing the bottom tray allows consumers a bigger viewing window to the products. Sustainability and protecting our precious environment and valuable resources will continue to be top of mind at Mann’s throughout all of our operations in the future,” says Shafer.