Packaging Evolves

Mann Packing's new packaging

Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Produce Business.

It holds the product and displays a message‭.

Not that long ago, packaging in the produce department was reserved largely for salad mixes, a few other fresh-cut vegetable products, and maybe berries.

Today, however, packaged produce is becoming the norm, as it suits the desire for food that is safer, more convenient and comes with information about where it was grown and how you can prepare it.

“You see less bulk produce than you did 10 years ago, when you would pick out your potatoes, beets and apples and put them in bags,” says Joe Bradford, vice president for sales at Temkin International, a manufacturer of film packaging in Payson, UT. “Now everything is washed, trimmed, cut, processed and in a package.”

The rise of packages goes hand in hand with tougher regulations and greater consumer interest in food safety.

“Everyone is after shelf-life extension, as food safety regulations get stronger and consumers want more information,” says Bradford. “Shelf-life-extending packages were for a few customers and items 10 years ago. Now it is far more common.”

The Package Is the Message

The desire for food safety and shelf life spawned a wealth of packaging that controls the atmosphere around the produce, secures it against tampering and affords a way to record where it was harvested, packed and shipped.

“Demand for our laser perforation, which helps control moisture and oxygen transmission, has increased significantly,” says Dan Imburgia, general manager of Packaging Personified, Carol Stream, IL. “Laser perforation is an extension of our line of breathable films.”

Security and shelf life brought us into the age of packaged produce, but suppliers have seized on the opportunity to use their packages as billboards that convey a variety of messages.

“Branding has become increasingly important in this industry, and larger corrugated cartons are often the biggest billboard opportunity that a produce company is afforded to communicate its brand identity and value proposition,” says Roman Forowycz, chief marketing officer at Sonoco Products, based in Hartsville, SC.

Most packaging even has the space to convey detailed information about the product, including where it was grown and how it can be prepared.

“You have the billboard, the real estate, to tell consumers where it was grown, and how to cook it,” says Bradford. “And you can also give them a chance to cook it in a microwave and then put it on a plate.”

The availability of bolder graphics is among the most important developments in packaging.

“We are seeing an increase in more complex graphics with the intention of the product standing out on the shelf,” says Imburgia. “All types of produce have had a graphic evolution, from carrots and apples to potatoes.”

Sometimes the desired look has a touch of the retro, and evokes in consumers a connection to the agrarian in these technological times.

“Baskets and wire-bound wood crates add an element of farmers’ marketing to the marketing of produce,” advises Jacob Shafer, senior communications specialist at Mann Packing, Salinas, CA. “Wood baskets and wire-bound crates are eye-catching, especially in produce. It is an effective way to market products within the section, giving a greater sense of freshness to potential buyers. The best way for retailers to maintain a successful produce section is to offer consistent freshness, supply and quality. Veggies in baskets or some other container made of natural material evoke a sense of freshness and locality. Grab your customer’s attention.”

These relatively primitive containers can be modified to make them safer and more practical.

“Retailers often line them with fabric or plastic to keep veggies protected and tilt the containers forward for higher visibility,” says Shafer. “You may notice some retailers use a smaller container/basket to artfully display a ‘spillover’ effect; this can give the appearance of abundance to consumers.”

The Package Says Convenience

In an age when no one has enough time, convenience is among the trends that figure to remain powerful in packaging.

“Convenience continues to be a big driver of innovation in packaged produce,” says Forowycz. “Smaller, single-serve, mobile-packaging formats are growing very rapidly. These new items are designed to withstand the rigors of the supply chain. Typically the smaller convenience packs are placed into retail ready cases that then go directly to a pallet. At times the retail ready packages may go into a larger secondary shipper as well.”

Although some produce packages offer single-serve sizes, others are suited for quick and easy preparation.

“Cook-in-a-bag, microwaveable or steamable, has taken it to the next level,” says Temkin’s Bradford. “At the PMA Convention, we introduced micro-vents, which let you cook in a microwave and vent the steam.”

Although the first packaged produce items were mostly salads ready to eat, the latest generation is vegetables cut, washed and ready to cook right in the package.

“Many of Mann’s products lend themselves well to steam in bag,” says Shafer. “All the veggies with this technology are washed and ready to cook, and versatile enough for multiple uses such as in salads, stir-fries, soups and casseroles. Mann’s also features anti-fogging technology on our packaging, and we believe it is critical in providing our customers and consumers with packaging, where they can clearly see the product.”

The importance of convenience extends to trade packaging that can easily double as retail displays after carrying the product to the distribution center.

“We are also seeing a major push toward retail-ready cases,” says Forowycz. “These cases are designed to allow retailers to tear off the tops and place directly onto store shelves. Typically, we see six or eight packages in a sleeve configuration. These retail-ready cases maximize shelf space and minimize labor cost. Store employees don’t have to keep straightening or filling up the shelves. Printing technologies for films continue to improve. New contrasting graphic designs that have matte, paperlike surfaces with areas of high gloss are being used to create more shelf impact.”

The right package for the job depends on the produce item, the typical serving size and even the distance travelled from field to produce department shelf.

“The packaging specifications depend on the product being packaged, the package style and the distribution distance,” says Forowycz. “For example, the packaging demands are different for trays versus bags or pouches. Product integrity and shelf life are key challenges for the produce industry, especially the farther the distance the food has to travel before a consumer actually makes the purchase. For produce that is grown and harvested in a country different from where it will be sold, it is essential that the packaging is able to protect the product from physical abuse but also to help extend product shelf life. Technologies, such as modified or controlled atmosphere packaging, can be used.”

A stand-up resealable pouch combines the benefits of convenience, visibility and shelf life.

“We are starting to see customers and prospects employ the use of pouches with the benefits of Vertical Form Fill and Seal (VFFS),” says Imburgia. “We offer a product called EZ-Stand that can be used with minimal changes to a standard VFFS machine to create a pouch.”

Even some of the pioneers in offering convenient produce packages are taken aback by how quickly the technology has become the new atandard for many items.

“We didn’t know how popular grab-and-go (resealable) bags would become,” says Temkin International’s Bradford. “It’s not just value added products, it’s everything. It’s everything that is microwavable, or needs less moisture.”

Many Ways to Say Green

Although packaging fits with the trends toward safe and convenient food, the proliferation of petroleum-based containers may contradict the equally powerful desire for environmental sustainability.

The challenge of sustainable packaging extends to all produce, and our neighbors across the Atlantic are leading the way in adopting one package format that offers the security of clamshells but uses less material.

“In recent years Europe has led with new packaging technologies, including the shift to lidding film-and-peel reseal films for a variety of produce, such as berries and tomatoes,” says Forowycz. “The North American market is now seeing the shift away from traditional clamshells to trays with lidding films for fruits and vegetables.”

Sustainability can be particularly challenging in the fast-growing organic sector, where the packaging should convey a message of sustainability.

“Packaging for organic foods is quite specialized for multiple reasons,” says Shafer. “Organic foods generally appeal to a niche market that is concerned more about the environment, as well as nutrition and good health. The packaging for organic food should be environmentally friendly and sustainable, but also cost effective for the supplier.”

Although there are strict, detailed guidelines for the production of organic fruits and vegetables, there are few standards specific to the packaging used for this produce.

“There is little in regard to specialized requirements for organic packaging that would differ from traditional packaging needs,” says Beverly Ferguson, special projects coordinator at Chantler Packaging, Mississauga, Ontario. “The bottom line is that ‘all containers and packaging shall be constructed to meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safe contact with the packaged product.’”

It is not necessary that packaging for organic produce be more expensive, as long as it feels more sustainable. “There should be no price difference between the cost of flexible packaging for organics and non-organic products,” says Ferguson. “One would assume consumers purchasing organic produce would look favorably on the packaging being recyclable and therefore less likely to end up in landfills.”

When the package for organic produce grabs the eyes, it should evoke the feeling that it is sustainable.

“The packaging of organics should evoke a closer connection to nature,” says Mann Packing’s Shafer. “At the same time, it has to be unique and stand out on supermarket shelves among foods that may not be organic. Organic food packaging often offers innovations in design and material. Attention-grabbing packaging helps product lines attract the right customers who will be return buyers and, if done right, the packaging can enhance product differentiation, improving the brand image of the company.”

The graphics can help convey the message that the product is a cut above, because of its apparent closeness to nature.

“Organic products typically sell for a slight premium over conventionally grown products,” says Sonoco’s Forowycz. “The packaging must help to protect the product and also differentiate it from conventional items. An example of this is organic lettuce. Consumers prefer organic lettuce to be sold in trays versus bags. In consumers’ minds, organic produce is a premium offering – and the packaging should reinforce this belief. Package clarity and simple, clean graphics are common with organic items.”