Smart Packaging to Suit the Times

Naturipe Organic BlueberriesPhoto Courtesy of Naturipe

Sustainable technology and artistic marketing create captivating billboards for produce.

Ocean Mist Season Steam Bags

Photo Courtesy of Ocean Mist Farms

Packaging for produce does a whole lot more than just hold fruits and vegetables.

It allows for bold graphic statements, easily carries smart labels that can access an abundance of information and fits naturally with increasingly popular value-added products, which all add up to produce displays that are both more colorful and informative.

The Freedonia Group market research firm in Cleveland projects continued healthy growth in the use of plastic bags and liners in produce. “Demand for bags and liners in fresh produce packaging is forecast to increase 2.8 percent per year to $1.7 billion in 2019, slightly slower than the produce packaging average based on more moderate price increases, saturation in the bagged salad market and competition from plastic containers in salad mixes,” the group concludes in its report: U.S. Demand for Produce Packaging to Reach $6 Billion in 2019. “Paper and textile bags will continue to lose ground to plastic, mesh and combination alternatives.”

If the Freedonia Group’s projections come to pass, the use of plastic bags and liners in produce will have doubled from 2004 to 2024, to more than $1.5 billion.

“There are new handles, closures, zippers and unique designs to meet a demand from the consumer,” says Joe Bradford, vice president of sales at Temkin International, Payson, UT. “Smart packaging continues to look better, function better, and provide better control and safety for the customer.”

A leading researcher on the subject from Michigan State University sees us heading toward packaging that promises safety and convenience, but treads lightly on the environment. “The major trends in produce packaging that will be prevalent in 2017 are flexible packaging, smaller package sizes, environmentally friendly packaging, tamper-evident packaging, convenient packaging, packaging that delivers safe and fresh produce, and microwavable packaging,” says Eva Almenar, associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Packaging, East Lansing, MI.

Adding Value

Earthcycle Packaging

Photo Courtesy of CKF INC.

Flexible plastic entered the produce department in a big way with the meteoric rise of packaged salads, followed quickly by other convenience items; it remains linked to these value-added products.

“Retail chains in the United States use modified atmosphere packaging to extend the shelf life of a variety of commodities, including fresh-cut leafy greens, vegetable salads, baby spinach, ready-to-eat blueberries and sliced apples,” says Almenar. “The use of gusseting in produce packaging formats has significantly increased in the past years due to the rise in use of the stand-up pouch to package fruits and vegetables. This type of pouch design has also resulted in the increased use of resealable zippers in produce packaging. Anti-fogging additives are broadly used in flexible packaging for fresh-cut produce to avoid water condensation on the material resulting from temperate fluctuations.”

The Michigan State School of Packaging, affiliated with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is the first academic program of its kind in the science of packaging.

“We are seeing a continual push in value-added items,” says Bradford. “We have seen less bulk and more grab-and-go. It seems like a few years ago, a lot of customers went to a larger pack and a mentality of more is better. That trend has faded out and has been replaced with, not more volume is better, but more value is better.”

“In 10 years we could have sensors embedded in the container to indicate when the product is past its peak, and give the retailer a better indication on when to cull the product.”

— Jack Tilley, Inline Plastics

Temkin International began a quarter-century ago as a producer of packaging for flowers, but has since expanded its line to include many products, including packaging for produce. “Items are being washed, cut, diced, blended, etc., to create value for the customers,” says Bradford. “The customers are buying into that model of added value and are more conscious of value versus quantity; the result is more value-added packaging. Those value-added items are being retailed in a value-added package.”

Freedonia also links the rise in flexible packaging to the growth in fresh-cut vegetables and fruits. “As value-added bags, stand-up pouches and combination bags are more expensive than standard plastic bags, value gains will outpace unit gains through 2019 — and the prevalence of these package types will propel advances for plastic bags overall,” the report projects.

Produce is not only more convenient to handle in a plastic bag; it also lasts longer on the produce department shelf or in the kitchen.

“We are seeing the steady push for shelf-life extension,” says Bradford. “We are asked to help extend shelf life by providing the most advanced modified atmosphere control. The majority of bags we produce today are in modified atmosphere packaging with patented laser micro-perforation technology.”

There is a move toward flexible packaging consumers can reseal to maintain freshness after they take their produce home.

“The largest trend that we have encountered in the past year in the produce industry has been the proliferation of stand-up zippered pouches,” says Nicholas Taraborelli, vice president of sales for Paxiom Group, Las Vegas. “These pouches are not only visually appealing, but also sit well on shelves and provide re-closeability features to ensure product safety and, in many cases, freshness.” Paxiom — the sales division for WeighPack Systems, a manufacturer and systems provider of state-of-the-art quality packaging solutions — engineers and produces a line of packaging machines. “Our Swifty Bagger family of pouch machines is designed to automatically open, fill and seal stand-up bags at rates of up to 2,000 packages an hour,” says Taraborelli. “Our installations have been for whole potatoes, peppers and mini cucumbers, as well as fresh-cut fruit.” There are ongoing improvements in the ability of packages to keep produce fresher longer.

“One trend is increased use of materials, like pads, that absorb excess liquids from produce, especially fresh-cut fruit,” says Jack Tilley, market research manager at Inline Plastics, Shelton, CT. “Eliminating excess water improves product quality and extends shelf life. Sensors that monitor the out-gassing of specific produce are another trend.”

The next generation of produce packaging may even give produce retailers a heads-up that the time has come to make a decision that the product has gone bad. “In 10 years we could have sensors embedded in the container to indicate when the product is past its peak, and give the retailer a better indication on when to cull the product,” says Tilley.

How Smart Can You Get?‬

Mann's Nourish Bowls

Photo Courtesy of Mann Packing

Smart packaging that began as a way to convey essential information for traceability and food safety is evolving to also include an extraordinary diversity of information.

“The use of smart packaging is going on more and more,” says Kurt Zuhlke, president and chief executive of Kurt Zuhlke & Associates, Easton, PA. “Packages or labels will show you how to take advantage of a website to learn how to cook or take care of a produce item.”

Zuhlke, who specializes in packages, pads and liners for fresh fruits and vegetables, sees smart labels as possibly on the verge of tremendous importance in produce. “At the new Amazon store in Seattle, the network picks up your identification and records what you put in your shopping cart,” says Zuhlke. “There are very few people working in the store.”

Amazon opened a 1,600-foot pilot store called Go with no checkout in Seattle for its employees, and hopes to open this beta project to the public in 2017. Customers tap their smartphone on a turnstile when they walk into the store — this logs them into the store’s network and connects to their account. Smart labels on all the products track and record items that are removed or replaced on a shelf. The shopper’s Amazon account is automatically billed as he/she leaves the store — no waiting in line.

The company may have a ways to go, however, to match the human touch found when you ask produce department personnel in a well-run store how to peel a mango.

This may give a glimpse into produce packaging and merchandising in the brave next world.

“The technology is going to continue until it maximizes; then a new technology will take its place,” says Zuhlke. “In the future, you might be walking through a store using a smartphone that adds up everything you put in your cart, and gives you a bill. You will not have to go through a checkout line. Then later, you will get an e-mail with advice on how to prepare what you just bought.”

“I see shelf-life extension and food safety to be the emphasis and driving force for future packaging.”

— Joe Bradford, Temkin International

Retailers are the driving force behind smart packaging that allows for ever more amounts of information to be conveyed. “The demand is from the retailers to the packing houses,” says Zuhlke. “I have seen this demand grow the past two years or so. The retailers want to maximize their merchandising opportunities.”

This trend toward smart packaging is here to stay. “Smart packaging is not going away, it is evolving,” says Temkin’s Bradford. “Traceability is still a very hot topic, and packaging is the vehicle that carries that information from grower, to marketer, to consumer.”

Smart labels can be a way to provide information that connects consumers to the producer, even in a world of industrial agriculture and corporate retailers.

“Intelligent packaging connects shoppers and brands in more immediate and more personal ways through interactive/digital experiences, and shoppers are more and more interested in these experiences available in-store,” says Michigan State’s Almenar. “The result is consumer engagement and connection with the brand and consequently, a repeated purchase. Another example could be the use of intelligent packaging to inform the shopper about the quality and safety of the commodity before its consumption, which matches with current consumers’ demands for freshness and safety. Thus, shoppers trust the brand and repeat the purchase.”

The Package Is The Billboard

Not only are packages functional in numerous ways, they can also display merchandising messages.

“We see marketing companies, packers and growers educating customers on what they are doing to extend shelf life and carry the message of food safety,” says Bradford. “We see recipes being shared on packaging. We see a company telling a story about its product. While the story is different for each customer, they are carried by the ‘billboard,’ which is the packaging.”

One area to look for change is the development of multi-color, high-quality graphics on the pack.

“We have seen a large increase in graphics and higher quality print,” says Bradford. “Today a simple two-color print job does not appeal to the customer like it did in the past. Most bags have printed images, and the trend that we have seen is that packers and growers differentiate their product by packaging it in a bag that appeals to the buying audience. We are printing 240-line screens today at our plant in Payson, UT, which was never even considered an option in the past.”

Stand-up pouches and plastic containers figure to capture a larger share of the $6 billion produce packaging market, in part, because they look better, according to the Freedonia research.

Another area to look for change is in finding ways to make the extensive use of plastic easier on the environment.

“I think that eco-friendly options will be more available in the future,” says Bradford. “The assumption would be that compostable substrates will come down in price to better compete in the marketplace. I think variable data printing will be more common in 10 years, and I think we will see more diverse styles of packaging. I see shelf-life extension and food safety to be the emphasis and driving force for future packaging.”

Others agree there will be increased interest in more environmentally friendly packaging. “In the area of compostable packaging, I see a trend toward the combination of pulp trays sealed with peelable compostable plastic lids,” says Almenar.

Retailers who want to know how their customers think about different packaging options have a number of resources available to them. “There are several tools that are currently used to know what consumers think about packaging,” says Almenar. “Industry frequently uses consumer research studies done in-house: companies recruit participants based on screenings and contact them each time a consumer research study is desired.”

Michigan State University is doing research to take the guess work out of understanding how packaging can drive sales. “A survey instrument in the form of an online questionnaire was developed and launched in the United States by my research team to reach out to around 300 participants in order to determine influences of packaging attributes on consumer purchase decisions for fresh produce,” says Almenar. “A non-online survey has been conducted to learn how consumers think about active packaging. This work is being led by master’s student Chris Wilson, and results will be disclosed in the summer.”