Packaging should strike a balance between functionality and marketability.
Originally printed in the August 2022 issue of Produce Business.
With presents, it’s the thought that counts. With produce, it’s both the product and the package that count. Attractive, well-packaged fresh produce is desirable, marketable and saleable. So manufacturers, suppliers and retailers work together to find packaging solutions for produce.
Produce packaging is generally sustainable, traceable, protective and/or visually appealing, and the market continues to be dynamic. “Making sure the packaging solutions meet the demand for consumer convenience is important. Making sure the product is fresh as long as possible is important to growers, retailers and consumers alike,” says Jason Vande Loo, director of business development, strategic products/markets for Belmark Inc. in De Pere, WI.
“There is a lot of push for fiber and paper,” says Vande Loo. “And we have a full solution matrix for fiber. In fact, we are launching a blueberry brand where they are transitioning from plastic to a fiber tray, and we are supplying custom graphics for their lidding film. We have solutions that will seal to a fiber tray.”
Ninety percent of Belmark Inc.’s packaging is for food products. The product line includes tamper-proof, anti-fog, resealable containers. Fresh produce is a big focus.
“This is a growing market, it’s definitely an area on a trajectory. We elected to put an emphasis on food packaging that meets market interests, such as sustainability and food freshness,” Vande Loo says.
Other packaging concepts are being developed. “Bio-Able solutions is a new product that Sev-Rend developed to address the sustainability issues we are facing in the fresh produce industry,” says Jeff Watkin, director of marketing at Sev-Rend in Collinsville, IL.
Sev-Rend develops pouches, netting, printed film, tags, labels and flexible packaging. Its Bio-Able bag is a recyclable plastic product with the features of a normal pouch. It breaks down rapidly compared to traditional plastics, leaving no microplastics behind. “Microplastics is a big focus in the last couple of years because they never go away,” Watkin says.
Other packaging manufacturers are focusing on automation to help address farm labor shortages and cost pressures.
“The field and packaging shed conditions present very unique challenges to developing compatible automation,” says Belinda Heidebrink, product marketing lead, Bedford Industries, Worthington, MN. “We have been building several machines to apply our produce tie, Bib Ties, and ElastiTag.”
SUSTAINABILITY IN PACKAGING
As packaging evolves and changes, growers, suppliers, retailers and consumers also focus on sustainability.
“We have noticed an increase in companies that want to explore pallets that are proven to be sustainable,” says Gary Sharon, vice president at Litco International, Inc. in Vienna, OH. “Pallets can be made from a variety of materials, but wood is the most common. Because wood is a biobased, renewable material, it is naturally sustainable.”
Litco International manufactures pallets that are compression molded from pre- and post-consumer wood waste. Its engineered molded wood pallets and point of purchase floor display bases are made of sustainable materials and produced in a sustainable process. Unlike solid wood pallets, Litco’s compression molded pallets can be nested, stacked and separated. The design saves on warehouse space, and allows for easier transport on a fork truck and lift truck.
Other manufacturers are also hearing from customers who seek sustainability. “First, how can I shrink the amount of plastic I use? You can downgauge the amount of plastic. Our SR film and tag options use less plastic than a traditional pouch, and our Sof-Net product is used in conjunction with these products as well,” says Watkin of Sev-Rend.
Recycling is another focus of retailers and consumers, he says, adding there must be infrastructure, education and support for recycling of plastic.
To meet the demand for sustainable products, Belmark has been working on a variety of resealable packages. “Sealutions is our newest product. It provides an entire standard portfolio, and within that are five different subproducts. Reseal provides the consumer with a resealable package. Some of the other options are a one-time peel for a snack pack, kid’s lunch, or multi-compartment tray with grapes and cheese,” says Vande Loo of Belmark, Inc.
“The key is to design a package to breathe at the same rate as the produce. Belmark has invested in on-site analytical equipment to test the respiration rate of fresh produce and offers this service to our customer partners. Once this testing is completed, our engineers will determine the optimal transmission properties of the package to best match that of the packaged produce. By achieving the right exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the fresh produce will stay fresher longer and dramatically extend the shelf quality,” Vande Loo says.
Another packaging approach is to use the least amount of raw material to perform the necessary function. “We knew our tie and tag products used less plastic than packaging materials such as overwraps, but we didn’t know exactly how much until we conducted a weight comparison. The results varied by product, but showed our products used between 68% and 76% less plastic compared to overwraps” says Heidebrink.
Retailers are interested in sustainable packaging options, but let’s not forget consumers. Grocery store customers seek both healthy produce and sustainable packaging.
“There is that natural fit between produce and corrugated packaging, which is plant-based packaging,” says Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president of Fibre Box Association in Itasca, IL. “Corrugated is made from fiber from trees. The trees are grown on tree farms, and are a renewable resource. Only 1% to 2% is harvested each year.”
Fibre Box is a trade association that represents the majority of corrugated industries. Most corrugated packaging is recyclable; the fiber can be used up to seven times. “You can get a box of apples, and the corrugated can be recycled, and used again for a box of peaches, pears or other produce,” Kenyon says.
And with packaging marketed as sustainable, “retailers have an incredible opportunity to engage with their customers by installing in-store signage pieces about their sustainable practices or packaging,” says Heidebrink.
PROTECTING THE PRODUCT AND BOOSTING SHELF LIFE
To entice customers to purchase, retailers aim to carry blemish-free produce with a long shelf life. That’s where protective packaging comes into play.
“Simply put, the pallet is the first line of defense because it protects the package of produce from damage during transporting, handling, and shipping. When designed properly for strength, stiffness and impact resistance, the pallet load of produce should arrive in good condition at the marketplace,” says Sharon of Litco International.
Boxing produce helps protect it from blemishes. “Sturdy cardboard boxes are typically for our apples, potatoes, cabbage, all the lettuces,” says Rick Gomez, general manager of Malone’s Cost Plus Supermarket in Dallas, TX. “Some of the Hispanic produce, like serrano, jalapenos and peppers from the field, will come in plastic crates. Corn and cebollita (Mexican onions) will come in thin wood crates.”
Gomez manages the three Malone’s Cost Plus Supermarkets in the Dallas area, and says most of its produce is displayed in bulk.
“Displays of apples can be loose in the corrugated box. Produce can be bagged or loose. It all depends on what the grower wants and how they are marketing that product. Whatever they specify to the box manufacturer, the company will do,” says Kenyon of Fibre Box Association.
Beyond pallets and boxes, packaging companies must consider how light affects certain commodities. For example, a bag of mini potatoes may have a window to see the product.
“But the light in the retail space would actually green or age the potatoes. So we try to go the other way: for mini potatoes, our clear pouch would be a different type of substrate with light protection barriers and a window on just part of the pouch. You can still see the product, but the packer has the benefit of an extended shelf life,” says Watkin of Sev-Rend.
Allowing the produce to breathe and stay cool is critical. “How produce breathes under elevated temperatures, under chopped and sliced conditions — once we understand that, we can develop packaging that extends the shelf life, which gives a better experience for the consumer,” says Vande Loo of Belmark, Inc.
Belmark’s packaging extends shelf life by 30% to 100%, depending on fresh variety. “And the other part is, we can extend the distribution range: you can ship it farther because of the extended life cycle achieved with the custom engineered package designed to breath at the same rate as the fresh produce it contains,” Vande Loo says.
As far as tracking produce, a grocer may or may not find a sticker identifying the grower. “Basically, all we are responsible for as a retailer, is the country of origin. Wholesalers should have what grower they actually bought it from; the buyer would know who they purchased it from,” says Gomez of Malone’s Cost Plus Supermarket.
Regardless of whatever happened in the food chain prior to reaching it, Premier Produce in Franklin Park, IL, has developed its own traceability system. “We tag every package and have a number that indicates to us what grower it came in from,” says Lou Minaglia, president and owner. The wholesaler has a 40,000 square foot warehouse and handles produce from growers across the U.S., plus imported winter items. Premier Produce supplies airlines (Flying Foods), restaurant chains (Harry Carey’s) and retailers (Hyde Park Produce).
Produce can be traced to the grower via farm-specific bar codes. Bedford Industries mentioned the option of adding its Print-On-Demand printer in a packing shed for more specific traceability assets, like date or lot codes.
For traceability, Sev-Rend once put a thermal label on its Sof-Net film. “But you can run into problems with recyclability, so now they are printing directly onto the bag. They are going through a secondary printer during packing to add the bar code,” says Watkin. This method permits the addition of country of origin and expiration date, too.
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How Graphics Enhance Packaging
Retail grocers that stock brightly colored fruits and vegetables can benefit from packaging that commands attention.
“Customers are more appearance-oriented than price-oriented when it comes to produce. Packaging plays a big part in how produce is displayed,” says Rick Gomez, general manager of Malone’s Cost Plus Supermarket in Dallas, TX.
“Fresh produce that is tagged with an attractive design and of a durable material gives the consumer confidence that the produce they’re picking up is also of quality,” says Belinda Heidebrink, product marketing lead at Bedford Industries in Worthington, MN.
Package graphics can include farm stories, themes, artwork, colorful trademarks, product information, and QR codes. Recipes and produce information can be printed on a fruit or vegetable’s bag or box.
Packaging should strike a balance between functionability and marketability. For example, a strong mesh bag for avocados could list an avocado toast recipe. “An interesting option is using avocado as a substitute for butter in cooking/baking such as in avocado brownies; I see that trend,” says Jeff Watkin, director of marketing at Sev-Rend in Collinsville, IL. “It comes back to education — how to cook with it, when it is ripe.” And all of that can go right on the package.
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Packaging For Grab ‘N’ Go, Ready-To-Eat
Consumers demand grab ‘n’ go, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook produce — and the produce industry has varying opinions on how to package it.
“Most of the products we buy are in a hard clamshell, for example, cherry or yellow tomatoes,” says Lou Minaglia, president and owner of wholesaler Premier Produce in Franklin Park, IL. “Some are in complete plastic containers and others use a heat-sealed sheet on top — that seems to be what industry is using more of. The hard part about the heat-sealed sheet, is sometimes after you open it up, it does not reseal that well. We want it to reseal well so there is no product loss.”
Companies such as Belmark aim to create and improve on resealable produce packaging. “We do anything from cut fruit to leafy greens to microherbs, to cherry tomatoes, strawberries, grapes,” says Jason Vande Loo, director of business development, strategic products/markets for Belmark, Inc. in De Pere, WI. “We are ready to recognize the opportunity to package all produce items that come in a clamshell. They all have the opportunity to be replaced by Sealutions, and reduce the plastic footprint by 30-40%.”
Bedford Industries manufactures tag and tie packaging: Produce Tie, Bib Tie, PushTag, ElastiTag, Snap-a-Tag, and CloseIt Clips, Flags, and Tags. It believes some packaging materials viewed as sustainable are bulkier than what they’re replacing (i.e., packaging with a cardboard container or tray vs. a flexible plastic package).
“Creating a package that uses a ‘greener’ material but requires more of it to function properly isn’t a more sustainable solution,” says Belinda Heidebrink, product marketing lead, Bedford Industries in Worthington, MN. “Our ties and tags use significantly less plastic than most other packaging alternatives, thus taking up no more space than the fresh produce items themselves.”