The Evolution of Fresh-Cut Packaging
Fresh Cut Packaging
What do executives need to know? What should they look for in the coming years?
Fairway MarketThe fresh-cut packaging revolution is most noticeable in bagged salads, where the moisture-controlled plastic bags created a whole new category. However, it’s since moved into many additional sections of the produce department. What do executives need to know about it? And what does the future of fresh-cut packaging look like?
Jacob Shafer, senior communications specialist with Mann Packing, a Salinas, CA-based provider of fresh and ready-to-use fresh-cut vegetables, provides a basic definition: “Fresh-cut packaging allows manufacturers to sustain product quality and provide consumers with a fresh experience without the use of preservatives.” Jeffrey Brandenburg, president of the JSB Group, a Greenfield, MA-based consulting firm specializing in package design/technology and food safety, has a more in-depth explanation for what he refers to as modified atmosphere packaging. “Almost always, you’re packaging something that’s inert,” he says. “It just sits there. With produce, it’s alive and breathing. It breathes in oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide. Once you seal the bag, the atmosphere begins to change; and by definition, you’re in a modified atmosphere package. The trick with modified atmosphere packaging is designing a package around that breathable produce that achieves an optimal modified atmosphere with steady conditions that extend the shelf life.”
According to Brandenburg, a good modified atmosphere package will do three things. “By reducing the oxygen, you put the produce to sleep. You slow down its physiologic properties, and that extends the shelf life. By getting the oxygen down below 3 percent, you reduce enzymatic browning reactions or ‘pinking.’ By increasing the carbon dioxide in the package, you also slow down the growth of spoilage bacteria, as well as yeast and mold.”
“The trend toward fresh-cut packaging is in response to the increase in demand of grab-and-go eating patterns among consumers,” says Jack Tilley, market research manager at Inline Plastics Corp., which designs and manufactures clamshells and two-piece packaging. The company is based in Shelton, CT. “These can be time-stressed parents who want to grab something healthy for themselves or their family, as well as Millennials, who often embrace four to five smaller meals during the day, which translates to more snacking occasions.”
A fresh-cut packaging type that’s been around for a while but is getting more popular is steamable packaging. “As ready-to-eat foods get more popular, consumers are flocking to vegetables that can be steamed in the packaging,” says Shafer. That can include cut vegetables, such as broccoli florets or green beans, or whole foods like microwavable sweet potatoes.
Stores that want to create their own steamable vegetable packets should take care to select the right type of packaging. “You want the container to be able to sustain the heat so it doesn’t melt all over the product,” says Brandenburg.
Fogging occurs when water beads up on the front of the bag. It doesn’t affect the quality of the produce at all. However, “a fogged container reduces the merchandising value of the product because consumers can’t judge the quality of the food contents,” says Tilley.
To create anti-fogging bags, manufacturers typically coat the material with a chemical from the surfactant family. The chemical changes the surface tension of the water. “It’s the same idea as wax on a car,” says Brandenburg. “The chemical makes the water lie flat instead of beading so you can still see through it.”
Micro Perforated Bags
Mann's Fresh Cut BroccoliBesides using bags with an anti-fogging agent, Tilley says a good way to deal with fogging issues is to offer containers with venting to release outgassing from produce outside the container.
Another option for venting is micro perforation. “Micro perforated bags have tiny holes not visible to the eye that allow gases to move in and out,” says Brandenburg. “They’ve been around for a while, but they’re getting much more accurate.”
A newer technology is bags with breathable membranes. “They can adjust their breathability with the temperature,” says Brandenburg. “So if the produce gets warm, the membrane allows more gas to move in and out.”
“The pouch bags make it a lot easier to display products on the shelf. For grapes and cherries, it also helps as a safety issue. You don’t have loose grapes rolling all over the place like you did years ago.”
— Rick Rutte, North State Grocery
Brandenburg calls fresh-cut packaging in the form of stand-up pouches “the most innovative thing that’s come along in a while. It’s not the packaging per se, it’s the new geometry.”
“The pouch bags make it a lot easier to display products on the shelf,” says Rick Rutte, produce director for North State Grocery, which operates stores under the names Holiday Markets and SAVMOR, and is headquartered in Cottonwood, CA. “For grapes and cherries, it also helps as a safety issue. You don’t have loose grapes rolling all over the place like you did years ago.”
The other advantage to the pouch bags is the ability to print brand names and marketing messages on them. “We do really well with Welch’s grapes when we have California grapes in season,” says Rutte. “That Welch’s label is obviously well-known. It gives that sense of freshness and quality. Companies are also able to provide recipes or health information on the back of the bag.”
“The quality of the graphics, the message that’s getting across and the brand management is becoming a big part of produce packaging,” says Brandenburg. “It’s all about differentiating yourself from your competition and having it pop at the retailer so it’s noticeable.” Being able to print on packaging also helps from a regulatory standpoint, he adds. Printable packaging can be used to share details such as country of origin, allergens and food safety information.
Fruit In Fresh-Cut Packaging
Because bagged salads have been such a hit, people tend to think of fresh-cut packaging as a way to manage vegetables. But placing fruit in modified atmosphere packaging is a big part of the market segment.
“You’re going to see more and more different types of produce items in packages, and in different configurations — shredded, chopped, sliced, etc.”
— Jeffrey Brandenburg, JSB Group
“Fruit tends to be the strongest in-house category we do,” says Jeff Fairchild, produce director for New Seasons Market, a 20-store chain headquartered in Portland, OR. “That stands in contrast to most vegetables. We’ve found it’s a good skinny category,” he says. “We haven’t found that the sales continue to ramp up.”
Rutte agrees the fruit category is an important one. North State Grocery has been purchasing fresh-cut packaged fruit for a year now and the program has grown. “I see a lot of people buying it for lunches,” he says.
The store doesn’t add its own marketing materials to the packages, but it does have a marketing program. “If there’s something I want to promote, I’ll have in-store signage in the refrigerator case,” he says. “The signage on the doors draws attention.”
Uniquely Cut Vegetables
Mann's Sweet Potato RibbonsAs gluten-free, Paleo and other diets gain in popularity, many shoppers are looking to substitute vegetables where they used to use carbohydrates. Produce departments can cash in on this trend by selling spiralized vegetables, cauliflower “rice” and similar products in fresh-cut packaging.
“Spiralized vegetables like zucchini and sweet potatoes have done pretty well,” says Fairchild. “Those have a pretty strong pull right now.”
“You’re going to see more and more different types of produce items in packages, and in different configurations — shredded, chopped, sliced, etc.,” says Brandenburg. “There will be more and more blends, even whole meals where you make a mixture of produce, protein and carbohydrates. We’ve seen some of that, but I think you’ll see more of it. That’s something that’s been very common in Europe for a long time.”
Another area of growing interest is sustainable packaging. “Shoppers are very conscious of it,” says Rutte, especially his organic customers.
Some eco-friendly fresh-cut packaging does exist already. NatureWorks LLC, Minnetonka, MN, manufactures film and sheets for rigid packaging under a product line called Ingeo. “Plants produce sugar in the form of starch,” says Stefano Cavallo, global segment lead for films and cards at NatureWorks. “The starch is fermented using advanced and patented processes and eventually polymerized into Ingeo plastic pellets.” Those pellets are then sold to converters and turned into the materials produce managers see on their shelves.
“Ingeo films use 50 percent less non-renewable energy and results in 75 percent less greenhouse gases to manufacture than films made from non-renewable fossil carbon,” says Cavallo.
The company is also working to develop a film that may be as much as 50 percent thinner than current polypropylene film. “Thinner film contributes to more sustainable packaging through less material sourced,” says Cavallo. “In terms of film used for commodity products, consumers care about freshness, not necessarily what those films are made of,” he adds. “For differentiated high-end organic products, which command higher prices for product and package, the fact that they are packaged using renewably sourced plastic helps generate consumer satisfaction.”
JSB Group’s Brandenburg sees demand for eco-friendly packaging growing. He also sees more interest in using science to deliver packaging that fits with other consumer demands, including products with antimicrobial properties.
No matter what type of bag or box a product is packaged in, the best way to keep its contents fresh is to store correctly. “That affects shelf life more than anything else,” says Brandenburg. Generally, bags and containers should be kept at less than 5 degrees C.
Fresh-cut packaging evolves with trends
Producers of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables continuously work to develop innovative packaging with consumer trends in mind.
For example, Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc., Coral Gables, Florida, says the company recently introduced film-seal technology to select fresh-cut lines to extend shelf life, enhance product quality and deliver an improved consumer experience. He adds that these film-sealed fresh-cut items won the 2019 United Fresh Innovation Award for Best New Packaging.
"Packaging trends tend to lean towards reducing as much plastic as possible," Christou says. "Del Monte Fresh Produce continues to pull away from shrink bands entirely. We use tamper-resistant packaging and prioritize rethinking packaging to align ourselves with the industry's effort to minimize plastic."
Christou says another trend prevalent in the convenience channel is packaging that consumers can open with one hand, redefining what is considered "convenient" and "on-the-go."
Irwindale, California-based Bonduelle Fresh Americas recently introduced Fresh Air Seal technology, which extends the shelf life of the company's salad bowls without preservatives, so they stay fresher longer, allowing health-conscious shoppers the confidence to stock up for the week in just one grocery trip, says Sharon Valle, senior manager of corporate communications.
Consumers continue to value convenience, but they're also very conscious about cutting back on food waste, says Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake Village, California.
Launched in January, Dole's new Fresh Takes single-serve, ready-to-eat salads are packaged in PET bowls that are convenient for quick lunches on-the-go and are recyclable, he says.
Another packaging trend is a move away from steam-in bags toward rigid, microwaveable trays, says Loree Dowse, director of creative marketing for Mann Packing, Salinas, California, which is now part of the Del Monte Fresh Produce family.
"We've been using these for our Nourish Bowls for a few years now but are noticing them more in the market for soups and other ready-to-heat meal kits," she says.
Doug Burris, executive vice president of sales and marketing for The Fresh Food Group, The Woodlands, Texas, says most of the company's packaging is custom designed to accommodate fresh-cut produce and maximize shelf space.
Environmental sustainability is increasingly important to The Fresh Food Group's partners and the end consumers, he says, so the reduction of plastic waste and eco-friendly packaging is on the rise.
"This is good for business, but the right thing to do for the world we live in," Burris concludes.
NEW INNOVATIONS IN THE PACKAGING OF FRESH-CUT PRODUCE
Innovations in packaging for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables can increase market life, ensure safety, add convenience, and enhance value. Many types of packaging can be used depending on requirements of the produce and the target market. These include polymer film bags, trays with ridged or sealed film lids, over-wrapped trays, and clamshells. Many ridged trays and clamshells provide protection from physical damage during handling. Sealed packaging also can minimize the risk of the product being contaminated by microorganisms or foreign materials prior to reaching the consumer. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) can maintain product quality by minimizing water loss which can reduce wilting, shrivel, and senescence. When packages are properly designed, modification of oxygen and carbon dioxide may also result in improved market life. However, maintaining optimum concentrations of these respiratory gases in passive MAP is rarely possible throughout distribution and marketing due to fluctuation in temperature and variability of product respiration rates. Therefore, product tolerance to reduced concentrations of oxygen and elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide must be considered in MAP design. The permeation properties of the packaging materials, addition of adsorbent sachets, respiration rates of the product, and the maximum temperature the product will experience must be considered. The chemical composition of the package and its interaction with flavour volatiles emitted from the product must be understood to minimize flavour loss during marketing. Functionality and convenience of the package can also add value. Packages can function as serving trays, allow in-package cooking, or contain combinations of products for ready-to-eat meals. Incorporation of innovative and intelligent labelling can promote name brands or serve as indicators of quality or shelf life. Innovations in packaging and their proper application provide opportunities to add value to fresh-cut products.
Innovative filling system for clamshell trays by GNA
Thanks to over-thirty years experience in packaging systems, GNA offers a major specialization in the development of solutions for packaging fresh and freshcut produce as well as in the production of packaging systems for products of food and non-food industry. With its strong presence on both domestic and international markets and a wide know-how, the company can count on a wide range of machines.
One of the most innovative solutions by GNA is the linear filling system RL40, which is the answer to increasing demand for fresh-cut easy to open and reclose packages. The linear filling system quickly and effectively fills clamshell trays and punnets with food products and unwashed or washed fresh and fresh-cut produce. The system consists of denester of empty trays, double filling and pressing unit (Picture 1), double lids closing unit (optional, Picture 2).
Versatile and user-friendly, RL40 was made by GNA to complete its rich range of machines, together with other filling systems as, for instance, the octagonal carousel V80S designed to fill bowls and trays to be packaged with flowpack or tray-sealing machines. Made on an octagonal structure, it allows you to customize the layout of the relevant conveyors.
The frame is made of stainless steel Aisi 304 to ensure high standards of hygiene and cleanliness. Brushless motors allow to reach high production speeds with guaranteed accuracy. Another example is the end-of-line system pick & place RVA 100, designed for filling cartons and boxes with flow-pack bowls or heat-sealed trays, ready for the next loading onto pallet.
The structure is always of stainless steel, suitable for easy cleaning. Control via PLC and touch screen panel allows to easily create new production recipes. The use of three brushless servomotors provides for high performance and precision in the filling of boxes.
Picture 2 | Double lids closing unit
…for eco-friendly products
GNA machines meet the ever increasing demands of a market in constant search of innovative solutions. The industrial packaging is in fact an element that can influence in a decisive way the image and competitiveness of a company. In fact, if until a short time ago purchases privileged the content, today the choice of the final consumer is also conditioned by the wrapping and by its eco-sustainability.
For this reason GNA continuously develops technologies that support the sustainability of materials and, at the same time, preserve the package contents. In this regard, both the new lines for the filling and closure of clamshell trays and other GNA solutions meet the demands of the large-scale retail buyers that push toward the use of biodegradable containers.
All GNA packaging machines are equipped with accessories for the use of paper and compostable materials. Particularly suitable for packaging loose products and without tray, they allow to reduce the impact that the double package (container and wrapping film) irreparably exerts on the environment.
Modified atmosphere packaging for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables
Today's consumers shopping the produce section of the grocery store have high demands of their fruits and vegetables. The items must be fresh and minimally processed, have an extended shelf-life, and look pretty to boot. One way that CPG companies can achieve all of the above for fresh-cut produce is by leveraging modified atmosphere packaging technologies.
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What is modified atmosphere packaging?
Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) is a collection of packaging modifications that work to create or maintain an atmosphere inside of a package which controls and slows oxidation of fresh food. Oxidation of food results in spoilage, off-textures, offensive odors, and discoloration. Think lettuce turning brown or apples becoming gritty in texture. By preventing oxidation, the useful life of fresh products is greatly extended and their visual presentation is preserved.
Below are some examples of widely-used types of modified atmosphere packaging:
Gas (nitrogen) flush. This component of a packaging system pumps harmless nitrogen gas into the package to displace oxygen right before sealing.
One-way valves. Often used in the coffee industry, these plastic valves allow gases to escape the package without letting anything else in.
Barrier packaging materials. These special packaging films provide decreased permeability to oxygen and/or moisture.
Desiccant packs. Often found inside pill bottles, desiccant packs absorb ambient oxygen or moisture.
For an in-depth explanation of modified atmosphere packaging technologies, see our guide here.
Why is MAP so important for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables?
Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables have a high respiration rate, meaning they spoil and discolor quickly when exposed to oxygen. Because fresh produce is minimally processed and contains few (if any) preservatives, modified atmosphere packaging technologies must take on the role of 'preserver'.
For CPG companies, the extended shelf life created by modified atmosphere packaging means an enhanced product lifespan, wider geographic distribution of their product, and brand exposure to a larger audience. Bottom line: It increases their bottom line.
For consumers, modified atmosphere packaging enables them to maintain a healthy diet in a convenient manner. It's no longer necessary to stop at the grocery store for fresh produce multiple times per week. Now, consumers can stock up in greater quantities knowing that the product will remain fresher longer.
For society at large. extending the shelf life of fresh produce allows for wider access to healthy foods and increased food security. Food waste is also decreased when produce can remain viable for a longer period of time.
What is the history of MAP for fresh produce?
Modified atmosphere packaging for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables was developed in the early twentieth century and is widely used today. Here's a short history of the advancements in this field:
1930s: Ships transporting fruits maintained high concentrations of carbon dioxide in storage rooms to extend shelf-life of products.
1940s – 1950s: Fresh apples and pears were stored in a warehouse with high levels of carbon dioxide to slow respiration. They could be eaten as many as 6 months after harvest.
1950s – 1960s: Whirlpool Corporation developed methods to replace air inside bulk shipping containers of produce with different gases.
1990s: UK supermarkets Tesco and Asda began packaging fresh-cut fruits and vegetables in modified atmospheres. In North America, modified atmosphere packaging really began to take hold when McDonald’s began using MAP to extend shelf-life of their bulk lettuce and produce.
2000s: Rapid growth is seen in demand for fresh, natural produce with extended shelf-life, leading to increased adoption of MAP for fresh-cut produce.
2010s - today: Convenience, healthy lifestyles, and the demand for preservative-free food are major contributors to the continued growth of MAP for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables.
How is MAP used in packaging fresh-cut fruit and vegetables?
Modified atmosphere packaging maintains or decreases ambient oxygen within a package to levels that are conducive to extending shelf life. In general, oxygen levels of 1 - 5% are enough to delay oxidation of fresh produce. At concentrations below 8%, ripening and maturation can be delayed.
The below list describes the approximate storage life of different kinds of produce when using MAP technologies under optimal conditions:
Apples: 2 - 11 months (1 - 2% oxygen levels)
Bananas: 15 days (2 - 5% oxygen levels)
Lettuce: 3 - 4 weeks (1 - 3% oxygen levels)
Onions: 8 months (1 - 2% oxygen levels)
To achieve these low oxygen levels, nitrogen gash flush is often utilized for packaging fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. A nitrogen generator is integrated with a packaging machine and pumps nitrogen gas into each package after filling and right before sealing.
Many produce companies are also seeing the added value of investing in high barrier packaging materials that feature low oxygen transfer rates (OTR). These films have low oxygen permeability which provides a higher level of protection against oxidation.