SPECIAL SECTION: PACKAGING & CONTAINERS EDITION
Produce Presentation Starts with Packaging
Sam Monte is the fourth generation to be involved in the family business, Monte Package Co.
Photos courtesy of Sam Monte unless otherwise noted.
When it comes to looking good, packaging is the vehicle of presentation. This is especially true when it comes to selling fruit, vegetables and berries. No matter where consumers go to buy their produce - in a store, at a stand or online - the presentation is what persuades buyers to purchase.
"It must look good, it must arrive in perfect condition, and it can't be ugly," says Howard Paulson, president of Rockford Package Supply in Rockford, Mich.
Produce not bound for direct marketing also needs to look good for the wholesalers and retailers who depend on its fresh and unbruised appearance to make the sale. Good packaging is what successful growers use to assure that occurs.
Paulson is the second generation to own and operate the family company. Founded in 1959 by his father Lloyd, the business originally sold bags to Midwestern produce wholesalers. Today, the company markets a full line of packaging and services for the fresh produce industry.
Packaging prices are driven primarily by the material used to make them. The lowest-cost packages are made of paper, followed by plastic. Wood packaging is the most expensive.
Plastic costs have been getting more volatile lately, notes Sam Monte, operations director of Monte Package Co. of Riverside, Mich. "Since plastics are petroleum-based products, their costs have risen along with petroleum prices."
Shipping also adds to the overall pricing picture, and much of that is based on how much can be shipped per load. "We ship labeled, made-up cartons to both growers and stores," says Monte, who is the fourth generation to be involved in the family business. "We can ship 56,000 in a single semi load if they are flat, but only 2,500 if they are erected."
No matter where consumers go to buy their produce, the presentation is what persuades buyers to purchase.
The company rents the machinery for making the cartons to its more distant, high-volume customers. The cost of shipping the erected cartons quickly overtakes the cost of shipping the machinery, which is normally two trips - there and back again.
Labeling is another cost consideration with packaging. Paulson says this part of the business has been driven by an increasing desire on the part of growers to create their own brands.
Putting a name on produce is all about creating a farm or grower-specific brand, something that nearly 80 percent of his customers are realizing will spur demand for what they grow. "In the last 10 years, the number of people who put their, or their farm's, name on packaging has at least doubled," Paulson notes.
Bags are about as basic as it gets when it comes to packaging. "The single most common fruit displayed in bags is apples," says Paulson.
One of the advantages is that they're easy to label. Since they are soft-sided, they are a good option for fruits and vegetables less prone to bruising. "All kinds of vegetables - onions, squash, peppers and tomatoes - sold in bulk are good candidates for bags."
Producers looking for a quick cooldown for their produce need look no further than vegetable mesh.
"Vegetable mesh also presents well," says Paulson. "It is easy to label, and its colors can be matched to the produce it holds. Mesh bags, on the other hand, are a more limited market, most often seeing use for cherry tomatoes."
The sweet corn business has a specialty package called a corn bag. A plastic product that doesn't puncture easily, consumers can fill the bags up with a dozen or more ears without having to worry about corn falling out of the bottom.
They store easily next to the big bin boxes many retailers use to hold the freshly picked product. For growers and outlets, they're easy to label; for the consumer, they're easy to carry.
Cider mills use jugs, another specialty packaging line. "Everyone puts a label on cider jugs," Paulson says.
The use of wood is rapidly disappearing. "Wood is very expensive and hard on berries," Paulson explains. "If it is used at all, it's for display rather than packaging."
Consumer demand for recyclable containers caused some major retailers to pressure packaging supply houses to provide more choices. These products offer a more environmentally friendly alternative than petroleum-based products, such as plastic.
Package suppliers also sell a more specialized display package called a marketing container. This product is what growers and retailers use to display produce that will be repackaged when consumers make their purchases.
"They are a rustic, more sophisticated way to retail, and they tend to be made of softer components, such as plastic, molded pulp, chipboard or corrugated material," Paulson says.
A lot of people who sell produce on the Internet have turned to marketing containers as their package of choice. They use them to create gift packs and fundraising products because of the protection and presentation qualities they offer.
Marketing containers are also a more rigid package than plastic, which is good for soft-skinned fruit like peaches, because they offer more protection against bruising. "They also offer heat release," Paulson adds. "Peaches in a flexible bag will cook themselves in the summer heat."
Shyam Sablani, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University, is working with a team of graduate students to devise better food packaging. "The dream is to create a polymer package with near-zero oxygen permeability," he says.
Photo courtesy of Shyam Sablani.
Nanomaterials for Packaging
In the last few years, much of the food packaging research conducted has focused on polymers, according to Shyam Sablani, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University.
The term "polymers" is another way of referring to plastics, and for a long time they were the future. "They are more easily shaped than glass or metal and come in all kinds of forms: pouches, stand-up pouches, zip-locks and trays," Sablani explains.
They are also less costly and easier to ship and store.
However, there are also downsides to polymers. "Most polymers are permeable to oxygen, which is an enemy to food products," Sablani says.
Metal and glass packages can extend shelf life up to two years, while polymers can only keep food products unspoiled for six to nine months. The best of those create a high barrier to oxygen with an external nanomaterial coating.
Sablani and his team of graduate students are chasing a dream. "The dream is to create a polymer package with near-zero oxygen permeability," he says.
Instead of coating polymers with nanomaterials like silicon oxide and aluminum oxide, they've made considerable gains on their goal by sandwiching them between polyethylene and polypropylene plastic. "In addition to creating a high barrier to oxygen, it has also created a very good barrier to water vapor," notes Sablani.
The team is also looking for ways to reduce product degradation during in-package processing. Though not as far along with this research, they are looking at various kinds of polymer packaging that will endure the processing temperature and pressures as well as metal and glass do.
Corrugated materials, such as boxes, are a single-use, end-of-life product. Monte says, "Labeled, they can help to create a farm-to-consumer look that lends the perception that the product comes right out of the field. It's a big help in branding."
Most of Rockford's corrugated product customers are wholesalers and packers who take a much more utilitarian view. "They don't look at them as consumer packages. They use them as storage and shipping containers," Paulson says.
There are all kinds of containers for berries. The two most prevalent packages are clamshells used in supermarkets and pulp trays used at farm markets.
Clamshells evolved from the pulp pint, notes Monte. With their closable lids, rigid structure and side venting, they offer good protection and provide an easy way to clean the berries they contain.
There are some disadvantages, however. Since they are made of plastic, the price can swing just as wildly as petroleum prices do. "They are also expensive to recycle," Monte adds.
When it comes to looking good, packaging is the vehicle of presentation. This is especially true when it comes to selling fruit, vegetables and berries.
Recycling has become a large part of the produce packaging industry. Monte says they first got requests for recyclable products from their major retail customers: Meijer, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.
What's interesting about package recycling is that even though the retail markets asked for the products first, Paulson says the request was consumer-driven. "The demand for recyclable packaging comes from the grassroots. The stores are responding to consumer demand."
Marketing containers are good for soft-skinned fruit like peaches, because they offer more protection against bruising.
Photo by geoffap/morguefile.com.
In response to customer demand for recyclable goods, Monte's company started offering an alternative to waxed boxes. "It's a wax-free box that can be used either for field packing or cooler storage for two to four days. Since it is wax-free, it is far less costly to recycle."
Not all of the results of consumers' heightened recycling awareness has been good. One problem you-pick growers encounter is how to deal with customers who bring dirty containers to gather produce.
The EarthChoice line of packaging features recyclable products.
The risk is a real one, says Betsy Bihn, senior extension associate at Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. "This is an especially big problem for those you-picks that have bring-your-own-package operations. There is no data yet, but the risk exists."
Keep it Clean
Being in the food production business means running a clean operation. That cleanliness extends to on-site packaging storage.
"Packaging should be stored in a clean facility in which material can be stored off the ground," says Betsy Bihn, senior extension associate at Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. "It can be a room in a shed with pallets or an all-purpose barn."
The principal goal of on-farm package storage is pest control. "On farms, that means birds sitting in the rafters, rodents or other wildlife, [or] even domesticated animals."
E. coli, listeria and salmonella are just a few of the diseases wildlife and animal contamination can bring. Barn cats are a notorious source of disease contamination. With cats, one of the big risks is toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that causes a mild, flu-like condition in most people, but is occasionally fatal.
Bihn says the best strategy is to cordon off the area where packaging is stored. "Keep it in its original container whenever possible and be sure it is covered."
Monte agrees and notes that a number of his clients refuse to allow customers to bring their own containers for this reason.
Not just bags anymore
Packaging has come a long way from simple bags or boxes. Packaging science is driving the innovation. The result: containers made from a wide array of new materials. Researchers have also brought nanotechnology to bear on packaging.
Betsy Bihn is a member of the senior extension staff with Cornell's New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.
Photo courtesy of Betsy Bihn.
The push in packaging re- search seems to be targeted at polymer (plastics) and recyclable packaging. Additionally, packaging researchers digging into food safety issues, especially foodborne illnesses, are experiencing a boom in available research funding.
Dr. David Weinstock is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Tyler. He earned his mass media Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.