Researcher Dr Hugo Britt examines the latest trends in fresh produce packaging and the challenges and opportunities they present for growers and marketers.
After the ABC’s War on Waste placed the use of packaging in the fresh produce sections of Australia’s supermarkets under close scrutiny, growers and retailers are under pressure from customers to reduce plastic packaging. But any reduction must be balanced against the benefits that packaging provides.
War on waste
The world’s annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from approximately five million tonnes per annum (MTPA) in the 1950s to over 400 MTPA today. With 37 per cent of plastics being used for food packaging, any efforts to reduce land or marine plastic pollution must include a significant shift in the way food – including fresh produce – is packaged.
At present, a visit to the average Coles or Woolworths ambient fresh produce section will reveal the majority of apples and pears are sold loose, although market analysis by Nielsen in 2018 showed a growth in popularity of pre-packaged kids’ packs. Sales of pre-packaged kids’ apples in Woolworths increased by 20 per cent during the year, albeit off a low base.
Woolworths told Yahoo7 News that the supermarket is committed to removing unnecessary packaging in produce and will be trialling the removal of plastic packaging on a further 80 lines over 2019, having saved 140 tonnes of plastic in the fruit and vegetable range in the 12 months to June 2018. Across the Tasman, New Zealand supermarket chain Foodstuffs have seen sales of some vegetables soar by 300 per cent after ditching plastic packaging in a campaign called “Food in the Nude”.
However, more work may be needed to ensure consumers understand the full picture when it comes to packaging and sustainability. For example, the small wrapped bananas on offer at Coles stores actually require less packaging than standard, “naked” fruit, because there is a significant amount of plastic and paper between the layers of bananas in a 15kg box.
Marketed as a convenient, ready-to-eat snack, pre-cut and packaged fruit enables retailers to set a higher price point. Research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand lab in the US revealed that consumption of apples in school cafeterias was 70 per cent higher when apples were served pre-cut.
But many consumers and environmentalists are unhappy with pre-cut and packaged food. British polymer scientist Anthony Ray wrote in The Conversation:
“Packaged fruit and vegetables are egregious examples of excess plastic because they already come in a protective skin. Bananas already come in a perfectly designed wrapper … Prepacked orange segments, meanwhile, last about four days whereas a whole orange can last months. Compare the environmental lifetime of orange peel (months) and polyethylene (effectively eternity) – all for the convenience of not peeling an orange.”
This trend is facing significant public backlash, as illustrated by the public furore over UK chain Marks & Spencer’s “Cauliflower Steak” – two slices of cauliflower with herb dressing wrapped in single-use plastic and sold for double the price of a normal cauliflower. Another factor to keep in mind is pre-cut food comes at a nutritional cost: cutting fruits or vegetables exposes them to oxygen and light, and sometimes heat, all of which affect vitamin retention.
Another concern with packaging fresh produce is that customers want to handle the product before deciding whether or not to make the purchase. This means of assessing quality is so ingrained that retailers appear willing to put aside hygiene concerns (compare this practice, for example, with the stringent use of rubber gloves in the supermarket deli section).
Aldi, which has come under fire from consumers for keeping most of its fresh fruit and vegetables in plastic containers, told Freshplaza.com that the containers allow for a faster checkout experience (scanning barcodes rather than weighing fruit), keep the product fresher, and keep the customers’ hands off.
Tampering, damage and shelf-life
Pre-packaging apples and pears may also reduce damage or bruising during transport and marketing.
After Australia’s recent scare with needles in strawberries, customers may become more concerned about whether packaging has previously been opened. Tamper-proof packaging solutions may be as simple as having a sticker that remains intact until the customer opens the package.
Shelf-life extension is another reason for the use of packaging. A US study undertaken in the 1980s found that when stored at 21 degrees, individually packaged apples had a shelf-life extension of three to four weeks over non-packaged apples. Temperature, however, is key – there was no discernible difference in shelf life when stored at three degrees, and at 30 degrees the packaged apples deteriorated faster than the loose product.
Packed with technology
Customers are increasingly concerned with traceability and provenance, and producers are responding by incorporating smart technology into their packaging. Expect a future where shoppers will use their phones to scan the QR code on packaged fresh produce to assure themselves that the fruit is indeed fresh and that the country of origin information is correct (verified through blockchain).
QR codes are also helping to facilitate e-commerce in smart distribution centres where they enable robots to scan and identify the packaged product before picking and shipping it to the customer.
Tamperproof packaging and proof of source can also help provide integrity of product and protect Australian producers’ brands in export markets. Selling Australian produce in countries such as China often requires unique packaging solutions to reassure customers that the product they purchase is the real deal, as unscrupulous retailers may attempt to copy stickers or other branding to cash in on margins paid for Australia’s product.
With the growth in branded apples, marketers are keen to communicate their product to potential consumers. Without packaging, this can be a daunting task as marketing space is limited to the size of a tiny, oval sticker. Marks & Spencer recently replaced sticker labels with laser printing on its avocados, although this innovative approach may not be suited to fruit where the skin is consumed.
Although increased packaging means increased marketing space, marketers should avoid filling all the available space with their messaging. Research firm Mintel found brands who adopt clear and succinct package messaging will be rewarded as consumers prefer brands that embrace minimalism.
At present, there is a preference to put both premium-branded fruit and smaller, lower-end bulk fruit in packaging. The premium product is differentiated and quality is maintained appropriate for the higher price-point. Pre-packing the smaller fruit together increases the average weight of purchase and allows retailers to procure a wider section of the whole crop. As with all packaging, the advantages must be weighed against sustainability trends.
Innovative packaging solutions
With single-use plastic becoming less acceptable, growers and retailers are presented with a choice: either work towards becoming packaging-free, or find an environmentally-sustainable packaging solution.
Growers are responding by using fully recyclable PET packaging which can be placed in roadside recycling bins. While recyclable packaging is a step in the right direction, recycled packaging is even better, and can allay customer concerns about buying fruit in plastic.
Hamish Franks, Commercial Manager at Lenswood Apples, told APAL that his organisation is working with suppliers to look at alternative packaging. “This includes 100 per cent recyclable cardboard and 100 per cent compostable starch-based packaging,” he said. “Any new packaging needs to ensure it is competitively priced for the consumer and doesn’t compromise the quality of the fruit or shelf life”. Lenswood is introducing a new cardboard push pack tray this season which combines the ‘grab and go’ convenience of the trademark cylinder
with a more environmentally-sustainable packaging. The season will start with the plastic cylinders, but when stock is exhausted, the switch will be made to the new cardboard packs.
Moving beyond plastic, producers are packaging fruit in containers made from different materials, including recycled and/or recyclable cardboard and bamboo. Scientists at the US Department of Agriculture have developed a sustainable, biodegradable and edible film made from the milk protein casein, which as well as being edible is reportedly a powerful oxygen blocker, helping to keep food fresh longer. Packaging made from brown algae (seaweed) is another edible alternative, already being used in edible water bottles. Russian scientists working on reducing packaging on space missions have developed an edible film made from apples.
Five trends to watch
- The War on Waste isn’t going to go away – expect this movement to gain pace.
- Pre-cut fruit in single-use plastic packaging will become increasingly indefensible.
- Recyclable materials are good, but recycled is better.
- Online brands will reinvigorate their packaging in order to enhance the e- commerce experience. Meal kit delivery companies such as Hello Fresh are likely to use packaged rather than loose apples and pears to make their smart (robotic) warehouses as efficient as possible.
- The next generation of smart and sustainable packaging must be inexpensive relative to the value of the product, environmentally benign and food-contact safe.
About the author:
Dr Hugo Britt, Founder, DisContent
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