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FRESH FOOD: Get packing

Marketing gurus will tell you that a lot of times it's the packaging, not the product, that sells. When it comes to perishables in the supermarket, those experts just might be right. In the weeks and months ahead, the power of the package to influence product selection in meat and produce is likely to be more formidable than ever, thanks to a convergence of factors ranging from new technologies to the government's new guidelines on nutrition.

The activity level surrounding perishables packaging has been high enough that the mainstream media has been taking notice. The Wall Street Journal, for example, last month ran a story on the first page of the Marketplace section, focusing on the produce industry's recent strides in packaging. The article characterized the activity as a response to the Agriculture Department's new nutrition guidance system.

Indeed, the casual observer might be led to believe the industry had been slow to adopt emerging technologies in favor of the status quo, until now. Insiders, however, know that packaging has been a top priority for some fresh produce suppliers for the better part of the past decade. Still, the spotlight will be on packaging like never before.

For one thing, product traceability requirements linked to food security concerns will continue to make packaging more of a factor. But another reason for the push on packaging is a new government mandate to double the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and an attendant need to make that produce as convenient and attractive to consume as a bag of chips.

For some produce players it comes down to climbing into the shell. "When we look at new product development, packaging is definitely a significant focal point in the process, and clamshells continue to be an area of major focus for our company," says Tonya Antle, v.p. of organic sales for San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm.

Earthbound realized a growth rate that exceeded 40 percent last year for clamshell salad varieties, notes Antle. "What that's telling us is that consumers and retailers are seeing [clamshell-packed salads] as a way to create new excitement."

Antle says that consumer feedback applauds the clamshells' resealabilty and "upscale 'fresher' appeal." Consumers view them as "a better vehicle to protect and maintain the organic integrity of the product, like the bag," she adds.

The upside for retailers is even better, she continues, since growth of Earthbound Farm's clamshell salads hasn't cannibalized bagged salad sales. "The $1-higher retail price ring adds nicely to the penny profit, so that's another win."

Another hot button is smaller packages. At the FMI/United Show in Chicago earlier this month, Earthbound launched three new single-serve, grab-and-go salad kits in clamshells, designed to satisfy demand for healthy and convenient menu options in walk-away foodservice venues like delis, stadiums, arenas, parks, cafes, and, of course, supermarkets.

The new grab-and-go items are compact and easily merchandised for maximum point-of-sale appeal, notes Antle. They also feature eye-catching graphics to appeal to impulse shoppers. The kits, which began shipping in early April, are packed six to a case, with a suggested price point of $3.49 apiece.

Protection in a package

The physical structure of new package designs is emerging as a key to prolonging shelf life and beefing up food security, says Ted Behrman, g.m. of Watsonville, Calif.-based Pacific AgPak, a pioneer in the development of the modular clamshell for the common footprint and RPCs.

"Our improvements are ongoing and customer-driven," continues Behrman. "Stronger closing features and diversified container offerings, including display-ready formats and high pallet efficiencies, are attracting a lot of customer attention." The payoffs include longer shelf life, labor savings, attractive presentation, recyclable plastics, and reduced liability.

Pacific AgPak also took advantage of the FMI/United expo venue to unveil several new clamshells. Included in its new lineup are the new perimeter-lock modular pint containers for blueberries and grape tomatoes, which, according to Behrman, "fill a very important gap in the modular line. Growers will now be able to meet retail demand for the display-ready common footprint tray with a clamshell that can be used in automated packing machines."

A new two-cell modular club pack, which Behrman dubs "the ultimate multipurpose clamshell," can be used to pack five pounds of blueberries or grape tomatoes to sell in multiple varieties or colors, or as a two-pound long-stem strawberry pack in the 10-down, five-down, or RPC footprint. Pacific AgPak has also introduced an improved locking system on its four-pound grape container, which Behrman says will provide better protection against pilferage and potential slip-and-fall situations at the store level.

Snack attack

Sunkist began looking at ways to use packaging to add value to citrus and other fruits about two years ago, according to Rick Harris, g.m. for the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based company's value-added division. "We have done a great deal of work in packaging research and development," he explains. "Everything starts at the source, with high-quality raw materials. The most important thing for the consumer is having a good experience with your product. With fresh-cut, we need the consumer to buy the product all of the time, not as an impulse or occasional item."

Referencing the adage "you are what you eat," Harris says that the aphorism has particularly high importance in the fresh-cut arena, "where you are, quite literally, what is eaten. If the product doesn't have sell-through because it's perceived as being too pricey, for example, then the vicious circle of shrink and higher costs begins."

Sunkist has been taking a hard look at the role packaging plays in the value equation. "If he or she needs to rip off a heat seal, pull up a lid, go look for a napkin and fork or spoon, and pay $3, is that a really good value proposition? Can she really eat it in the car? Can he really eat it with one hand? Are there true labor savings? In our tests at retail, many of these answers were 'no,'" notes Harris.

His point is that in the future, produce will compete more directly than ever with snack foods when it comes to grabbing more share of stomach. "We're actually competing against the salty snack crowd, which has been quite adept at creating innovative products and packaging at attractive prices."

While Harris credits the industry with the two big advantages of health and taste, he adds that this new rival has its own advantages. "We have many challenges, including a product that's not as durable, not as consistent, and more costly to process. And the entire produce industry combined probably doesn't have the marketing dollars of a couple of the major snack food companies."

Sunkist has already entered the fray with a line that Harris says should compete well with salty snacks: The new Fun Fruit branded line of fresh-cut orange wedges (Sunkist Smiles), sliced apples (Grins), de-stemmed seedless grapes (Giggles), and spears of pineapples (Pals), all packed in easy-to-open bags. The pouches come in various sizes, most of which are based on a half-cup serving size.

"A $2 or $3 item for one serving in the fresh-cut section wouldn't do," says Harris. "Rather than merely recreate what was done for years in the back of the store and put it in 'fancy dress,' we endeavored to do what the salty snack folks already do, with simple attractive packaging and a reasonable price for a serving."

Sunkist originally developed the line for distribution in schools, "to show kids that eating fresh-cut fruit can be as fun and easy as chips, and as tasty, too," says Harris. "We created simple packaging based on a lot of complex R&D, using automated form-fill equipment with breathable films, based on our slicing methodologies, selection of fruit, and sizes."

Striving to get the retail price closer to a bag of chips, Sunkist also wants to help retailers keep their costs down. "To help reduce labor, we've created attractive display shippers for the Fun Fruit line, which allows restocking with a built-in channel strip.

"We all want the product to move -- that's the best way to manage shelf life. And if Mom and Dad are buying Grins and Giggles and Smiles, the product will keep moving."

Easy on the earth

Technology advancements have also been chipping away at another obstacle to the spread of packaging in perishables: environmental concerns. NatureWorks, LLC is a leader among packaging materials makers that are breaking new ground by helping to turn environmentally sound packaging into a promotable attribute.

"At a time when vendors must take steps to differentiate themselves from the competition, innovative packaging that has proven stopping power can be a strategic promotional advantage," notes Lisa Owens, global business leader, rigid packaging for the Minnetonka, Minn.-based supplier, the first to offer a family of commercially available polymers derived 100 percent from annually renewable resources.

Newman's Own Organics is one of the companies Owens says is now "capturing the attention of consumers by using NatureWorks PLA for a variety of fresh packaging applications, including rigids, films, bottles, and labels." The vendor began distributing organic salads in NatureWorks PLA clamshells in December 2004. Today the salads are available at several chains regionally and nationally, including Wild Oats, she adds.

Joe Sandro, director of organic operations for FoodSource Organics, the distributor for Newman's Own Organics, says consumer response to the NatureWorks line "has been outstanding. We get five to 10 calls per week from customers inquiring about the corn-based packaging material."

Peter Meehan, c.e.o. of Newman's Own, concurs. "We've seen a lot of excitement from consumers, who are glad to finally have an environmentally beneficial alternative to traditional plastic containers." At the request of Newman's Own, NatureWorks has entered into contracts with corn growers to ensure that identity-preserved, non-GMO corn equal to the amount used to make the tubs and lids will be purchased during the next growing season, says Owens.

Continued volatility in the price of oil, as well as the subsequent impact on the price of petroleum-based packaging polymers such as PET and polystyrene, continues to provide users of NatureWorks PLA with an additional advantage -- price stability. As a result, says Owens, the cost of NatureWorks PLA has already become comparable to conventional plastic packaging materials. The company is striving to continue to drive down product costs, and given the price stability of its raw material, NatureWorks PLA has the long-term potential to be even more cost-competitive than traditional petroleum-based resins, adds Owens.

Meeting meat's needs

Packaging is also breaking new ground with fresh meat. Among the latest developments with a lot of potential is a plastic pouch specifically designed by Lenexa, Kan.-based Robbie Manufacturing for turkey drumsticks sold at Wal-Mart.

Spurred by the success of its Hot 'N Handy pouch -- already in use at more than 5,000 retail locations for rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, and other hot deli foods -- the flexible-packaging specialist collaborated with leading poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride to develop the pouch.

In testing, the pouch's most impressive feature was its clean and easy functionality, which allows customers to open a flap and slide the hot leg out of the bag without ever touching the product, says Laurie Krupala, Pilgrim's Pride marketing product manager/consumer division.

"The new pouch does so much to give the product sales appeal," notes Krupala. "The fact that consumers can see the product through the bag and actually read its description adds an extra benefit to both deli managers and consumers, not to mention how it creates great visibility for our Pilgrim's brand."

The design was first tested in Wal-Mart deli departments in Bentonville, Ark., where customer satisfaction was high, says Krupala. Shoppers liked that they could hold the leg like a handle through the bag; carry the product safely, keeping their hands clean and safe from burns; store the product by folding the flap closed; reheat the product in the microwave; and then throw the bag and remains away when finished.

The Robbie innovation speaks to a major retail need, that of differentiating products in the meat case. The ability of packaging to help products stand out extends to fresh beef and pork, too, according to Jerry Kelly, national coordinator of Sealed Air Corp./Cryovac Food Packaging Division's retail task force. "This is a major shift from five to seven years ago, when most retailers used the same type of package—white tray with PVC overwrap," explains Kelly.

Now, he says, "Consumers are accustomed to a variety of packaging in the meat case. The main concern is that the package meets their needs and performs well for the designed application."

Deoxymyoglobin, or "purple" beef and pork, which can be sold in individual packages of steaks and chops in conventional retail supermarkets, ranks high on Kelly's list of recent key developments that are going to take off. "The conventional wisdom has been, 'We have to sell meat products in the oxymyoglobin, or fully bloomed, state,'" he says.

But a now sea change is in evidence among progressive grocers, led by Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, which introduced its "Keeps Fresh" extended-freshness meat packaging in May 2003. Wegmans' packaging keeps meats and poultry fresh in the refrigerator several days beyond the normal two to three with traditional tray-packs. Keeps Fresh is leak-proof, and therefore cleaner in the shopping cart and the refrigerator.

Kelly said the success Wegmans has seen with the Keeps Fresh line proves that the application "certainly works and will be the main merchandising method for meat products in the near future."

Kelly says the most important packaging-related advancement in the meat case lately came to light in The 2004 National Meat Case Study, which found that the number of vacuum packages in the meat case had increased three percentage points since 2002, to 13 percent of all packages in the case.

The allocation of meat case space is shifting, with fresh meat and poultry's share of linear feet decreasing by six points since 2002. The big gainers from the shift include processed meats (sausage, ham, and others) and heat-and-serve, both up two points; in addition, the study shows ready-to-cook, value-added products and self-serve seafood up a point, notes Kelly.

"Packaging must meet the needs of the marketplace and the consumer," says Kelly. Heat-and-serve packaging has evolved "to not only take steps out of the preparation process for the consumer, but also to provide a food safety component for the processor and the consumer."

Heat-and-serve packaging remains paramount to Duncan, S.C.-based Cryovac's convenient packaging efforts, notes Kelly, citing the company's Simple Steps line that features stay-cool side handles, and easy-open tabs that make preparation simple and prevent spills and burns.

Cryovac's other signature applications, including the Darfresh vacuum skin package for fresh and frozen fish and shrimp, laminates, and in-the-bag lines, are also hitting the mark with packaging that helps make meal preparation simple and easier for busy consumer lifestyles, adds Kelly.

Cryovac showcased the newest member of its portfolio of case-ready options for fresh fish at the Boston Seafood Show in March. "Case-ready fish is truly achievable with our proven modified-atmosphere packaging systems," says Kelly. The system includes new Avery Dennison TT Sensor time-temperature indicators. "These active labels let retailers know if a product has experienced temperature abuse. Once activated, the TT Sensor will change color from yellow to pink at a predetermined rate based on temperature exposure," he explains. Enabling processors and retailers to go the freeze-and-slack-out route, the package is leak-resistant, prevents product purge, and helps minimize the risk of cross-contamination, says Kelly.
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