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Pack and Play


Style and substance have raised the stakes in packaged produce and are redefining the way consumers interact with supermarkets, suppliers, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The trends in produce packaging are all-encompassing from a marketing and a technology standpoint,” observes Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Institute (PMA), and a judge since 2008 of its Impact Awards for excellence in produce packaging. From convenient portability to sustainability to maximizing messaging, today’s produce packaging is not only delivering what consumers desire, but also enticing them to buy new fresh food products in formats they didn’t know they needed — until now.

Fresh Convenience

“Clearly, there has been a trend in recent years toward portability, ready to eat, ready to go and single serve, and I think that portability trend will continue this year — both in snack format and something you can eat in your car,” Whitaker predicts.

Fresh produce packaged for just such on-the-go convenience is the idea behind Chelan Fresh Marketing’s two newest products: The Rockit and Cup O’ Cherries. Next month, the Chelan, Wash.-based company will re-release the Rockit, an innovative, high-graphic sleeve similar to tennis ball packaging, which contains four or five smaller New Zealand apples.

“It’s a great way to take whole fresh fruit on the go,” says Chelan Director of Marketing Mac Riggan, who adds that the Rockit is so revolutionary, it may be a little ahead of its time. “It’s like bottled water. Initially, people thought, ‘Why would you need that?’”

But as consumers continue to demand healthier options for on-the-go eating, Riggan is certain the convenience of the Rockit will resonate with more shoppers, and thus anticipates increased sales momentum.

“I think packaged produce is the future,” asserts Riggan. “They say that 25 percent of our meals are eaten in a car, so convenience is essential.”

For cross-country or cross-town road trips, Chelan created its Cup ‘O Cherries, an 8-ounce cup of washed and de-stemmed cherries that features a smart lid: One section of the lid dispenses cherries, while a different compartment provides a place for pits.

Supreme Green

“The other trend we see, and I suspect it will grow this year, is more and more sustainable packaging — both in terms of materials used and how they are applied, including the use of compostables, biodegradable fiber and an overall effort to decrease packaging,” notes Whitaker.

Even seemingly small reductions, such as cutting back on the lip of a bag that runs over the seal, can have major impact. “That’s miles of packaging over the course of a year,” says Whitaker, who adds that the industry can expect to see “better use of packaging, more consistently.”

The newest packaging from Wada Farms, in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is designed to help retailers meet their sustainability objectives and win the attention of consumers in the produce aisle. That’s because Wada Farms’ Tater Made eco-friendly bags are made in part from potatoes — as much as 25 percent.

“Packaging is one of my passions,” affirms Chris Wada. “It gives us the ability, through packaging style, artwork, messaging, etc., to bring consumers something they are going to touch, read and understand.”

The bags represent a “substantial carbon-footprint reduction,” explains Wada. “The most common response from consumers to the bags has been, ‘That’s cool.’ And that’s what we want. You can talk about sustainability, but until it’s something you can touch, pick up and look at, the concept is less clear.”

Wada notes that more growers are using the Tater Made logo, which launched this past November, and several large retailers are employing it in their private label programs.

In an area of the store where local and organic matter most, it makes sense that sustainable packaging is also on shoppers’ radar as they peruse the produce department.

One female shopper recently e-mailed Wada Farms with a message that Wada believes underscores the potential of Tater Made. “She said that she only purchases organic fruits and vegetables, but upon seeing the 5-pound bag of russet potatoes in the eco-friendly packaging, she felt that was enough for her to switch, and she bought them even though they aren’t organic,” he says.

Katharine Grove, of Wenachee, Wash.-based Columbia Marketing International Inc. (CMI), one of the state’s largest growers, packers and shippers of premium apples, pears and cherries, also sees the heightened importance of sustainable packaging.

“Today’s produce consumer is earth-friendly and wants to know that we are doing everything we can to protect their fruit, and that we’re putting it into a package that can be recycled,” she notes.

CMI is committed to seeking out more sustainable solutions, while at the same time providing high-impact packaging. “We will continue to be environmentally conscious and look to sustainable packaging vehicles, while continuing to create packaging that acts as a billboard to tell consumers what is special about the fruit inside the package,” says Grove.

Other suppliers leading the green packaging trend include Naturipe, of Salinas, Calif., with its organic blueberries in a compostable and recyclable natural-fiber tray, and Mastronardi Produce/Sunset, of Kingsville, Ontario, which last year introduced the 100 percent recyclable Eco Flavor Bowl, made from recycled materials.

Packaging Connectivity

Increasingly, produce suppliers are using packaging as a way to communicate with consumers. Whether through recipes, nutritional information, or QR codes to connect the consumer with the brand and the farm, packaging is bringing consumers and the produce industry together like never before.

“We continue to see a better use of real estate on produce packaging in a way that provides consumers with a personal link to the product,” notes Whitaker.

Personal connection and consumer satisfaction are the ideas behind a new initiative at Driscoll’s. The Watsonville, Calif.-based berry grower is inviting consumers, through a code on its packaging, to provide feedback on the Driscoll’s berries they eat.

“We’re allowing our consumer to rate their berry-eating experience with us,” explains Frances Dillard, the company’s director of marketing. “We take great-tasting berries very seriously, and the Consumer Advisory Panel is our report card from berry consumers on whether we deliver on delight.”

The code on the packaging links to Driscoll’s community page where consumers can register for the Rewards Club and participate in the advisory panel by taking a quick online satisfaction survey about the Driscoll’s berries they’ve eaten. Consumers receive a savings coupon for every completed survey.

The code on the packaging also allows Driscoll’s to trace the berries back to their farm of origin.

Connecting to consumers through recipes is also important, as market research confirms that many consumers would buy a wider variety of fruits and vegetables if they knew how to prepare them. Packaged produce provides an opportunity to communicate recipes and serving suggestions that can give consumers the confidence they need to buy.

MountainKing is one potato supplier making the most of its packaging “real estate.” The Houston-based company recently introduced five attention-grabbing Kwik Lok bag tags that recommend the best uses for MountainKing potato varieties via easy-to-prepare recipes.

The 2-inch-by-2-inch tags are designed to help shoppers differentiate potato types and their key cooking differences. For example, the bag tag for MountainKing’s Butter Reds touts the variety as a boiling potato and includes a recipe for Butter Red Dill Potatoes, while the tag for Butter Gold potatoes suggests a recipe for Garlic Gold Mashed Potatoes. The tags also help retailers to avoid mixing varieties in the same display.

Safe Bets

Delivering fresh, delicious and, above all, safe foods to consumers is a priority for everyone in the produce business. Packaged branded and local produce that’s traceable back to the farm may prove to play an increasingly important role in building consumer confidence in food safety.

“Freshness, safety and convenience are the three factors we keep hearing as most important with produce packaging,” affirms Keri Olson, marketing director for Robbie, a flexible packaging solutions provider in Lenexa, Kan.

“Young consumers think brandname and organic fruit and vegetable products are safer than their unbranded and nonorganic counterparts,” she continues. “Flexible packaging offers an easy way for this to happen by printing valuable information right on the package.”

Olson points to research that shows consumers prefer locally grown produce whenever possible, often citing food safety as a factor in their preference.

Robbie’s new Locally Grown produce pouch was designed with this in mind. “The pouch has the words ‘locally grown’ printed in large letters right on the handle of the pouch to quickly connect with the consumer that their produce is locally grown,” she explains.

Good Things in Smaller Packages

“Smaller packs that result from more frequent [store] visits is the No. 1 trend right now,” asserts Hillary Femal, VP global marketing for IFCO, a global provider of reusable packaging solutions for fresh products in Tampa, Fla.

She also sees the rise in smaller-footprint stores influencing this trend. “Urban and small store formats are expanding quickly, so the fresh supply chain has had to respond with smaller and more frequent shipments due to space constraints at these locations,” she explains. “In addition, the packaging sector is providing smaller pack sizes to meet the store conditions and more frequent shopping visits among urban customers.”

Chris Wada agrees. “There’s a trend toward less pantry stocking,” he says. “In the past, consumers bought groceries for a couple of weeks. Today, consumers go to the store that day to buy dinner for that evening.”

The result has been a decrease in demand for 5-and 10-pound bags of potatoes, and a move toward smaller bag sizes and specialty items. Wada Farms has embraced the shift by focusing on value-added products such as individually wrapped russet potatoes that microwave in eight minutes, and Small Artisan potatoes in a microwave steamable bag.

Both products offer dinner-tonight appeal, while the latter has a decidedly specialty look. “We wanted to keep the packaging simple and give it an almost nostalgic or retro feel,” notes Wada. “We hope the look disrupts the consumer’s line of sight. Like they say, lead with emotion and follow with logic.”

Packaging that Cooks

The demand for convenience is driving more than portable, healthful snacks in packaged produce. Consumers are also looking for products that will help them make nutritious and flavorful meals in less time.

From salad kits with protein to seasoned vegetables in microwaveable bags, suppliers are responding with no-fuss offerings. The recently launched Ready.Chef.Go! line of cook-in bags gives retailers and consumers a modern solution to traditional cooking in one neat package.

“It’s essentially quick and convenient en papillote cooking, which is French for ‘in parchment,’” explains Kevin Gallahan, Elkay Plastics’ director of Sirane Products. Commerce, Calif.-based Elkay introduced Ready.Chef.Go!, manufactured by U.K. company Sirane Products, in the United States.

Retailers can choose from two cooking bags — a dual-ovenable bag that pairs a combination of high-density paper and clear film for microwave or traditional oven cooking, and an oven and grilling bag that combines aluminum foil, parchment paper and clear film. The bags are available with a selection of 16 seasoned compound butters and nine sauces.

“Every retailer in the U.S. may have certain flavor profiles that best fit their region,” notes Gallahan. “This is why we offer a wide variety of recipes to choose from. How about Brussels sprouts with a bacon balsamic butter?” he suggests.

The bags allow supermarkets to showcase seasonal produce and local favorites as quick and easy meal options.

“Produce merchandised and sold in the Ready.Chef.Go! cooking bags, with their low carbon footprint, natural artisan feel and incredible cooking performance, brings retailers closer to what the consumers, especially Millennials, are looking for today,” asserts Gallahan.

The Ready.Chef.Go! line is supported by a full program that includes POS, social media marketing, advertising support and limited in-store demo support.

Art and Science

Some of today’s best produce packaging embraces both aesthetics and technology. It’s this perfect marriage that Whitaker and his fellow judges look for at the annual PMA Impact Awards.

“Visibility of the product, uniqueness, convenience, sustainability of the packaging, food safety and traceability — some way to trace the product, should there be an issue — all of this factors into our selections,” explains Whitaker of the highly competitive event.

From breathable films to packaging with micro-perforations, the technology side has evolved in the past seven or eight years, according to Whitaker, who also sees companies distinguishing themselves with various shapes: “oblong, round, all kinds of permutations to create differentiation.”

From a style standpoint, one of the most profound changes in recent years has been the use of full-color, more sophisticated designs in produce packaging.

It’s a trend not lost on CMI’s Grove. “Over the last two years, CMI and our customers have seen great success with the use of the 2-pound high-graphic pouch bag,” she notes. “These pouch bags offer us full use of color, with a crystal-clear viewing window.”

More dynamic produce packaging has also raised the bar with regard to how supermarkets want their produce departments to look and feel.

“Retailers want to reap the benefits of retail-ready packaging in fresh produce, as they do in center store, but not at the expense of their brand’s ‘look,’” says IFCO’s Femal. “Increasingly, we are seeing demand for branding capabilities with reusable plastic containers (RPCs) such as placards, sign holders and wraps. All of these trends are driving continued increase in use of RPCs for fresh produce.”

“Smaller packs that result from more frequent [store] visits is the No. 1 trend right now.”
—Hillary Femal, IFCO

“You can talk about sustainability, but until it’s something you can touch, pick up and look at, the concept is less clear.”
—Chris Wada, Wada Farms

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