Our current situation has placed a strain on the fresh food supply chain. Issues like border restrictions and workforce shortages have caused increased delays in the fresh produce trade causing large shipment of fresh produce to sit for prolonged periods of time. From the time produce is picked on a farm to when it’s eaten there’s a race against time. The tried, tested, and accepted way of packaging produce in the U.S. is not to package it at all. Most fruits and vegetables make their way through the food chain in crates, totes, cartons or some sort of vessel for distribution. This method of transporting produce through the supply chain, from farm to table, can (and does) expose the produce to germs and spoilage, ultimately resulting in health risks and unnecessary waste.
Potential safety risks
If the contents make it through shipping unharmed, the produce is unpacked and displayed for purchase by customers. This presentation of loose produce in the grocery department increases the potential for spreading germs exponentially. Germs that can be transferred on surfaces are bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. Each time a consumer picks up the product to inspect it is another opportunity for contamination and as we have learned lately simply breathing can release droplets of viruses.
Because of COVID-19, packers of fruits and vegetables are taking a fresh look at primary packaging to preserve and protect their valuable commodities and the public at the same time. Consumers are purchasing more packaged foods because it is seen as the most sanitary and safe option. In a survey done by Foodinsight.org about concerns involving grocery shopping amid the pandemic, they found that four in 10 consumers are purchasing more packaged food. Whether concerns about unpackaged produce allowing the spread of viruses are founded or not, consumers have spoken and prefer packaged food.
Two sides of the ever-diminishing coin.
As described above, loose produce is exposed to harsh transportation environments and is protected by little more than its neighboring counterpart. Conditions in transportation are rarely consistent and include many variables which effect the safe arrival of the contents. Abrupt changes in temperature and moisture, inferior loading and unloading practices, unsanitary loading areas, vibration, insects and other factors have a direct result in what percent of the produce makes it to market. In part because of these harsh shipping conditions, farmers sustain crop loss at an alarming rate resulting in shrinking profits and an inefficient use of resources.
First, consider that only 70% of all produce packed in these shipping containers makes it to the market intact and are approved for sale. That equates to a loss of approximately 30% or 66,500,000 tons of produce totaling 161 billion dollars in lost revenue according to the USDA. Secondly, consider the fact that once the consumer gets their produce home, 35%-50% of fresh fruits and vegetable are discarded. That means after an exhaustive supply chain journey from farm to kitchen, potentially 50% of produce that is purchased is wasted. The main reason that consumers discard their produce is that is has spoiled on their countertops and refrigerators. So, let’s do the math; 70% of farmers efforts makes it to market, of that, half is wasted by consumers leaving just 35% being consumed by Americans. Imagine the money spent in labor, transportation, storage, utilities (water, power, gas), processing and administration and for what, a third of their efforts?
What can be done?
Here we are addressing two major concerns, safety and waste. According to the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, some of the most important (improvements) are investment in better packaging materials and transport facilities; and more effort to modernize the organization of wholesale and retail distribution." The supply chain of bringing fruits and vegetables to market must be analyzed and addressed to put an end to waste and safety concerns. Since each grower operates differently, an internal audit of the processes must be undergone. But the main problem is that the produce is not being handled or protected in a manner that ensures grower profits and public health.
The purpose of primary packaging is to protect its contents from damage, atmospheric changes, bruising, marring, tampering, insects and contamination. By virtue of its nature, packaging and the processes around gently handling each piece of produce will immediately and drastically decrease harm to the product. Not only will packaging protect products from farm to grocer, but it will continue to protect and preserve products well after purchase.
What does produce packaging require?
The answer to this question will vary depending on what is being packaged. There are three basic primary packaging models; thermoforming, flowpack and traysealing. Each have dynamic attributes uniquely designed to protect produce for each specific application. All three of these packaging methodologies can employ various protective properties including the use of modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), skin packaging, pillow pack or atmosphere pack.
- Flow pack – Shrink Wrap – each unit of fresh produce are wrapped individually, sealed, and then shrink wrapped tightly which reduces moisture and prevents spoilage. The film can be composed of elements or characteristics that will assist in preserving the produce.
- Flow pack – Stretch – A tray of fresh produce is loaded automatically or manually onto shallow trays. The tray is conveyed into a stretch wrapper that wraps entirely around the tray to create a hermetic seal. This offers a clear, clean presentation of the fresh produce and the trays work as a buffering between preventing compression.
- Flow pack – Horizonal - three-sided seal – capable of single, double or multiple pieces of produce to be packaged together. Produce is placed on an infeed belt and or automatically handled and is conveyed into the flow pack machine where a single roll of film wraps around the contents and is sealed on both ends and down the back side (fin seal). This is ideal for most fresh produce.
- Flow pack – Vertical – flowable produce is weighed and deposited into a bag, air is evacuated, or MAP takes place, finally the bag is sealed.
- Modified Atmosphere Packaging– This process replaces the atmosphere surrounding the food inside the packaging with a mix of gasses which creates an artificial atmosphere and extends shelf life. These gasses slow the spread of microorganism and other bacterial growth that lead to spoilage as well as slows the ripening process. As the produce respires, the packaging should allow an exchange of gases to slow respiration rates. The rate of respiration can be kept slowed by a constant low temperature, low levels of oxygen, and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the package.
- Traysealing – produce (often leafy greens) is either automatically or manually loaded into preformed trays. The tray is then sealed using lidding. This process ensures the product is separated and will help to reduce bruising and marring from vibration & handling. Traysealing is also used to package processed produce like fruit cup mixes and juices.
- Thermoforming – produce, normally diced, stewed, or in liquid form is loaded into the formed cavity and sealed using vacuum or MAP technology
- Required output and room for growth. Create a matrix for all products which include every combination of SKU currently offered. Be sure suppliers are clear with equipment performance.
- Materials – partner with experienced material suppliers to access all options.
- Supply chain timeline – would MAP benefit or extend the life of the product?
- Budget - be sure the potential supplier defines the ROI. It is critical to understand the impact of implementing packaging equipment will mean to the bottom line. Ask for input regarding ROI. Remember that purchase price is not as relevant as TCO.
- Take the time to conduct an internal audit of all existing systems and look for opportunities to eliminate improper handling.
- Standardize package dimensions which the designs utilize at least 90% of the surface area of a standard pallet. This will allow for maximum utilization and reduce transportation costs.
- Discuss with your shipper the availability of multiple racks to minimize the effects of compression on each skid.
- Labeling & Marking – now that the produce is in an individual package, labeling is mandatory, but also a great opportunity for branding which great opportunity to further market your products.
From a supply chain viewpoint, hermetic packaging protects products from damage and contamination caused by shipping and handling as well as post sales preservation. Packaging that works to extend the shelf life of produce will cause a positive and more sustainable effect on the entire supply chain and the ever-evolving consumer purchasing habits. The consumer will have a higher level of purchasing confidence from a safety standpoint and this shift will decrease food waste and ultimately increase profits.