Some changes are brought about by revolution, others by regular and steady evolution. But by whatever means it occurs, change is a constant factor in business and something that continually occupies the minds of progressive growers.
The last revolution in packaging for fruit and fresh produce was probably the introduction, and increasingly widespread use, of printed film to replace lids in packaging lines. Companies such as Proseal and Marco continue to respond to interest in high capital value machinery to apply flexible heat-sealed film lids instead of the traditional clip-on types, reducing the amount of plastic in a tray or punnet by 30 per cent. The machines put film lids on trays that have been filled in the field and test-weighed in the packing house. The ventilated lid is flexible, pre-printed polyester, 20 microns thick, from a roll.
There has been a wholesale move towards this technology, according to Nic Marston of Berry Garden Growers, who sees the saving in weight per package as justifying the significant capital outlay. Pre-printed films also remove the need for paper labels.
Proseal's Tony Burgess confirms this. "Since Fruit Focus in 2009 we have seen a 50 per cent increase in sales of this technology," he says. "Admittedly, it is a finite market and ultimately it will bottom out, but growers are now returning to invest in printing equipment for supplying weight and coding information to pre-printed film, thus removing the need for paper labels."
Crystal ball gazing is difficult in this sector, but Burgess is prepared to speculate that more robust produce, such as cherries, may eventually move to plastic bags to reduce weight and cost.
Retailers are always driven by environmental concerns and Proseal are considering the technology required to seal punnets fabricated from recyclable and compostable tapioca or cardboard pulp. Burgess believes that re-sealable tops could be on the horizon, this time in response to consumer demand.
Compostable punnets are already available. Produce Packaging has been working with Potatopak to develop a range of trays and Punnets suitable for the fresh produce industry. The point of difference with Potatopak products is that they are manufactured from potato starch. The products are available in a variety of colours and models and will completely biodegrade within a period of approximately two weeks to two months - depending on composting conditions - leaving only natural mineral traces in their passing.
An innovation that has seen an amazing 460 per cent sales growth in year two since launch is the Dri Fresh resolve fruit pad from Sirane. Fruit sales manager Sandra Evans claims the sales growth was largely driven by growers and packers who welcomed the extended shelf life brought about by the micro-porous and perforated-yet-absorbent layer placed at the base of punnets.Sirane's unique pads, manufactured in Shropshire and now exported worldwide, replace the once widely used bubble wrap pad and have the advantage of being biodegradable. The product has direct food contact approval and temperature insulation properties.
Developments that are more evolutionary than revolutionary include subtle design changes that allow punnets to be stacked more efficiently into crates. The arrangement involving two layers of eight punnets has been largely replaced by 2x9, or even 9 +10, in a sloping crate giving 18 or 19 punnets per crate.
It is companies like Sharp Interpak that spearhead this kind of development. The company has introduced new design technologies this year, such as modified atmosphere packaging and SPS air for soft fruit, which extends the shelf life of fresh food products.
"Modified atmosphere packaging substitutes the atmospheric air inside a package with a protective gas mix that helps ensure the product stays fresh for as long as possible, while SPS air offers significant air flow improvements through sloping vents in the base, which aids fruit conservation and helps to preserve the food in transit, at the supermarket and in the fridge," explains Sharp Interpack Yate managing director Andrew Copson.
Enhanced shelf life and reduced food wastage provide huge benefits to the consumer and the environment, but it also benefits growers by retaining the freshness and quality of produce for longer, claims Copson. This means customers have a better chance of receiving the product as it was intended, boosting chances of repeat purchases.
Cost and weight savings brought about by packaging innovations can sometimes be undermined, according to Marston. The large strawberry punnet at peak season (from around 20 June onward) would normally contain around 450g. To optimise price, early season punnets would be packed with 400g, but this year the buyers requested 400g packs all season. Thus 20 per cent more packs were required for a given tonnage later in the season. The result was increased numbers of packs sold over the whole season, but decreased tonnage of fruit.
This is "undesirable", says Marston. Smaller weights earlier in the season maximise value to the grower, but maintaining this later causes customer resistance and negates savings in transport costs.
It might be assumed that much of the interest in biodegradability and weight-saving stems from supermarkets' desire to uphold the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement between the Waste & Resources Action Programme and major UK grocery organisations supporting less packaging and food waste. It is a powerful vehicle for change and in 2008 led to zero growth in packaging despite increase in sales and population.
There are, however, many growers who also believe passionately in their responsibilities towards the environment. Marion Regan, soft fruit grower at Hugh Lower Farms in Kent, follows the packaging prescriptions of Berry Garden Growers, which in turn are laid down by the retailers. She also stresses the importance of packaging and pack loading on profitability, but considers her concern for her company's packaging carbon footprint to be a unique selling point. "It is difficult to innovate because innovations come from supermarkets," she says. "Both Berry Gardens and I would really welcome the opportunity to get more involved in this area."
However, with a significant market in London and in farm shops for her produce, Regan has the opportunity to supply at least a proportion of her sales in original recyclable cardboard, itself produced from recycled pulp. There is, it seems, real demand from speciality consumers for such attributes in packaging.
Because environmentally-friendly packaging that reduces carbon footprint is increasingly becoming a key concern for packagers, retailers, consumers and growers, it is a priority in the development programmes of manufacturers.
One of the many developments put into place to reduce carbon footprint by Sharp Interpack is a product currently in use in mushroom packaging, sold under the brand name c-LOW. This represents a reduction in virgin petro-chemical content which, claims Sharp, makes it one of the lowest carbon footprint punnets available on the market today. Although light in weight, it is reinforced by ribs to maintain rigidity in transportation.
Evolution has also played its part in the packaging of apples and pears. There is a steadily increasing demand for these crops to be packed in polythene bags rather than sold loose. Today, three out of every four kilos of apples and pears are sold this way. Similarly, sales of four pack over-wrapped trays are on the increase.
The driver for change in this instance is definitely consumer convenience. This is the view of English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow, backed up by incontrovertible supermarket sales data.
The impact on the grower is additional expense, not only in the cost of the polythene bags and printing, but also the cost of the outer crate.
Historically, polythene bags were used for smaller fruit and resulted in greater crop utilisation, thus benefiting the industry. Today they are widely used in all but the very large apple, greater than 75mm. It is very large, that is, for the British consumer - it seems we prefer apples between 63 and 75mm.
To keep the packaging cost of apple or pears per kilo to a minimum, it is important to maximise the number of bags in each outer pack. This factor is the major limitation on the poly packing of these fruit and why larger apples are always sold loose. The polythene bag has enabled a trade of smaller apples to develop for school lunch and "fun packs".
The trend to pack in plastic bags is set to grow a little more, according to Barlow, but not, he estimates, beyond 80 per cent of the total fruit sold.
Proseal UK, Adlington Estate, Adlington, Cheshire SK10 4NL
Tel: 01625 856600 Fax: 01625 856611
Marco UK, Wilderwick Road,East Grinstead, West Sussex RH19 3NT
Tel: 01342 870103
- Berry Garden Growers, Tatlingbury Oast, Five Oak Green, Tonbridge, Kent TN12 6RG
Tel: 01892 834064
- Produce Packaging, Unit 10,
Wheelbarrow Park, Pattenden Lane, Marden, Tonbridge, Kent TN12 9QJ
Tel: 01622 831423
Fax: 01622 832500
- Sirane, European Development Centre, Stafford Park 6, Telford TF3 3AT
Tel: 01952 230055
Fax: 01952 210065
- Sharp Interpack, Yate Highway, Yate, Bristol, BS37 7AA
Tel: 01454 874100
Fax: 01454 874101
- Hugh Lowe Farms, Barons Place, Mereworth, Maidstone, Kent ME18 5NF
Tel: 01622 812229
Fax: 01622 813489
- English Apples & Pears, Forest Lodge, Bulls Hill, Walford, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 5RH
Tel: 01732 529781