Packaging and labelling of fresh produce is underpinned by an industry that thrives on innovation and change. The everyday consumer may notice little difference over the short term, but the packages purchased are constantly undergoing subtle improvements to meet the needs of the retailer or the profitability of the grower.
A major factor in triggering change was the Courtauld Commitment, launched as a voluntary agreement with the grocery retail sector in 2005 with the target of reducing packaging. The commitment was relaunched in March 2010 as Courtauld 2 to run until December 2013.
Alongside this, the industry is also driven to increase speed of wrapping, become even more efficient in minimising losses by better weighing and reducing manpower. All are factors designed to improve the bottom line.
These moves have to be set against current legislation, which is fortunately less onerous for the fresh produce sector than other aspects of the food packaging market, but vitally important none the less.
Commitment targets efficiency
Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is responsible for the Courtauld Commitment, which aims to improve resource efficiency and reduce the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector. This is to be achieved by reducing the weight, increasing the recycling rates and the recycled content of all grocery packaging by 10 per cent.
This will have a significant impact on the five million tonnes of packaging currently thrown away by British households each year. The new commitment also addresses household food and drink waste by considering such factors as pack sizes, portioning, and, through labelling, emphasising sell-by dates and storage guidelines. To date, all the major supermarkets have signed up to the commitment along with 41 brands and suppliers.
As an example, WRAP cites Morrisons "Great Taste Less Waste" campaign. Jane Speakman, head of produce at Morrisons says: "Two thirds of UK consumers regularly throw away fresh produce despite feeling guilty about wasting food and money." This campaign promotes "smart" use of packaging to benefit produce such as broccoli, for which shelf life can be lengthened by two days if kept packaged and in the fridge. "Best kept" labelling ensures the correct storage in the home for longest life, examples being "store in cool dry place" for potatoes and "keep in the fridge" for carrots. Even the Easy Pick bags for loose fruit and vegetables carry printed storage advice.
Punnet composition changed
Sharpak is a good example of a company developing new products in response to Courtauld 2.
After being acquired by Groupe Guillin last year, Sharpak has undergone some rebranding with Sharpak Aylesham of particular interest to the fresh produce market and Sharpak Yate covering mushrooms.
The Aylesham, Kent, branch sells, for example, crate-fit ranges of trays and punnets for soft fruit and salads including the SPSAir punnet which offers growers 20 per cent less condensation through sloping base vents. The group now also offers Nespak, Veripack and Dynaplast ranges from Italy, Spain and France respectively.
Its new polypropylene mushroom punnet, launched in 2010 with a natural mineral filler offered a 23 per cent lower carbon footprint than the material's conventional composition. Now, in response to Courtauld 2, the company has improved this material, known as c-LOW, further reducing the carbon footprint to 33 per cent lower than the conventional polypropylene.
This, claims Sharpak Yate, makes the c-LOW the lowest carbon footprint punnet currently available. The c-LOW punnet has been designed for over-wrapping and heat sealing with a permanent or peelable film.
Supermarkets adopt heat-sealed film
Film manufacturers, too, are responding to issues raised by Courtauld 2. The most recycled of the world's polymers is polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and now Dupont Teijin Films has intro- duced a new, innovative film known as Mylar rPET, which is the world's first heat-sealable polyester film that uses 30 per cent post-consumer recyclate (PCR).
This PCR comes from well-established bottle collection schemes. PET film is, of course, used in a host of applications but is widely applied for lidding fresh produce, fruit and vegetables, thus reducing weight over clip on lids, speeding packaging and enabling auto-printed labelling.
Sainsbury's led the way in demanding heat-sealed film on punnets. Now, Tesco is also requesting 100 per cent heat-sealed product. This saves on weight and cost and the number of rejections in store are fewer as lids stay on. Proseal now sees speed of operation in sealing bringing rewards and is very aware of the influence of Courtauld 2.
According to Tony Burgess, the company's control systems manager, developments in speed have also led to energy saving. This is because Proseal's patented technology has decreased the amount of air required in the pneumatic systems by 30 per cent yet increases seal force by 190 per cent, he explains.
After installing the new Proseal GT3 tray sealer, Scottish soft-fruit packer MT Mitchell feels it has attained high production speeds while reducing pack costs and improving environmental performance.
Burgess reports that MT Mitchell was the first company to specify the twin-lane version of the GT3, which offers the highest speeds by enabling products to be fed independently down each lane. The requirement was for 150 packs per minute and the company is regularly achieving 180.
Polypropylene preference growing
MT Mitchell says the move to top sealing from clip-on lids reduces packaging weight by 30 per cent, delivering valuable savings that enhance the pack's environmental profile, while at the same time improving its overall appearance on shelf.
Similar drivers for change are operating throughout the industry. For example, more polypropylene is demanded these days because of its improved visual clarity over polyethylene, reports LC Packaging's Peter Biggadike.
LC Packaging in Spalding, Lincolnshire, is a major supplier of plain and printed plastics for lettuce and nets for onion and garlic. It has become an agent for BrimaPack, whose in-field operated machine for lettuce automatically wraps and saves 850kg packaging per million heads picked against the standard 25 micron lettuce wrap. This machine utilises 15 micron material, which also reduces residue on heat sealing heads.
FRESH PRODUCE PICKS UP ON ORNAMENTAL TREND
Floramedia managing director Nick Mathias says that an emerging trend on the continent is on its way to the UK. "Increasingly we now seeing an interest in 'cross-over products'
- where edible plants, such as young tomato plants, are being sold in supermarkets alongside their corresponding read-to-eat fruits or vegetables with a message on them about the way they have been grown," he explains.
"The aim is to give consumers the chance to buy both the plants and the 'ready-to-eat produce' at the same time. It's something that's evolving as a niche at the moment but it's an area we have got involved in on the continent and its coming to the UK as well."
He continues: "We have done a few concept designs - labelling and packaging - for Vitapep pepper plants, for example, that were being sold next to Vitapep peppers in a number of supermarkets. So far it's just been a promotional activity within these supermarkets, but it has been very successful."
The promotion, Mathias adds, is the result of a strategic partnership, named the European Fruit & Vegetable Plant Alliance, between Floramedia, the seed company Monsanto and the European nursery Volmary.
Features of the packaging include the incorporation of a QR code that, once translated by the consumer using a device such as a smart phone, contains recipe ideas.
Beekenkamp +31 (0)174 526100
Contanier Centralen (0)1322 294267
Cryovac 01480 224000
Floramedia 0120 6771040
L&J Packaging 01902 715766
LC Packaging 01406 362511
Marco UK 01342 870103
Measom Freer 0116 2881588
Proseal UK 01625 856600
Sharpak Aylesham 01304 840581
Sharpak Yate 01454 874100
Sirane 01952 230055
T&B Containers 01205 270200
Tamar Labels 01822 833330