Fresh produce offers converters opportunities for healthy sales

With flexible packaging forecast to hit almost $15.5 billion in 1995, many converters are frantically looking toward the emerging fresh produce market for future sales activity. It's even been recognized recently by the Flexible Packaging Assn. as the hottest growth market in the flex-pack industry.

Growing an estimated 75% annually, sales of value-added prepared salads, lettuce, and raw vegetables are now an $800-million market, with Fresh Express Farms (Salinas, CA) the market leader, topping almost $200 million in sales.

Pioneered in Europe in the 1970s, fresh-cut salads were introduced on a retail level in the US by Bruce Church Inc. In 1966 the firm, then a 40-year-old Salinas produce company, acquired Trans Fresh, a one-time Whirlpool unit that was experimenting with controlled and modified atmosphere packaging. Twelve years later Bruce Church created a new division, Red Coach Foods, which merged Trans Fresh's modified atmosphere technology with Bruce Church's lettuce, carrots, and other raw produce to package HRI precut salads for fast-food restaurants. In 1981 Red Coach developed the first salad package for retail with a minimal shelf life of less than seven days.

Renamed Fresh Express in 1987, the firm soon acquired a Hayssen form/fill/seal machine and introduced [N.sub.2] flushed 1-lb salads in West Coast supermarkets. Regional processing "chop shops" began to appear in Colorado Springs, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, and Pennsylvania.

Growth has been dramatic. Fresh Express's competitors include Dole, Ready-Pac Produce, Tanimura, and Anthe and MetWest Agribusiness. By far, the market leader in supplying this industry is Cypress Packaging, a Rochester, NY, converter that enjoys most of Dole's business.

Packaging Strategies (Sept. 15, 1995) estimates that this market consumes $80 million of flexible packaging materials, including low-density polyethylene (20% of the total), laminations, co-extrusions, and perforated films. With shelf-life considerations booming as the most important property to consider, converters must have an intimate knowledge of the respiration rates of various forms of produce and understand the role of temperature control in shelf life extension.

An excellent introductory book on fresh produce respiration technology and how these properties synergize with flexible packaging material is Gordon L. Robertson's Food Packaging: Principles and Practice (Marcel Dekker 1993).

Dr. Robertson writes: "Fruits and vegetables are perishable products with active metabolism during the post-harvest period. The shelf life of fruits and vegetables can be extended by, in simple terms, retarding the physiological, pathological, and physical deteriorative processes (generally referred to as post-harvest handling) or by inactivating the physiological processes (generally referred to as food preservation)."

He goes on to explain that respiration involves the oxidation of energy-rich organic substrates normally present in cells, such as starch, sugars, and organic acids, to simpler molecules (C[O.sub.2] and [H.sub.2]O) with the concurrent production of energy and other molecules that can be used by the cell for synthetic reactions. "The greatest yield of energy," says Robertson, "is obtained when the process takes place in the presence of molecular oxygen. Respiration is then said to be aerobic. If hexose sugar is used as the substrate, the overall equation can be written as follows: [C.sub.6][H.sub.12][O.sub.6] + 6[O.sub.2] [approaches] 6C[O.sub.2] + 6[H.sub.2]O + energy."

This transformation, he points out, actually takes place in a large number of individual stages with the participation of many different enzyme systems. The water produced remains within the tissue but the C[O.sub.2] escapes and accounts for part of the weight loss of harvested fruits and vegetables, a range of 3-5% of weight loss.

Robertson follows with a discussion of anaerobic respiration (sometimes referred to as fermentation). Space does not permit us to include that, but do check out the text for additional information.

To further extend the market, fresh fruit is now slated to be the next big wave for flexible packaging converters. Fresh-cut melons, apples, pears, and avocados are soon to appear on the supermarket shelf.

To keep up with trends in the fresh produce markets, contact Fresh Cut Magazine, Box 1467, Yakima, WA 98907; 800/900-2452.


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