CONSUMER SURVEY NOTES PRODUCE WORRIES

PHILADELPHIA -- Consumers show a surprising degree of concern about the packaging of fresh produce, a recent survey shows.Not only that, preservatives -- or the possibility of preservatives -- topped the list of their concerns about packaged produce.That's what Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Research Network, discovered when her company polled 1,000 people representing a cross section of supermarket

PHILADELPHIA -- Consumers show a surprising degree of concern about the packaging of fresh produce, a recent survey shows.

Not only that, preservatives -- or the possibility of preservatives -- topped the list of their concerns about packaged produce.

That's what Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Research Network, discovered when her company polled 1,000 people representing a cross section of supermarket shoppers across the United States.

If nothing else, the poll reveals that the produce industry -- one of the principal representatives of freshness in the supermarket -- will face new challenges as more items arrive on store shelves in plastic bags and clamsells packages.

The survey participants were asked to select one category, and only one, from 12 categories of product in which they felt packaging needed to be improved, and more than 20% chose produce.

"That so many would choose produce from 12 categories that included meat, seafood, cereal and several other categories in the supermarket, surprised me. To me, that's a substantial number," Doyle said.

Then, after they chose a category, participants were asked to rate 76 variables relating to that category's packaging on a scale of 1 to 5 in regards to how important it is to them, with 5 indicating highest importance.

Some of the variables included, "fewer preservatives, "easy to open," "easy to close," "protect the product," "easy to recognize," and "easy to store."

In prioritizing the variables according to importance to them, the participants who had chosen the produce category, put "fewer preservatives" at the top of the list. That variable got a 4.6 importance rating, compared to a 3.9 importance rating on average for all 12 categories.

"Those who chose other categories, which included bakery, meat and grocery products, weren't as concerned about preservatives as those who chose produce," Doyle said.

"I never realized that consumers think a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables that are packaged, even the berries in clamshell packages, are full of preservatives," she added.

"Fridge friendly" was near the top of the importance list, too, with a 4.4 rating. That compared to an average 3.9 importance rating the recipients assigned to all 12 categories.

Retailers SN talked to also showed surprise that consumers are as concerned as they are about packaging and preservatives. And one marketing consultant said consumers' perception that there are preservatives in packaged produce may, in many cases, be erroneous.

"But if they have that perception, then it should be addressed. I have a bag of spinach here in front of me and there's a line in small type on the package that says, 'No Preservatives.' Maybe that should be in bigger type so people will see it right away. It looks like there's opportunity to take away people's fears by giving them the right information," said Mary Lu Waddell, a marketing consultant who works primarily with commodity groups.

Waddell, a principal in Waddell & Associates, Manhattan Beach, Calif., has a retail background that includes a stint as marketing/public affairs director at Tom Thumb, Dallas.

Doyle confirmed that some of the survey respondents indicated that they assume any packaged food item has preservatives, but she figured that a lot of that concern was spurred by bagged salads.

Many also voiced a concern about the preponderance of plastic packaging in the produce aisle.

"They said that there's too much of it, and that it doesn't fit into the produce drawer of their refrigerator," Doyle said, adding that the results indicate shopper respondents may not like the big, square plastic clamshell packages that look fine on store shelves and protect the product in transit, but lose their appeal inside a consumer's home.

"They don't even want cartons of berries. They said they like loose produce. They want to pack it themselves in plastic bags and some are going to farmers' markets just so they can buy in bulk," Doyle said.

The study also found consumers appreciate the natural color and beauty of fresh produce, and any packaging should be designed to protect not only the fresh image, but promote the visibility of the product, according to Doyle.