DALLAS -- Produce officials probing for answers to questions about the industry's use of returnable packaging said the road to a more uniform packaging system will be long.
Still, some retailers said they believe there may be great benefit to a single system of packaging.
"It's not an easy thing; it's fraught with challenges," said Bruce Peterson, produce director at Wal-Mart Supercenters, Bentonville, Ark., who is serving on the industry's Produce and Floral Task Force on Returnable Packaging. "But what we don't want is 50 closed-loop systems."
In its first meeting, the task force identified a number of areas it will most likely address, including development of the container footprint, uniformity and regulatory issues.
The group, made up of retailers, grower-shippers and packaging manufacturers, was put together under the auspices of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., after several organizations at the PMA's 1996 convention in Atlanta requested the issue be addressed.
"This is obviously very important," said Terry Humfeld, vice president of division programs for the PMA. "Everybody needs to be involved."
The major issues to come out of the meeting will be divided into two categories.
The first category will deal with the container footprint, compatibility among manufacturers, and performance and design criteria. The second category will include regulatory issues, marketing and merchandising issues and logistical issues.
"We're going to have working groups that break apart and work on particular issues," Peterson said.
At the meeting the task force reaffirmed its mission, which is "to identify and develop voluntary specifications for returnable packaging used in the produce and floral industries."
"We, as a task force, hope that our eventual recommendations will limit disruption in the marketplace if returnable packaging becomes more common in the industry," said Horace Hamilton, produce merchandiser at Kroger Co.'s Atlanta division, in a statement. Hamilton is co-chairman of the task force.
While task force members said the investigation will most likely be a long process, one admitted that a number of retailers may be champing at the bit to see results.
"This is not just in the talking stages," Peterson said, adding that some retailers are looking into testing several different returnable packaging methods in their produce operations in the near future.
For the time being, however, officials for the PMA say they want to let the industry decide if a move toward returnable packaging is feasible.
Peterson added that if the industry decides returnable packaging is what it wants, there should be only one standard size.
"A producer doesn't want to standardize six or seven times," he said.
There are several packaging methods employed in the United States, including the use of corrugated cardboard boxes.
Relating to this fact, Peterson said two questions will be addressed by the task force in its very early stages.
"We have to see what are the cost savings with the multiple- use aspect," he said, "and then what are the cost savings of standardization.
"Corrugated can still become standardized as well."
Should the industry be in favor of a different packaging procedure than the current one, the PMA wants to set standards to make returnable packaging materials uniform industrywide.
"Our goal is just to develop the voluntary specifications to make this transition easier for those who choose to use returnable packaging," Hamilton said.
"We are not promoting or endorsing the use of returnable packaging in the produce industry."
The task force heard a number of presentations regarding the use of returnable packaging for produce, including an update on the Canadian Produce Marketing Association's efforts in examining a cost-competitive and standardized reusable container system for the Canadian produce industry.
Currently, the task force has 22 members from all industry backgrounds.
"There was no science to our selection," Humfeld said. "We worked with the co-chairs to identify those folks whom they knew have a broad base of knowledge.
"The science was to make sure we had a good cross section of people."
Several other retailers on the task force are Peter Goulet, category manager at Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, and Matthew Wright at A&P, Montvale, N.J.
Other task force members include Paul Yoder, Dole Foods, Westlake Village, Calif., who is serving as co-chairman; Gene Carreiro, Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Watsonville, Calif.; Jackie Caplan-Wiggins, Frieda's, Los Alamitos, Calif.; Ken Mulhall, National Grocers Co., Weston, Ontario; Laurie Stern, Sunkist, Van Nuys, Calif.; Michael Kemp, Supervalu, Minneapolis; and Eric Wexler, Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif.
The 14-member steering committee consists of various industry organizations, including the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va; the Association of Floral Importers of Florida; and the Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Orlando, Fla.