SAN ANTONIO -- Refrigeration companies are starting to answer the call of produce departments for new equipment or fittings to properly merchandise the temperature-sensitive fresh-cut produce segment.
According to Norma Gilliam, director of public relations at Hubert Co., Harrison, Ohio, a supplier of merchandising tools, at least one manufacturer has been developing a case that will monitor product temperature, rather than case temperature. Gilliam is a member of a refrigeration task force created last year by the Produce Marketing Association to come up with solutions for merchandising the highly perishable and booming category of fresh-cut produce. She spoke on developments in refrigeration at PMA's annual convention held here late last month.
"The [produce] refrigeration department of today offers a variety of items that require temperatures ranging from the mid 30s to the mid 50s," said Gilliam. "The standard produce case has only one temperature zone and does not offer the flexibility of different temperature zones.
"We have found that the fresh-cut produce cases haven't kept pace with the dramatic changes in the department over the past 10 years," said Gilliam.
She said the message she's gotten from produce executives around the country is that they want more options for merchandising these packaged items, such as multideck cases and flexible display racks and better lighting.
"But even more," she added, "they want cases from which temperatures can be controlled, not just along the wall, but in different zones within the case."
She said securing proper refrigeration is an ongoing problem for operators, both large and small.
"They have been discovering that their existing refrigerated
display cases don't offer adequate temperature controls to merchandise fresh-cuts properly," she said. "That is where the cold chain began to break down."
Added to the problem are old merchandising habits formed before fresh-cut, prepackaged items came into the market.
"Retailers over the years have tried to achieve a certain look in merchandising. Some have used plastic dummies, boxes, or even wicker baskets turned upside down to get that 'stacked look' appearance," said Gilliam. "But these types of displays block the flow of air to the product."
Case manufacturers are now responding to this problem by developing cases that offer better features, she said. For retailers who cannot or do not want to buy specially designed cases, other options are available for less cost, said Gilliam.
New products available include an airflow racking system with Plexiglas sides and perforated aluminum shelves, which helps conduct temperature. It fits standard cases. Another is a two-foot wide adjustable wire rack that will tilt at a variety of angles.
A three-tier merchandiser is also available that enables retailers to display products upright. With the products upright, the air flow is not cut off and the cold chain is maintained.
While prices of parts vary, an average cost for the wire shelving or the three-tier merchandiser is about $300, said Gilliam. Prices for new refrigerated cases can range from $10,000 to more than $40,000, depending on features, she said.
One manufacturer recommended breaking a large island case into smaller sections that can be individually temperature-controlled. "The end caps could then run off separate refrigeration lines using electronic pressure regulator valves to adjust the temperature," Gilliam said.
Another speaker, Bob Kasmire, a Davis, Calif.-based refrigeration consultant, said it is also important for retailers to be aware of the condition of the trucks their produce is shipped in.
"We are handling much more perishable items now, such as asparagus tips, tree-ripe fruit and broccoli florets and this makes temperature control much more critical," said Kasmire.
Some key things to look for, he said, are that products are not stacked above the load limit line drawn on the inside of the truck door, and that products are not placed close to the side walls or directly on the floor of the trailer. That is to ensure proper air flow around the products.
"Most heat comes from the road and it comes in through the floor," said Kasmire.
He also advised retailers to be aware of the age of trucks, because the insulation deteriorates at the rate of 5% a year.
Meanwhile, the PMA task force on refrigeration has sent a survey to some of the nation's top retail chains to gather information on their produce refrigeration needs. Mark Munger, director of retail programs for PMA, said survey results, along with a set of recommendations, will be presented at a joint industry conference in March.