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Packaging is becoming a potent weapon for retailers selling fresh-cut produce, deli products and prepared meals.To that end, the latest wave of containers offers many benefits, to consumers as well as retailers. Among the selling points: greater convenience, more visual appeal and improved heat performance. But innovation comes at a price, and the cost can pose a dilemma to retailers."Everyone's looking

Packaging is becoming a potent weapon for retailers selling fresh-cut produce, deli products and prepared meals.

To that end, the latest wave of containers offers many benefits, to consumers as well as retailers. Among the selling points: greater convenience, more visual appeal and improved heat performance. But innovation comes at a price, and the cost can pose a dilemma to retailers.

"Everyone's looking at the packaging issue," said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandising manager of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark. "Microwave-friendly packaging is all over the place now, as is packaging that's more utilitarian in nature, such as containers for ready-to-eat salads that also double as a serving bowl."

None are focused on the issue more intently than the packaging companies that furnish products to supermarkets or their suppliers. Innovation, after all, is the lifeblood of companies in the competitive packaging materials business. Growing demand for making fresh foods more user-friendly has fired off a new round of research and development in that industry.

Packaging that improves the preparation of fresh foods, most notably in the microwave, has been a focal point of product development. Microwave-friendly packaging is hardly new, but the focus is on creating packaging that vastly improves the outcome and expands the number of foods that can be easily microwaved.

Cryovac Food Packaging, a division of Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., is working to increase its trademarked packaging concept to fresh fruits and vegetables. Already being used with precooked meat products like meat loaf and pot roast, the packaging is being adapted for use with vegetables. Cryovac is touting it as a better way to cook raw, fresh veggies in the microwave, using steam generated by heating the water in and around the product.

Consisting of a plastic tray with a breathable, vacuum skin film that wraps around the food, the packaging is designed for use in a microwave, without the need for venting the film cover either through piercing or peeling back. As the tray is heated, the film slowly inflates, allowing the product to be warmed with steam and excess heat to be vented. After it warms up, the film layer is peeled back and the food is ready to eat.

Designed primarily for use with fresh vegetables, but also capable of being used with frozen versions, the packaging is being tested with processors and retailers. Initial tests have focused on vegetables commonly steamed, such as broccoli and cauliflower florets, carrots, snap peas and asparagus. Plans call for rolling out the packaging in the first quarter of 2006.

"It's a way for retailers to deliver a healthy product to consumers that's also convenient," said Myra Foster, Cryovac's manager of new business development. "Retailers and processors we've talked with say they're intrigued by the pack, and consumers we've surveyed liked the concept because it provided a fresh, cleaned and cut, ready-to-go product."

In addition to being microwave-ready, the packaging is designed to maintain the product's freshness and enhance its appearance on the shelf. The permeable film, Foster said, will give the product about a two-week shelf life.

"Because the clear film adheres to the product, its color and shape comes through and is clearly visible through the top of the package," Foster said.

Another microwave steaming concept that's being tested for vegetables is one pioneered by PPI Technologies, Sarasota, Fla. The company has developed packaging that incorporates a compartment that slowly releases water into a product compartment as it's heated, venting the steam in the process.

The packaging has been tested on products such as green beans, asparagus and sweet potatoes, and has shown some commercial success in overseas markets, said Charles Murray, the company's chief executive officer. The company is also testing a version of its Fine Cuisine line of microwave steam-cooking packaging for ears of sweet corn with a supplier and one retail chain in the southern United States.

Containers that supermarkets can use to improve usability and appearance also are getting a look from suppliers.

Anchor Packaging, St. Louis, recently enhanced its line of multi-compartment plastic packaging used to merchandise deli products and fresh prepared meals. Its Culinary Classics containers incorporate a unique blend of polypropylene that can not only stand up to microwave temperatures up to 240 degrees Fahrenheit, but also is transparent enough to let customers see the product inside.

"Polypropylene has a tremendous ability to withstand heat, but the downside is that it has the transparency of milk-jug packaging," said Mike Thaler, vice president of marketing. "With this proprietary material we're using, HMR-type products have improved merchandisability, because the food can clearly be seen. In addition, the new material also prevents condensation from forming with hot products, which can obscure the view."

Thaler said the packaging is likely to be a hit with supermarkets that have had to sacrifice aesthetics for microwavability. "Anyone with a hot deli case or HMR program is going to like this packaging," Thaler said. "Visual appeal is key to these types of food programs, because there's not a brand name on these products that people can just blindly put their trust in."

Designing containers for ease of preparation and ready-to-eat convenience are major goals for packaging companies. The most visible efforts have come in the fresh-cut produce sector, most notably with bagged salads.

The new frontier, though, is fresh-cut fruit, which presents an entirely new challenge. With a higher water content and even more perishable than cut vegetables, cut fruit requires packaging that can overcome the rigors of the distribution chain and deliver a product that retains the freshness and flavor of whole fruit.

The cost of packaging can be a problem, Peterson said.

"Unlike a piece of meat with a retail price of $6.99 a pound, fresh-cut fruit presents a scenario in which the contents of the container are cheaper than the packaging needed to bring it to market," he said. "The challenge is to find something that allows you to package and ship it but doesn't result in it costing three times as much as the product."

Not all packaging developments are high-tech. An example is the rapidly growing interest in clamshells for fresh produce. Salad mixes, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, cherries and a host of other whole fresh produce items are increasingly being merchandised in rigid plastic packaging.

Earth Friendly

Like many grocers, Wild Oats Markets is using more fresh food containers. At the same time, the company's contribution to the waste stream has dwindled from 6 million packages to next to nothing. What's going on?

The answer: corn-based packaging that mimics traditional plastic in form and function, but is compostable. For the organic and natural food retailer, Cargill Dow's NatureWorks corn-based plastic has proved a reliable alternative to petroleum-based plastics, and has burnished the retailer's image with its environmentally aware customers.

"Part of our mission is to reduce the negative impacts our business may have on the environment," said Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats. "When the packaging came to our attention, we were struggling with the recycling issue. We thought this was an interesting opportunity."

Before rolling them out nationwide, the retailer tested the packages at selected stores in the Pacific Northwest. Combined with an advertising campaign, the packaging attracted the media's attention.

"We got a lot of positive media coverage on the corn containers, which brought some awareness that our stores had delis," Tuitele said. "We saw sales in the deli increase 17%, which is good. It was a cool technology. We were the first to use them in the United States."

Produced from cornstarch that's fermented into lactic acid, which in turn creates a polylactide material that can be shaped, NatureWorks PLA can be composted and can safely enter the traditional plastics recycling stream.

Wild Oats stores use the containers in a variety of applications, including deli salads, salad and olive bar, fresh-cut fruit and juice cups. The only drawback, Tuitele said, is that the packaging is not heat-tolerant. For that reason, the containers cannot replace the standard packaging used for hot foods from the deli.

By Tuitele's estimate, customers in the Denver market return two-thirds of the corn containers that leave Wild Oats' stores. The packaging that's collected at the stores is funneled into local composting programs that also handle Wild Oats' food waste.

Although they didn't start out that way, corn containers are actually cost-effective. When Wild Oats initially introduced the packages, they cost 50% more than standard plastic containers, Tuitele said. Now, due to soaring oil prices, Wild Oats spends less on the corn packaging than it would on conventional plastic, she said.

Officials see a growing opportunity for the packaging in supermarkets of all types, said Lisa Owen, global business leader for rigid packaging at Cargill Dow's NatureWorks, based in Minnetonka, Minn.

"Consumers are more time-pressed than ever and are looking for quick, healthy meal options to go," Owen said. "Retailers are meeting this demand by employing durable rigid packaging to protect prepared foods. NatureWorks PLA packaging offers retailers the performance they desire, while consumers view the meals contained in it as more wholesome."

Owen said a study done for the company found 74% of surveyed consumers in the United States who rated nature-based packaging as "very desirable" said they would pay 5 cents more per food item that utilized the packaging. -- TOM ZIND, with additional reporting by Lynne Miller

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