Horticultural produce packaging

Monday, 20 June, 2005

John Lopresti, a Biological Systems Engineer at Victoria's Department of Primary Industry (DPI) Institute for Horticultural Development, led the discussion, with focus on optimising product quality through handling chains, at a recent Australian Institute of Packaging meeting.

Lopresti worked in the mushroom industry before joining DPI some ten years ago and now concentrates on the post harvest area, using instrumented spheres to reduce damage, developing and testing packaging systems from consumer prepacks to bulk bins and conducting through chain audits to identify where and why quality loss occurs.

Salient points of the address were:

  • The non-integration of the handling chain causes degradation and spoiled produce.
  • Packaging interacts with all elements of the supply chain.
  • Slow cooling rates and mechanical damage are the main contributors to loss of quality between grower and consumer.
  • There are 50 different fruits and vegetables and each has different needs to retain freshness.
  • Plastic bulk bins have advantages over the traditional wooden units.
  • Growers generally do not have the expertise to utilise the best available systems.
  • Broccoli needs special packaging treatment that may be as much as 25% of the business inputs.
  • There is no coordinating body to develop standards for packaging and handling.

John says that the secret to superior produce at the point of sale starts at the farm where cooling must be done as quickly as possible. Handling is the next step and he gave instances of lettuce being damaged by being thrown instead of being placed into field bins. Packing above the 'water line' and overstacking is a common cause of damage detected by DPI personnel.

Instances of produce leaving the farm at 20°C core temperature in non-refrigerated transport, in contaminated bulk bins is not unusual, yet accepted by some as being acceptable. Tests have shown that wooden bins not only retain microbial infestation after washing but also absorb chemicals that should be protecting the produce. This is a double-edged sword as more chemicals are needed to protect the produce and this adds to the cost of production.

In closing John Lopresti challenged the packaging industry to develop an innovative way to deliver mushrooms to the consumer in a single package that removes the hazards that this delicate fungi encounters in the supply chain. George Ganzenmuller, the national development manager from Amcor Fibre Packaging, spoke on developments largely being sponsored by the major retail chains.

The major retailers are in concert to take control of their respective supply chains and have already imposed changes that are not necessarily optimal for the packaging industry and in certain instances at other parties' significant cost.

The drivers of the change in some cases have been recruited from 'success stories' abroad where the retail environment is quite different from the Australian scene. The major differences within Australia that impact on supply chains and packaging systems are the population density and particularly the 'tyranny of distance'. As a result the packaging industry is faced with the challenge of balancing 'retail packaging price' versus 'performance versus presentation'. Consumers are driving change based on the retailer's perception of their needs cleverly manipulated by advertising.

The thrust is to develop one-touch modular retail packages whereby the last person to touch the produce before the consumer was the grower. Some major changes are about to be introduced at the point of sale for produce around Australia. This entails alteration to the store layouts and stacking space in the sales aisles to allow for open-top modular packs to be displayed and the empty unit replaced as appropriate. Currently the new modular packs would not fit neatly into the traditional 900 x 900 mm stands and would detract from the silent salesperson concept.

With up to 20% waste identified in some produce lines, much has been done to improve packaging methods and systems. The move to retail ready packaging will challenge packaging providers to maintain performance without increasing costs even though the new black materials are a direct cost increase. Some industry analysts do not agree with some of these marketing ideas imported by the new decision makers in the retail hierarchy. American experience with black packages to boost the look of fruit has been recommended as the preferred package (it is said that black better reflects the colour of the contents), but it has some down sides as well including heat absorption and recycling challenges. The black pigment will have an impact in the recycling process and potentially introduce piebald paper into the marketplace.

Ganzenmuller was upbeat about the manner in which the corrugated industry has been able to adapt to change and claims that the modular packaging of six or 12 boxes on an Australian Standard Pallet is very much the leader in the new directions. One of the greatest issues facing the Australia Produce market is the lack of a national collaborative body to handle produce packaging issues. Until this gets addressed, Australian growers and packaging providers will not be able to strategically focus on the most cost-effective and integrated approaches to produce packaging.

He sees the future of being one where there will be minimal waste (both in produce and packaging), better identification systems, selective marketing, and new 'paddock to plate' systems, such as hydro-cooled unit packs. With generic black outer packs being mandated by retailers and the difficulty in printing on black, more brand ownership will come about by transferring graphics from outers to pre-packs.

Peter Johnstone, the CEO of Integrated Packaging, a company involved for many years in the production and sale of stretch film and application units for industry and horticulture, came to the podium to tell the audience about a spin-off company known as F Cubed - a clever description of Film and Frame Fabrication.

For further information contact Australian Institute of Packaging
9/75 Pacific Highway, Waitara 2077

The Australian Institute of Packaging is the professional body for packaging technologists and other individuals involved with the packaging industry throughout Australasia.

The primary function of the institute is to offer education and technical training for its members as well as cross-functional networking opportunities. Central to the education services are a one-year Certificate in Packaging Technology and a two-year Diploma in Packaging Technology.

The institute organises national conferences, training courses and technical seminars with strong support from the packaging industries. State branches run monthly meetings or plant visits to further inform and educate members.



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