Q What fresh produce packaging trends do you foresee for 2019?
There will be a surge in fresh produce convenience packs in 2019. For example, rather than buying a pack of salad leaves, a bottle of dressing, and a pack of croutons – a lot of which will get wasted – customers are opting for salad bags that contain individually-portioned sachets of dressing and croutons; just enough for one or two people. These packs have already been on sale in small numbers, accounting for 1-2% of all salad packs, but some of the producers we’re dealing with are now producing 40% of their output in this way. After all, packed salad bags are a form of convenience food anyway, and this is the next natural step. So this is a trend that will explode over the next 12 months.
To reduce packaging waste, there will also be greater numbers of unsupported packs of fresh produce in 2019: for example, two-packs of potatoes, apples and avocados without cardboard trays holding them in place. In the past, it’s been a challenge to pack unsupported because fresh produce moves on the line. However, we’ve created a unique overhead barrette system that supports and controls the product, so it doesn’t move out of position. As a result, only packaging film is required, not cardboard or acetate trays.
Our machine, the Carrera 1000, is currently being prepared to handle unsupported packs of two potatoes and two avocados. It is also suitable for a variety of fresh produce, including apples, onions, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, aubergines, capsicum peppers, leeks, spring onions and unbunched herbs.
We foresee a big demand for this machine, for reasons of convenience and waste reduction, as well as customer satisfaction – rather than increasing the likelihood of damage, one supermarket actually saw complaints of bruising drop by 10% when the trays supporting tomatoes were removed; possibly because consumers take more care with unsupported packs.
Following on from unsupported packs, demand for smaller pack sizes in general will increase in 2019. Just like smaller pack sizes of biscuits have been around for a while, this is now crossing over into fresh produce, with customers wanting ready-peeled and cut portions of fruit for lunchboxes, and smaller pack sizes of vegetables perfect for single people or
couples. This will require innovative, automated packaging solutions that packhouses will need to invest in if they are to keep up with consumer demand.
Alternatives to plastic
The war against non-recyclable and single-use plastics has ramped up during 2018, and I expect the backlash to grow further over the coming year. We are committed to helping food factories reduce their use of non-recyclable plastics packaging and have worked with materials manufacturer Four04 to develop a breakthrough heating technique and sealing jaw coating to successfully seal EVAP – a clear, high-gloss film rate which is compostable to the EN 13432 standard.
We have successfully adapted one of our vertical flow wrapping systems, the Vegatronic, to run this compostable film and are confident that we’ll be able to upgrade our horizontal machines, too.
Q What impact do you think Brexit will have on your business in 2019?
There’s no doubt that Brexit is already impacting manual labour in the fresh produce sector. According to the NFU, 99% of seasonal workers on fruit and vegetable farms come from Eastern Europe, and over 4,300 vacancies went unfilled in 2017. The need for packing operations to be automated is therefore greater than ever, but packhouses have been slow to automate compared to other sectors. The reason for this is that with fresh produce, no two products are the same. We work with a lot of producers of bakery and other factory-made products, where each item is identical, and it’s much easier and cheaper for them to automate a line as a result. But Brexit could see that finally start to change.
Because of the variation involved, packhouses need a basic, simple automation system that is flexible. But flexibility means greater expense. The margins in fresh produce are extremely tight – around 3% – so many packhouse owners simply can’t afford to invest in automation on their own. But the lack of an alternative as EU migrant workers continue to stay away from the UK, will mean that they simply have no choice. The issue then will be, who pays for it?
I’ve already started noticing a number of growers changing the relationships they have with the big supermarkets. Instead of having an exclusive deal with one supermarket, to whom they supply a range of products around the country, growers are concentrating on fewer products – sometimes just one – and supplying them to a number of retailers within a smaller radius. Their growing and transport costs are reduced as a result, and they are better protected against the unethical price squeezing that the big retailers have been accused of in recent years. Their margins are therefore increasing and this could help to pay for the automation that will be needed following Brexit. We’re speaking to a number of such growers about helping them to automate.
But there may also be a price to pay on the shop floor. If we get a good, clean Brexit, our sense of nationalism and pride in all things British may well increase. Shoppers may then be willing to pay a bit extra for British products carrying the Assured Food Standards’ Red Tractor quality mark, which can help to cover the cost of increased automation for packhouses who will otherwise struggle to stay in business without their EU workforce