Despite the global economic downturn in recent years, fresh produce continues to experience a positive market outlook. By 2016, the global fruit and vegetables market is predicted to have a value of US$2,719 billion, an increase of 79.2 percent since 2011, and a produce volume of 818.1 million tonnes.
The Asia Pacific region dominates this sector, accounting for 68.1 percent of the global fruit and vegetables market. The combination of this large, growing market and the increased demand for display-ready packaging from retailers means that fresh produce manufacturers need innovative and efficient packaging lines to ensure product quality is maintained and the goods reach supermarket shelves fast.
The Future Is FreshThe buoyancy of the fresh produce market is largely being driven by two key global socio-demographic factors.
Firstly, there has been a significant increase in health and nutritional awareness in the general public and an understanding of the positive impact that a nutritious diet can have on both health and in the fight against obesity. In part, this is due to public health policies in developed countries and the growing scientific evidence for the potential nutritional benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Secondly, there is a general trend in the Asia Pacific region of a growth in the middle classes. With monetary incomes increasing, these consumers have more purchasing power, and are moving towards buying their food in supermarkets, rather than local wet markets. These consumers place a high value on food products being fresh and convenient which creates great market potential for suitably packaged fresh produce.
Finally, the changing family structure, towards a smaller families and single households, has led the demand for single-portions and a preference for conveniently packaged produce.
It plays an important role in maintaining the quality of fruits and vegetables as it moves through the supply chain, protecting produce from compression and abrasion, and from exposure to chemical and microbiological risks that could pose a health and safety hazard.
Retailers and consumers alike are increasingly demanding individual, single unit packages of fresh produce—for retailers, for example, such packs are easier to display and allow them to take advantage of the visual appeal of fresh produce. Consumers want the convenience of pre-washed, ready-to-eat packs, plus they tend to prefer transparent film packaging that allows them to see the condition of what they’re buying.
Packaging RequirementsAs with any packaging sector, productivity and efficiency are the watch words. With packaging plants typically dealing with more than one type of fruit or vegetable, systems that allow for quick changeovers between product types or the flexibility to accommodate different packaging sizes are preferred.
Maintaining quality is essential when packaging fresh produce. As consumers tend to pick out the freshest looking fruit and vegetables, damaged or bruised produce could lead to rejection in the eyes of the discerning consumer. As such, processors need to maximise product quality by selecting appropriate distribution technology that will gently move products down the packaging line.
Innovations such as horizontal motion distribution systems can achieve this—smoothly and efficiently transporting produce to help prevent breakages and keep it looking farm-fresh.
Furthermore, using conveyors with a gateless design reduces product damage as no device is mounted at the end of the tray, lowering the risk of breakages and cross-contamination. The conveyors can be driven by electromagnetic drives, and therefore have no moving or wearing parts, such as shafts, gears, links and belts.
In addition, distribution systems that are easy to clean, for example, those made with food grade stainless steel, enable processors to quickly switch production lines to minimise downtime, while also ensuring the safety of the produce.
When it comes to packaging potentially sticky fresh products, such as loose leaf vegetables or lettuce, high throw conveyors present the best distribution option. Here, the conveyors throw the product much higher in the pan, preventing it from sticking to the conveyor pan.
Turning Market On Its HeadVertical form, fill and seal (VFFS) packaging systems have already revolutionised the food packaging industry over the last 30 years. Stand out VFFS equipment must deliver the highest levels of performance, flexibility and simplicity. Some machines boast high levels of one or other of these attributes, but it’s a combination of all three that is essential to exceeding customer demands.
Performance refers to the number of good bags per minute and uptime, whereas flexibility extends to everything from product changeovers to upstream and downstream equipment integration. Lastly, simple but sophisticated design is crucial for operational ease, service/maintenance and everything in between.
With new innovations such as rotary advanced impulse sealing systems now enabling VFFS polyethylene (PE) packaging to be used for fresh vegetables, salads and ready to eat fruit, the VFFS revolution is set to expand even further.
As ever, performance, simplicity and flexibility are essential to achieve maximum operating efficiencies and uptime, consistent product quality, and optimal bagging speeds of up to 150 bags per minute on fresh produce lines.
Since traditional PE machines typically operate at around 70-80 bags per minute, the high performance of the latest VFFS PE systems increases productivity considerably, allowing significant cost saving to be realised by the plant. PE machines that offer precise temperature control technology, as well as extended lifespan also help to maximise the total cost of ownership.
Nina Matthews, Sydney, Australia
The most efficient packaging lines are created by considering integration at the outset of a plant set up, redesign or equipment replacement. Fully integrating bagging systems with high performance weighers, metal detectors, date coders and conveyors creates a flexible and comprehensive line for maximum efficiency and output.
In terms of control systems, fresh produce processors should examine the role of automation as this allows improved performance with reduced labour costs. Digitalisation of packaging lines can also streamline fresh produce production, allowing the removal of mechanical parts which can easily break down or require maintenance.
Additionally, software integration allows for a single point of control for the packaging line. Running the machine can then be achieved from one position, rather than having an operator monitoring each individual device. Similarly, should an error in the packaging line be reported, it is flagged up and addressed from the same place, ensuring that it can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.
The growth of the fresh produce sector globally and the consumer demand for convenient packaging design and sizes provides significant potential for the industry.
A number of packaging innovations have been developed to help meet the requirements of both fresh produce retailers and consumers alike, delivering speed, performance, flexibility, and consistent product quality. When such technologies are combined and integrated into automated packaging lines with optimised control systems, the beneficial effects on operating costs and plant output can be remarkable.