The naked truth of unpackaged products:
Food safety and quality issues will cripple $20 billion worth of fresh produce categories.
Nobody wants more plastic waste. But efforts to ban packaging for perishable goods would miss the mark and do more harm than good. Prepared salads and pre-cut fruits and vegetables offer convenience, value and nutritional value. Tear open the bag and voilà: a quick, fresh and nutritious meal is ready. Pre-made salads, pre-cut fruits and vegetables were the stars that escaped the “commodity curse” and created a category with a US market valued at $4.91 billion (according to a report published by GrandView Research).
Pending regulations in Canada and the EU will drive this entire segment of the agricultural economy (and almost half of the agricultural produce aisle) to the brink of extinction.
Regulations to limit packaging waste are well-intentioned, and we all agree on the need for new technologies and investments that would eliminate plastics littering roads, landfills and oceans. But banning packaging for perishable foods does not address the critical role plastic packaging plays in ensuring food safety, ensuring product safety and quality, and reducing food loss and waste.
Consumer research conducted by the International Fresh Produce Association is clear: all over the world, consumers take into account the cost of food, they attach importance to freshness and quality. It is important to note that consumers expect manufacturers and retailers to provide a safe product. For ready-to-eat perishable products, plastic packaging is the only option to provide a food safe, premium quality product that is also quite cheap. Let’s be clear: Regulations that require consumers to bring their own reusable containers to collect perishables from common bins will result in devastating food safety consequences from this well-intentioned but misguided policy.
In addition to preventing pathogens, contaminants and spoilage microbes from entering bags containing pre-prepared salads, baby greens and pre-cut fruits and vegetables, plastic packaging also preserves freshness . You see, the air inside the bag is replaced with a different mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, which helps prevent spoilage organisms from growing, ensuring freshness for a few weeks, without using any toxic chemicals. Perishable foods must be packaged to preserve product quality and ensure safety. Today, there is no alternative to plastic.
Most prepared salads, freshly cut fruits and vegetables and baby greens simply cannot be sold without plastic packaging. There is currently no viable alternative to safely purchase fresh-cut vegetables without the use of plastic containers or packaging. Any requirements prohibiting their use will result in reduced shelf life, increased food safety risk and more expensive packaging, which will be passed on to the consumer at a time when they should be encouraged to eat more fruit. and fresh vegetables, and no less. The industry has invested significantly in innovation and developed compostable plastics derived from cellulose or organic acids. The use of compostable biodegradable plastics in packaging will also be banned if Canada’s proposed regulations come into force. The industry is ready to collaborate on developing sound policies that harness innovation instead of stifling it.
In addition to compostable biodegradable plastics, the industry has invented a way to retail certain fruits and vegetables without any packaging. This little invention, the size of a sticker, is a PLU (price finder) sticker. The barcode and 4 or 5 digit code provides convenience at checkout, streamlines inventory management and – most importantly – allows for reinvestment in organic produce and new variety development. According to some proposals, the regulations would ban non-compostable PLU stickers. Yes, innovative companies have already developed compostable PLU stickers, but in some cases (think fruits with fuzzy or rough surfaces, or fresh produce exposed to fogging), existing compostable stickers simply won’t work. Banning these tiny stickers will lead to more packaging (like non-degradable paper or metal or rubber bands).
Without being able to reinvest in organic production and recover the cost of organic inputs, producers will have no choice but to return to conventional production. According to the USDA, sales of organic fresh produce in the United States exceeded $19 billion in 2021. Bans on packaging and PLU stickers will also make it impossible to differentiate organic products at retail. Without the ability to compensate for price differences between varieties, there would be little incentive to offer organic and other premium categories, likely leading to their disappearance from store shelves. Say goodbye to your new favorite varieties of apples, pears, plums, grapes and peaches!
Another naked truth about unpacking perishables: a high carbon footprint. According to USDA data, leafy green vegetables are already the most lost or wasted food after the farm. These are fragile products whose production requires a lot of inputs (land, water, fertilizer, labor). Eliminate packaging and that number will almost certainly double. In addition to food loss and waste and almost certainly questionable food safety outcomes, refilling and reuse requirements for all types of packaging will result in a heavy carbon footprint. Make no mistake: the circular economy, wise use and reuse of resources makes perfect financial sense. However, reinventing the entire supply chain in a matter of months to prepare for the implementation of pending Canadian and European requirements will congest an already stressed supply chain with containers, boxes, pallets and trays voids rushing chaotically through the system. This is not the sustainable future we all want!
If we ban it, the industry will notice – that’s what I’m hearing from some of my old friends in the regulatory field. That may be true, but invention takes time. This has a cost and requires investment. Governments, consumers and industry will have to share the costs of rethinking packaging. There are also costs we cannot afford: the cost of foodborne illness, the cost of wasted nutritious food, the cost of carbon released into the air simply because someone well-meaning did not not understand the complexity of supply chains.
Max Teplitski is the Scientific Director of the International Fresh Produce Association, the largest and most diverse international association serving the entire fresh produce and flower supply chain.