By Eric Aasen, Product Line Manager, Bosch Packaging Technology
More than ever before, our supermarket shelves are a battleground for an enormous array of packaged fresh food products, each competing for the attention of time-strapped, price-sensitive consumers. Particularly in comparison to frozen alternatives, fresh food products such as vegetables, salad and dairy products appeal to modern, health-conscious, environmentally aware shoppers.
From a consumer perspective, fresh food products follow a less complicated route from harvest to home, reflected in an absence of both additives and unnaturally long shelf lives. There is a perceived honesty and simplicity about fresh food that is valued by modern shoppers—a sentiment particularly evident in the continued rise of organic produce, sales of which grew by 7.7 percent in the US from 2009 to 2010. World leading strategy researcher Euromonitor's April 2011 market report anticipates renewed growth in the U.S. fresh food sector driven by "rising healthcare costs, increasingly health-conscious consumers and targeted government campaigns."
But today's selective consumers do not just want their food to be fresh—they want it to be fresh for longer, with greater usability. This places complex requirements on both food manufacturers and packagers, and presents an array of challenges.
Freezing out unhealthy, unsustainable foods
To fully satisfy the demands of the contemporary marketplace, packaging machine suppliers must ensure that their packaging lines provide the speed to bring products to market quickly, and hence meet current trends. With regard to fresh food packaging, we expect to see particular development in two areas: convenience, as well as food safety and hygiene.
Convenience is not the first word you associate with fresh food, but its impact on the packaging industry is top amongst current trends. The convergence of growth in vegetarian fresh foods with the effects of increasingly busy and fragmented consumer lifestyles is another factor explored by Euromonitor (August 2011). This has led them to predict that the most successful fresh food brands going forwards will be those that are convenient, tasty, environmentally-friendly and offer health benefits. With a growing number of food products intended to be eaten with minimal preparation time, packages of already assembled freshly cut salads and single packets of vegetables will become more and more common.
Hygiene and product integrity are of paramount importance to today's food shoppers, and exert an increasingly apparent influence on purchasing decisions. For instance, organic food has continued to grow in popularity despite the economic downturn, driven largely by a desire for freshness and concerns over food safety. Modern fresh food packaging has to reflect this trend by helping to extend shelf life and prevent contamination.
Packaging challenges and solutions
As demand for fresh food products continues to grow, and the aforementioned trends move more clearly into view, manufacturers are finding new ways to approach their product packaging. In turn, this is having a marked effect on manufacturing equipment requirements.
Fortunately, market-leading packaging experts are able to supply machinery with the speed and functionality necessary to thrive in today's market.
Forward-thinking brands have to establish the optimum way to satisfy consumers—locking in goodness, improving ease-of-use and removing complications such as how to store leftover product. This will be made possible by the use of a wider variety of audience-appropriate packaging and through the emergence of further product ranges that cater to different demographics.
Just as fresh food manufacturers are expected to make things more simple and intuitive for consumers, so packaging equipment suppliers must remove complications for their customers, especially with regard to the adoption of new products and packaging formats. Market-leading packaging experts help manufacturers to devise flexible line solutions, with the capability to quickly adapt in response to evolving consumer demands.
To fulfill individual customer requirements, fresh food manufacturers must look to equip themselves with packaging equipment that not only handles a wide variety of formats, but facilitates changeovers and line modifications with minimal downtime and engineering costs. Bosch Packaging Technology answers flexibility demands with the servo-powered, modular and tool-less changeover concept applied to its vertical equipment solutions. Its SVE and SVI continuous- and intermittent-motion form/fill/seal machines can be easily integrated into packaging lines to work seamlessly with dosing systems like multi-head weighers, labelers, checkweighers and case packers. Both types of machines offer the flexibility to handle a variety of bag sizes, formats and weights, and a host of different packaging materials.
While the intermittent machines are intended more for heavy products, such as potatoes, and the continuous machines more for delicate foods, as they avoid the stop and start that can damage products, both are able to accommodate bag styles like pillow, gusseted, block-bottom, Doyen-style and corner-sealed bags with common re-closures as well as tear- and peel-off films at high speeds.
Machine speed is of paramount importance to fresh food manufacturers, whether in terms of rapid start-up times, quick changeovers or package output. This factor is particularly important in the fresh-food industry, which is characterized by short-cycle production runs that greatly limit the time between harvest and retail shelf.
If a line is to be fast and efficient, ease-of-use is of the utmost importance. Ideally, minimal maintenance and open machine designs as well as an intuitive touchscreen should be in place to remove unnecessary complications from the packaging process. In the latest packaging machinery, parameters such as speed, bag length and sealing time can be entered easily via program keys. Additionally, ease-of-use is enhanced by the option to store a large number of different programs for rapid setup and changeover.
With these features in place, fresh food manufacturers can stay ahead of market trends—bringing new products to market with a minimum of fuss.
Safety and food quality
With fresh food packaging, the ability to handle a variety of bag styles at high speeds must be complemented by strict attention to protecting quality and safety. Ever-more stringent focus on hygiene and food safety creates a distinct set of packaging line complications. Packaging materials like anti-fog polypropylene and techniques such as the displacement of oxygen with inert gas can protect fresh food from premature spoilage, while ultrasonically sealing avoids exposing products to the high temperatures common with heat-seal and poly heat-seal solutions.
However, not all packaging equipment is designed to cope with these materials and processes. Fresh-food manufacturers should seek to update their lines with flexible equipment that is built with these processes in mind, so that the latest innovations in food integrity can be brought to market quickly and cost-effectively. Hygiene standards also demand that packaging equipment is easy to clean, and constructed to minimize potentially compromises to production standards
For fresh foods, product integrity is aided by the integration of machines that use ultrasonic sealing, and through lines which allow for economically efficient product protection methods. Ultrasonic is the ideal sealing method for thermo-sensitive fresh food products as, unlike heat-sealing techniques, it largely eliminates both product damage and risk of contamination. By using vibrations to create a hermetic seal, the ultrasonic method avoids exposing products such as cheese and lettuce to high temperatures. It has the added benefit of shaking away small remnants of food from the sealing area.
Bosch's innovative packaging solutions combine ultrasonic sealing with the possibility to incorporate the highly efficient "Neutrafill" product protection system. By removing oxygen from a sealed fresh food package and replacing it with an inert gas, Neutrafill results in improved integrity and extended shelf life.
Gentle handling is an absolute must if the quality of fresh food products is to be maintained. Form/fill/seal machines with low height require a shorter drop to avoid spoilage of delicate fresh products. Similarly, in machines with moving sealing jaws, where the sealing of the bags ties in with the falling motion of the fresh produce. Delicate handling goes a long way to eliminating unnecessary costs that result from excessive product waste.
Staying ahead of changing demands
By teaming up with experienced packaging suppliers and integrating the most effective packaging machinery into their lines, fresh food manufacturers can gain the ease-of-operation and high safety standards necessary to fulfill stringent consumer requirements. With consumer trends evolving from one year to the next, they are also able to adapt to any future market shifts.
For manufacturers of fresh food products, high-quality packaging equipment could well be the key to unlocking further market share.
Source: Bosch Packaging Technology