The produce aisle: A tour of innovation
Posted: December 17, 2023 | Word Count: 593
There was a time when a grocery store in Canada didn’t have blueberries in December. There was also a time before bagged salads and a dozen varieties of apples were available in a single store. The entire Fresh produce supply chain has been dedicated to innovation at every point, especially at the consumer level — the grocery store. Consumers have seen it.
While we’re used to hearing about innovation in traditional tech spaces like our own vehicles or phones, fresh produce has made countless transformative innovations that have changed the way we all shop, cook and eat. Here are a few of those advances:
1. PLU stickers
The little stickers on your lemons, apples, bananas and avocados, with four or five numbers, are actually a powerful tool. Initially, they were invented to help checkout clerks distinguish between conventional and organic produce items, since they look so similar, and charge the correct prices. The reality is organic produce items are more expensive to grow and require more labor. So, there was a need to accurately price organic offerings and give growers an opportunity to reinvest in next year’s harvest.
The stickers unlock choices for consumers and save time in the checkout line while providing the ability to choose how many items you’d like to buy, and with more varieties to choose from. As retailers can easily tell the difference between multiple varieties of apples, for example, they can sell these varieties loose and give the consumer more options.
This sticker is not done evolving. A compostable sticker has been created and with increased demand from consumers, can be used for bulk produce.
2. Bagged salads
Not long ago, you could not get a bagged salad. These salads changed the game in a few ways. The first: Convenience. While home cooks would spend time washing, prepping, cutting and mixing multiple ingredients, the bagged salad reduced that time significantly.
The second: Freshness. The bag component meant that the freshest product reached your shelves. Simply by sealing the salad with a mix of nitrogen and oxygen (derived from air but mixed in a different ratio to suppress pathogens and molds), the bag keeps the products inside fresh and keeps any microbes out without the use of toxic chemicals.
The third: Safety. Food safety is a constant effort for everyone in the supply chain. The bag of salad means that as products move from the packaging to the store, the produce is sealed to ensure no contaminants, pathogens or spoilage microbes can get in.
3. Sustainable packaging
Without plastic packaging, most pre-made salads, fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, baby greens and berries would simply not be able to be sold in grocery stores. These products are too fragile to be transported and require packaging. The produce industry, in commitments to delivering a quality, safe product, that is also sustainable, has developed new types of packaging including compostable plastics derived from cellulose or organic acids.
Currently, there are impending restrictions on the industry to limit packaging or ban it altogether in Europe and Canada.
“Eliminating packaging may seem like a step in the right direction but taking that step before we have a viable and safe alternative will result in increased foodborne illness, wasted food, or even a lack of fresh produce in places where these bans are put in place,” said Max Teplitski, PhD, the chief science officer at the International Fresh Produce Association. “We’re focused on food safety, extending shelf life, and ensuring affordable access to the freshest and most nutritious products on earth.”