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U.K. firm ships Costa Rican fruit via Canadian technology

Unique packaging lets Geest ship fresh-cut pineapplein clear thermoforms to markets not only in the UK but also France and the U.S. Shelf life is 35 days.
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What area of food packaging today is more active than fresh-cut produce in breathable packaging that prolongs shelf life by allowing the food to respire? Of all the technologies to emerge in breathable packaging in the past few years few are more intriguing than the fresh pineapple packaging operation developed by Geest Prepared Foods in Costa Rica. Headquartered in Spalding Lincolnshire England Geest has an established track record in marketing chilled foods. The firm spent $2.5 million on its 35-sq' Costa Rican factory which is located two hours north of San Jose. Full production and distribution of Geest's Necta brand pineapple began in January of 1994. Although originally available only in the U.K. the product is now found in France and beginning last November in the U.S. Necta is not the only fresh prepared pineapple available today. Both Del Monte and Dole sell similar items under their well known brands. Like them Geest processes and packages at the product source. According to Geest's Mike Norton this has some distinct advantages. "One of the problems with packaging fruit near to market is the labor cost is high" says Geest. "Also you ship the fruit half way round the world and then proceed to reject 30% because it's overripe underripe or damaged. From what's left you get a yield of 35% after you peel it core it and remove the crown. "Taste is better too when you package at source. Unlike bananas pineapples don't ripen once they're picked. If you're packaging near to market you must ship the pineapple before its peak of ripeness. Otherwise it's too easily damaged." The idea then behind packaging pineapple at its source is to allow the fruit to ripen naturally in the field and then pack and ship only ready-to-eat fruit. "We ship from Costa Rica into Wilmington Delaware" says Norton. "A sea container holds at least three times as much [ready-to-eat] pineapple as a container full of unprocessed pineapples." Shipping by sea in refrigerated containers is one major way that Geest differs from Del Monte and Dole both of which rely on refrigerated air shipment. Another difference is that Geest's packages are rigid thermoforms topped with clear flexible film. Both components allow gas exchange at controlled rates so that the live fruit can continue to respire thus prolonging shelf life. On the other hand Del Monte and Dole use flexible pouches that include high-barrier components to keep gas exchange to a minimum. The biggest difference is in shelf life. While Del Monte and Dole are in the 21-day range Geest codes for 35 days. As Norton observes without the right packaging this would not be possible. Packaging makes it happen "It's technology that lets you get it to market technology that's all about putting the fruit to sleep" says Norton. "That's what we've developed. It's taken us about twelve million dollars and seven years to get to where we are today." The technology he refers to originated at Pacific Asia Technologies (Vancouver British Columbia Canada). Its U.K. affiliate Maptek Marketing Ltd. worked closely with Geest to perfect the Necta program. Specific details about the Maptek Fresh(TM) technology are hard to come by. But it's described as a post-harvest biotechnology that makes it possible to harvest prepare and package fruits when fully ripe and keep it in that condition for extended periods with no preservatives. Tissue stress is minimized and fresh-picked characteristics maintained. The product is exposed to normal atmospheric gases--oxygen nitrogen and carbon dioxide--but in different proportions compared to the air we breathe. The proportions are controlled by the permeability of the packaging materials selected and these materials are product-specific. Low temperatures though above freezing are also critical. The net result of the technology is that the metabolism of the produce is regulated so as to arrest decay and mold growth. Geest sells its Necta pineapple in four different packages. A whole cored pineapple weighing 20 oz sells for $2.79. Chunks in a 12-oz pack are priced at $1.99. Chunks in single-serve cups each holding 4 oz of pineapple are sold in a paperboard four-pack carrier for $2.99. And finally 14 oz of pineapple slices sell for $2.49. Geest chooses not to identify all the materials used for the thermoformed container or its film lidding. Supplier information is considered proprietary too. What packaging technologist Elizabeth Strickland does say is that both container and lid are three-layer adhesive laminations of polyvinyl chloride polyethylene and some "other" material that is chiefly responsible for the controlled gas exchange that is so important for fresh respiring produce. The preformed cups are filled manually and then loaded into a rotary-style heat-seal lidding system supplied by Packaging Automation (Knutsford Cheshire England). Now on the drawing boards is a peelable seal coating though currently the lid is not peelable. Geest does not say whether gas flushing is involved but no preservatives or liquids are added. The liquid in the containers is natural juice from the pineapple. "We see manual packaging as an advantage" says Norton. "In chilled foods it's not about large inflexible highly automated factories. It's about factories that are flexible yet efficient. And people fit that bill perfectly. As long as you're using very good computer controls and have good in-factory transit systems conveyors and lifts then people can be very efficient. It's a specific skill we've developed through our heritage in chilled foods." Norton says the computers are essential for proper planning and coordination. "You must map the product's progress from the day it's planted in the field" he explains. "Planting forced flowering harvest everything must be mapped out so that when it arrives at the door for packaging you know its pH its brix its color and everything else about it." Sanitation training are keys Sanitation to the point of near sterility and effective training are two other key planks in the Necta platform where workers aren't even allowed into the plant until they've had five weeks of training. In the U.S. marketplace secondary packaging for whole cored sliced and chunk pineapple consists of pressure-sensitive film labels applied to the lid and sidewall. For the U.K. and French markets Geest relies more on paperboard sleeve materials according to Necta marketing manager Catherine Carter. That's because supermarkets there use refrigerated display cases while U.S. supermarkets typically merchandise fresh prepared fruit on ice. Film labels she says are less susceptible than paperboard to water damage. However one paperboard carrier that is used in the U.S. marketplace is the multipack for the 4-oz single-serve cups. In the U.K. alone Geest expects Necta sales to reach about £5 million ($7.5 million U.S.) in 1996 twice its 1995 volume. "We're finding that once consumers try it seventy-five percent move to regular usage" he says. "That's an incredibly high statistic." New fruits are being developed too. "The produce we're looking at are typically exotic and difficult to prepare" says Carter. Papaya for example and a papaya/pineapple mix are now available in the U.K. and are being tested in U.S. supermarkets. Mango is another candidate adds Carter. Packaging for these new products looks essentially the same as what's used for pineapple though permeation rates are no doubt tailored to suit specific product needs.

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