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Fruit's best fresh, MAP cup proves

Canadian fruit marketer uses modified atmosphere packaging to get a fresh fruit combo, with an 18-day shelf life, to convenience stores via central distribution channels.
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FILED IN:  Venue  > Convenience store
     

Formed in February 1996 as a venture capital company to exploit modified atmosphere packaging technology Best Fresh of Vancouver British Columbia Canada has come a long way in 18 months. Its 250-g fresh fruit combo in a thermoformed cup with 18-day refrigerated shelf life is now being distributed to 60 7-Eleven stores in the province of Alberta with British Columbia to follow soon all via centralized distribution channels. Also evaluating the package are 25 Mack's convenience stores in British Columbia. Not bad for a firm that's only been shipping product since January of this year. To hear president Jim Thompson tell it it's all a matter of listening to the marketplace.

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"As a contract sales manager for Canadian fruit processors" says Thompson "the feedback I kept getting from foodservice institutions and retailers alike was that consumers are less receptive than ever to preservatives in their food. I was told that the guy who comes up with a way to package fresh fruit without whacking it full of potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate would have it made."

Thompson became that guy along with his partners and about 40 other Best Fresh shareholders. The fledgling firm got a big boost from Pacific Asia Technologies (Vancouver British Columbia Canada) and its Maptek Fresh(TM) technology. This is a post-harvest biotechnology that keeps packaged fruits in peak condition for extended periods with no preservatives. A key part of it is providing the gas exchange rate-CO2 out O2 in- that will best allow the produce to continue respiring and thus resist spoilage and mold.

The gas exchange is of course largely a function of the packaging materials selected. In this case the cup is thermoformed from a laminated sheet consisting of low-density polyethylene/adhesive/ethylene vinyl alcohol/LDPE. Initial quantities came from a thermo-former in the UK but a North American supplier is now being sought.

The EVOH layer makes the cup highly impermeable to gas exchange. So the fruit continues to respire by way of the semipermeable lidding material a 1.5-mil adhesive lamination of LDPE and polypropylene supplied by Winpak (Winnipeg Manitoba Canada). According to Pacific Asia Technology's Bill Powrie each fruit variety in the package respires at a different rate so permeability of the lidding was calculated around an average of all these rates.

The target market for this product is primarily people who are looking for a healthy alternative to microwavable sandwiches hot dogs and other "gut-stuffers" that are nutritionally deficient. A secondary target is school lunches packed at home particularly if supermarkets eventually begin to carry the product. "Consumed at school after three or four hours the fruit's quality would still be perfectly fine" says Thompson. "It just wouldn't be cold." The 250-g (8.8 oz) serving sells for about $2.49 Canadian ($1.78 U.S.).

C-stores lead the way

And why have C-stores rather than supermarkets led the way in accepting the Best Fresh products? In the case of 7-Eleven it's partly because that firm has a distribution system uniquely suited to handle a perishable product like the Best Fresh fruit cup. Each Canadian province has a commissary geared to handle salads sandwiches and other fresh perishable products. So when Best Fresh sends a pallet load to the Calgary commissary that handles the province of Alberta they know that it will be carefully broken down case by case and routed to individual stores in a small refrigerated truck carrying equally perishable items.

As for supermarkets Thompson has a few theories about why they've not yet taken on his product line. "It may be that a grocery store with 150 employees and $45 in weekly revenue in produce alone doesn't have the time to focus on a little 250-gram fruit cup."

The other possibility says Thompson is that supermarkets are content with the service they're getting from "rack jobbers." These vendors provide store-door delivery of prepared and packaged fresh fruit and take responsibility for monitoring the saleability of the product like a route salesman for a snack food company. Shelf life is only a few days.

Thompson has a very different kind of business in mind a business built upon long shelf life and central distribution channels rather than short shelf life and store-door distribution. It's costly upfront but pays off down the line.

"Rack jobbers can put out a fruit cup for half the cost it takes us but then they absorb high costs in distribution and shrink due to spoilage" Thompson points out. "Our shrink is in the range of nine percent while a rack jobber might be more like fifty percent."

Minimal automation

Processing and packaging at Best Fresh's Vancouver plant includes minimal automation. "There's less downtime that way" says Thompson. It also made more sense for a start-up company than investing in automated equipment that would necessarily involve sophisticated clean-in-place features.

Incoming raw fruit-honeydew melon cantaloupe grapes oranges pineapple and grapefruit-is kept cold. When it's time for processing the first step is to wash the fruit in a chlorine solution. Then it's wheeled into a processing room where positive air pressure helps prevent entry of bacteria. In this room workers peel and segment or cut the fruits. Then the product is mixed and spooned into the plastic bowls.

At this point a Galaxy TS 350 from Multivac (Kansas City MO) takes over. Operators load four bowls into the Multivac's indexing platen and press a button to send the platen into the evacuation and sealing chamber. First the chamber is closed and evacuated. At the same time roll-fed lidding is positioned over the four bowls. After evacuation a proprietary combination of gases is flushed into the trays. Finally lidding material is sealed in place and cutting tools cut the film. The chamber opens and the cycle is repeated. Typically the firm packs at a rate of eight cycles/min or 32 packs/min.

Thompson and Best Fresh partner Dan Hamilton looked seriously at two other machine vendors before selecting the Multivac unit. But they opted for the Multivac in fairly short order.

"We toured some food companies active in MAP and Multivac was described to us as reliable equipment" says Thompson. "Multivac also was willing to give us decent financing terms on the equipment and had a good service network."

Thompson acknowledges there are savings to be gained in the long run by going from preformed cups to thermoform/fill/seal. But for a start-up company like Best Fresh the all-important consideration was that the tf/f/s machine might cost $280 while the sealing machine was in the $60 range .

Once bowls are backflushed and lidded operators remove them from the indexing platen and load them into large plastic trays. These are placed on wheeled racks that are rolled into a cooler. Thompson explains why.

"We need to remove heat from the product quickly after packaging. We'd like to keep the product at its optimal temperature of 33 degrees F but you can't process at those temperatures it's too cold for the workers. So we process at 49 degrees which means there is a little heat gain in the package. To take the temperature back down we came up with an air plenum that takes cold air from our refrigeration units and channels it though a steel air chamber with slits in it that line up exactly with the plastic trays. It lays down cold air for about two hours directly on the trays."

Labeling modification

Like any new venture certain changes in process and packaging are par for the course. The most visible change Best Fresh has made is in its label.

"Initially we felt the fruit should do the talking" says Thompson. "After all it's a clear bowl. But the consumer goods environment became a factor. I mean when you're up against Snapple labels and Clearly Canadian bottles and so on your package can get overwhelmed pretty quickly. So we went from a label that covered about a third of the lid to one covering the entire lid." Supplied by United Label Canada (Vancouver British Columbia Canada) the pressure-sensitive paper labels are printed flexo in four colors. They're applied by hand

About 24 hours after packaging the fruit bowls are packed in a single layer in 12-count corrugated shippers. Supplied by Crown Packaging (Vancouver British Columbia Canada) the self-locking shippers are made of 200#-test C-flute corrugated printed flexo in two colors. They have interlocking tabs that allow 12-high stacking.

Since Best Fresh started shipping pallet wrap has been avoided so that the respiring fruit is never deprived of a fresh flow of air. When asked if palletloads of stacked shippers with no wrap to hold them steady caused problems in the distribution chain Thompson admitted it wasn't the easiest thing to handle. "But" he added "we have the forbearance of our customers probably because we're giving them something no one else can."

Serious sanitation

Perhaps the key distinguishing feature of Best Fresh's 10-sq' plant is how seriously sanitation is taken. As Thompson puts it the facility is "profoundly clean." Apparently the Canadian government likes what it sees. When Agriculture Canada inspected it awarded the firm its coveted four-star rating. "Now the challenge is to keep it that way when thousands and thousands of units are being turned out" says Thompson.

With about eight months of production under their belts Thompson and company at Best Fresh are optimistic about their chances to survive and thrive. But notes Thompson "It was a heck of a gamble and it was really expensive. It's really something too when we go up against the incumbent on an account the one who has the relationship established but we'll win because we have something no one else has."

As volume grows some level of expansion is likely to occur at the current facility. But the Best Fresh business plan calls for regionalization.

"Theoretically we could ship all the way to Florida" says Thompson. "But the produce business is a regional one so rather than building 100 square feet of plant in any one place we'd probably build a handful of small facilities around North America. Now that we have this plant to serve as a model it shouldn't be that hard to do."

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