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Apio expands use of smart packaging

California produce grower/marketer Apio launches a 3-lb retail package of fresh-cut veggies in a rigid PET tray with a breathable patch that provides a 14-day shelf life.

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The Eat Smart Veggie Tray from Apio Inc. offers consumers 3 lb of fresh, ready-to-eat vegetables and dip that they can buy at the supermarket one minute and serve to party guests the next. Recently developed packaging technology provides the 14-day refrigerated shelf life Apio needs for national distribution.

"Traditionally this kind of tray is available with a very short shelf life," says Nicholas DaCosta, vice president of the value-added products division at Apio. Four or five days is typical, he adds. "The Landec technology allows us to go to 14 days."

The technology to which DaCosta refers is the Intellipac(TM) system from Landec (Menlo Park, CA). It relies on a "side chain crystallizable polymer" applied as a coating to a substrate that Landec won't identify. The substrate is cut into patches that are roughly 2" square. Applied as a pressure-sensitive label or heat-sealed to packages of fresh-cut produce, the patch regulates oxygen ingress and carbon dioxide egress according to the prevailing temperature. As temperatures rise and the fresh, respiring produce needs more oxygen, the polymer becomes more permeable, allowing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out at a higher rate.

The ratio of gas exchange doesn't have to be 1:1, either. The Intellipac technology is said to maintain carbon dioxide/oxygen ratios of anywhere from 18:1 to 1/2:1. It's a matter of changing the chemical composition of the coating and/or the size of the patch itself according to the specific gas needs of the vegetable being packaged. That's something you just don't get with other fresh-cut produce packaging materials, says DaCosta.

This is not Apio's first use of the Intellipac technology in the retail arena. About two years ago the Guadalupe, CA, firm introduced 3-lb portions of fresh-cut vegetables in premade bags that had the Intellipac patch applied during the bag-making process (see Packaging World, June '97, p. 2 or Use of the patch on a rigid tray grew out of the flexible bag program.

The Eat Smart trays, like the bags that preceded them, require no ice during shipment. Packed four per corrugated shipper, the trays are sent to supermarket distribution centers nationwide in refrigerated trucks.

"It's a non-wax box, too," says DaCosta. "That means it requires no special handling at the supermarket like waxed produce boxes do."

Five-compartment thermoform

Thermoformed by Ultrapac (Rogers, MN), the polyethylene terephthalate Eat Smart tray has five compartments for vegetables and one for dip. Operators hand-load the washed vegetables and the 8-oz plastic tub of dip into the compartments of the tray. Then they run the tray through a semi-automatic lidding machine from Haug (Gilroy, CA). It heat-seals a roll-fed clear film lidding material over the contents of the tray, stamping the film with a best-if-used-by date in the process (DaCosta doesn't identify the film's makeup.) The final component is a PET lid, also thermoformed by Ultrapac, that snap-fits over the film.

Running down the center of the tray is a hollow core. At the bottom of this core is a small hole over which Ultrapac applies the p-s Intellipac patch (not visible in this photo). Atmosphere enters and exits the hollow core through this patch at whatever specific rate the patch has been designed for. Air flow vents formed into the sides of the core allow a controlled exchange of atmosphere in each of the compartments holding the vegetables.

According to DaCosta, the Eat Smart Veggie Tray was quickly embraced by retailers. It sells in stores for anywhere from $10 to $15.

"We kicked it off for the holidays last November and it was picked up by eight of the top 10 retailers," says DaCosta. "It gives consumers the option of buying a party platter they don't have to worry about preparing at home."

In addition to launching the tray, Apio has improved the flexible packaging component of its Eat Smart program by switching from premade bags to 3-lb bags of broccoli or cauliflower florets produced from rollstock by a pair of vertical form/fill/seal machines. The converter that manufactures the film also heat-seals the Intellipac patch to the film according to Landec's specifications.

"The primary reason we started the program with premade bags was because it hadn't been determined if the patch could be placed on flexible film that gets fed into a forming machine," says DaCosta. In the course of exploring f/f/s as a packaging option, Apio ran tests to make sure the patch's effectiveness wouldn't be jeopardized. Once assured that it wouldn't, the company began running its broccoli and cauliflower florets on an Ilapak (Newtown, PA) vf/f/s machine it already had in its plant. Then management bought a second vf/f/s machine, this one from Hayssen (Duncan, SC), as volume demanded.

Since the switch from premade bags, says DaCosta, Apio enjoys "all the things you go to form/fill/seal for," including reduced giveaway, more accurate blends on vegetable medleys and material cost savings in the range of 15% to 20%. With hand-filling and sealing now a part of the past, adds DaCosta, Apio personnel who formerly executed those tasks can be better deployed.

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