In the fast-growing category of fresh-cut produce in modified atmosphere packaging, vegetables are a lot more visible in the supermarket than fruit. But as recent Packaging World stories have made clear (see PW, Aug. '97, p. 68), fruit processors aren't going to stay on the MAP sidelines forever. The latest fruit processor to enter the fresh-cut fray hails from upstate Wolcott, NY, the second-largest apple-growing region in the nation. Nature's Pleasures(TM) LLC is the firm's name, and fresh apples is most decidedly its game. In July it began shipping skin-on apple slices to supermarkets in the mid-Atlantic, metro New York, and Philadelphia regions in 8-oz flexible pouches having a 16-day shelf life thanks to MAP technology. Also close to commercialization at Nature's Pleasures is a 2-lb pack for both retail and foodservice channels. School districts are said to be most intrigued by this format, though people who like to bake at home but aren't fond of peeling and coring apples should also find this an attractive buy at the supermarket. The 2-lb package is expected to have a suggested retail price of $4.29, while the 8-oz pack now in stores costs $1.49. Though newly launched itself, Nature's Pleasures was spun off from a well-established fruit processor called Cahoon Farms, also based in Wolcott. This firm is best known as an industrial packer of frozen apples and tart cherries for large food processors that use the fruits in pies and frozen dinners. "We feel we know apples better than any company in the country," says Jeff Cahoon, who is the sales manager of Cahoon Farms and also heads up Nature's Pleasures. "With industrial sales hitting a plateau lately and no real evidence of that changing, we wanted to diversify." Fresh, packaged apples, he adds, "were right down our alley." Nature's Pleasures has few competitors. It's hardly any wonder, considering how difficult it is to keep sliced apples from browning. But Cahoon claims that, among the very few who are packaging fresh sliced apples, Nature's Pleasures offers the best quality product because no chemicals are used. Anti-browning is accomplished not by means of sodium erythorbate or calcium chloride but by dipping the apples in a solution containing ascorbic acid, which is nothing more than Vitamin C. It makes a big difference, says Cahoon. "Taste is the key," he explains. "Our apples taste better." Temperature is critical Nature's Pleasures' packages can be displayed either in a refrigerated cabinet or on a bed of ice. As with any fresh-cut fruit or vegetable, maintaining consistent temperatures below 50°F is essential. "Under ideal circumstances we can achieve a shelf life of 35 days," says Cahoon. But he quickly adds that ideal circumstances are hardly to be counted on. And even if they could be, he says, "We would never want to code a fresh product that long anyway. After polling supermarket purchasing people, we settled on 14 days from the day the packages reach the distribution center." Nature's Pleasures keeps the product in its own refrigerated warehouse for 48 hours after packaging. Then its trucks go to supermarket distribution centers, where pallets of the product are racked in a refrigerated warehouse. As stores order, pallets are picked from racks and shipped along with other value-added produce. On the front of the package, right below the Nature's Pleasures banner, are the words "Peak-sealed(TM) for ultimate freshness." This freshness theme is repeated on the back, where the consumer is told that "The secret to Nature's Pleasures(TM) Apple Slices is our revolutionary Peak-Sealed(TM) package." Also on the front of the package is the apple type: Delicious Red, Delicious Green or Delicious Yellow. "Most apple eaters think in terms of red, yellow and green apples," explains Cahoon. "The sugar acid ratio within each color is pretty consistent, with green being tart, red sweet, and yellow somewhere in between. By using just those three designations, as opposed to Empire, Fuji, McIntosh, and so on, we can take advantage of a number of apple varieties as they become available. We don't lock ourselves in." In addition to these unflavored apples, Nature's Pleasures offers apples flavored with a natural essence of cinnamon, raspberry, peach, brandy or peppermint. The idea is to give the fresh produce some of the appeal of popular snack foods. Contributing to that snack-food feel are playful copy on the pouch and lively package graphics. Designed by Van Auken Margolis & Associates (Rochester, NY), the package is flexo printed in six or eight colors by converter Oakwood Packaging (Hackensack, NJ). Total thickness of the two-layer extrusion lamination is 2 mils. One layer is oriented polypropylene, which is reverse-printed. The other layer is a blend of linear low-density polyethylene and metallocene LLDPE. Also contained in the structure is ethylene vinyl acetate. Added to the LDPE extrudate that bonds the two main substrates together, the EVA adds toughness, says Oakwood's Bill Thompson. Helping Nature's Pleasures specify film structure was Pacific Asia Technologies (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada). This package represents another application of what Pacific Asia Technologies calls its Maptek Fresh(TM) technology. For the rights to use it, Nature's Pleasures pays a royalty based on sales volume. Maptek Fresh is a post-harvest technology that combines modified atmosphere packaging, careful control of temperature, and the use of other "biotechnologies" that control the enzymes of harvested produce. The end result is that structural integrity is maintained, microbial growth is minimized and spoilage is inhibited. Thus the 16-day shelf life on Nature's Pleasures' apples. Because the fresh apples are still respiring, the permeability of the package is critical. To ensure that the correct amount of oxygen can enter and sufficient carbon dioxide can exit, the film spec calls for permeability of 140 cc of O2/100 sq"/24 hr. Another key component to the package is the mix of gases backflushed into the bag. It includes CO2 (to retard ripening and microbial growth), O2 (to keep product from going anaerobic, which might cause off odors) and N2 (an inert gas, it prevents the package from collapsing on itself as other gases are absorbed into the tissue of the apple). The equipment side Equipment used to produce the innovative package is the Vegatronic 400S vertical form/fill/seal machine from Ilapak (Newtown, PA). Inside its forming tube is a 3/8" dia liquid injection tube. At the end of this injection tube, where apple slices land after their fall from the overhead combination scale, is a nozzle that sprays the liquid flavoring into the apples. The microprocessor on board the Ilapak machine signals the spray valve when to open and how long to stay open. Gas flushing is done on the Ilapak in a similar fashion, also through a port in the forming tube. Feeding the vf/f/s machine is a 14-scale Ishida combination scale from Heat & Control (Hayward, CA). Throughput on the scale/bagger combination is around 50 8-oz bags/min. All of this processing and packaging equipment is housed in a 7ꯠ sq' free-standing structure. It was built apart from the parent company's frozen fruit operation because the level of hygiene required in packaging fresh fruit is far higher than for frozen fruit. Processing consists of sizing, peeling/dipping, and drying. Each is done in a separate room and each room is separated by a strip curtain to keep bacteria from sailing unimpeded from one room to the next. Two peeler/corer/slicers deliver sliced apples to a dipper filled with the water and ascorbic acid solution that serves as the anti-browning agent. Some solution remains "Some of the solution remains on the apple when the process is over. We do something similar in our frozen apple business, but there the solution is vacuumed into the tissue of the apple. Here it's a little different because we don't want to break down the tissue of the fresh apple." Next is a drying room. "From a bacteria standpoint," says Cahoon, "the last thing in the world you want in the finished pouch is a puddle of water." But he declines to answer questions about exactly how the apples are handled or what other measures are taken during this stage. By the conclusion of the drying stage, the apples have been elevated sufficiently to enter the 14-bucket combination scale. This machine and its complementary bag-maker are isolated in a fourth segregated room where sanitation measures are the most stringent of all. The room is flushed with HEPA-filtered air to keep bacteria out, and the one operator who occupies it is dressed head to toe in the kind of suit, hood, mask and boots you'd expect to find at a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Each time he enters the room, he first passes through a sanitizing foot bath and washes his hands in a special sterilant spray. As apple slices enter this clean room through a strip curtain, they reach a Key Technology (Walla Walla, WA) vibratory shaker that responds to signals from the Ishida system so that a constant stream of apple slices flows steadily to the scale. The scale weighs the fruit in its buckets and selects the right combination of buckets to dump into the bag being formed on the Ilapak machine below. As with most vf/f/s machines, roll-fed material is pulled over a forming collar to form a tube of material into which product is dumped. Heat-seal jaws form the top of one bag and the bottom of the next one each time they close. Mounted near the film unwind station of the Ilapak unit is a Model 850 ink cartridge coder from Gemini (Fairfield, NJ). With each stroke it imprints a use-by date on the back of the package. Pouches drop from the Ilapak system and are conveyed out of the clean room and through a Graseby Goring Kerr (Amherst, NY) metal detector into a separate room for secondary packaging, where auto-bottom cases supplied by Rock Solid Packaging (Shillington, PA) are easily erected and filled. No need for tape on the bottom makes handling simple for the workers doing the case packing. Tops require no tape or glue either. The tips of the minor flaps tuck tightly into die-cut slots in the major flaps to close the shipper. So when workers in the supermarket produce department need to open a case, they don't require a cutting tool that might penetrate and ruin a package. First 48 hours is critical Cases are made of 32-lb ECT, B-flute corrugated and have diamond-shaped vents on all four sides. Each case holds a dozen 8-oz packs. The cases are palletized and taken to a nearby refrigerated warehouse for 48 hours before shipment off to supermarket distribution centers. "We like to be in control of the temperature for that first 48 hours," says Cahoon. "The gases are best able to enter the cells of the apple and slow down the respiration rate if the temperature during this initial stage is guaranteed. The best way to guarantee it is to keep it in our own coolers." Early reaction to the launch has been encouraging, says Cahoon. But he expects interest to blossom now that school is back in session. He believes the 8-oz pouch is perfect for the lunch-box crowd, and school cafeteria buyers are expected to line up for the 2-lb foodservice package. New concept development Two other package concepts are nearing the final stages of development at Nature's Pleasures. One is a 2-oz pouch that foodservice managers in the airlines industry are fond of. The other, for a private-label account, is a semi-rigid tray formed from rollstock on a horizontal f/f/s machine. Nature's Pleasures will form, load, and backflush the package before applying a flexible film lidding. The HEPA-filtered clean room currently occupied by the vf/f/s system was designed with sufficient space for a horizontal-format neighbor. As exciting as the past 18 months have been for all concerned at Nature's Pleasures, it looks like the next year or so will be every bit as adventure-packed. Does Cahoon have any advice to fruit marketers who might want to follow? "There's no magic bullet," he says. "What there is is a lot of little things you must pay close attention to, from the tools you use, to temperature control, to sanitation." Or, as the old saying goes, "The devil is in the details."