Gal on film: Extending shelf life moves up the agenda

Gal Wollach is the vice-president of international sales at ROP, an Israeli company that has served its customers with high quality Cast Polypropylene (CPP) film, bags, and converted products for more than 40 years. He tells Tommy Leighton that through a partnership with UK distributor Van der Windt Packaging, ROP can guarantee four days of additional shelf life across a wide range of fresh produce to UK customers using its film

After a hiatus while retailers reassessed their priorities, technology to extend shelf life is back in vogue in recent times – why do you think that is?

Gal Wollach: I have been all over the world and there is a definite trend towards extending shelf life for produce. There are lots of reasons for this – reducing waste, helping the environment, meeting the demands of retail customers and consumers and corporate and social responsibility – whatever the motivation, the bottom line is that it’s picking up.

Over the last few years, we have seen more and more waste being produced – some apparent and some not so apparent. If it is not measured, it is not seen. No-one calculates the precise volume of produce that goes to landfill, nor does anyone really deal with weight loss. The ways of measuring are not yet very sophisticated, but awareness is gaining momentum and the activity is building up.

If the supermarkets are throwing 5-10-15% of their product away and every consumer throws another 20% away, it’s clear that the waste levels are unsustainable. While the consumers eventually pay for the wastage, it has been harder recently to pass those costs on and the supermarkets are undoubtedly suffering too. Retailers are aware of this of course – they understand that something needs to change. Such a lot of their wastage is in fresh produce and it is not something they can afford to look at unprofessionally.

The bottom line for me is that we need to deal with the problem ourselves, rather than waiting for the consumer to tell us what’s wrong.

The film market for the fresh produce industry is a crowded space at the moment – what makes ROP’s product stand out from the crowd?

GW: Most of the companies getting into this business are packaging companies who do not have the knowledge of produce that I believe is necessary to provide a truly effective solution. In order to deal with a complex issue like extending shelf life, the most important thing to do is understand produce, the post-harvest techniques, logistics and agronomy. Because people in packaging see potential, they want to get into the game. You cannot blame them for that, but in some cases they have given a bad impression to the customers they have talked to.

There are many misconceptions out there. Perforations don’t take humidity out of the bag, for instance, but many people who are simply selling films are peddling that line.

Day by day, I know buyers are extremely busy. The CEO says he wants to be green, green green, but the buyer and the operations managers all have their own targets and jobs to do.  I see more people who are trying to understand – more who have come into buying from the right background to be able to look at the strategic element of their role and are willing to speak openly with us about their goals.

What we are doing is strategic; it’s a scientific project and it doesn't happen overnight. It requires a great deal of focus, time and attention and in this era where everything is immediate, immediacy is not something we can necessarily offer. But if any of our customers can put the resources into working with us, wow – they are really going to see some positive results for their shoppers.

A lot of our internal research is dedicated to really understanding the environmental conditions, the post-harvest process and the specific characteristics of the produce at different stages of its life cycle. There is no single solution for every product. Likewise, there is no unique solution for any product; the solution has to be adapted to the prevailing factors in each case and meet a variety of goals.

For instance, in our view, the ideal banana packaging would provide the following attributes:

  • Preserve the unripe state for the duration between harvest and ripening.

  • Allow for ripening through the bag – avoiding double handling associated with shipping in box liner and repacking after the ripening stage.

  • Increase profitability by extending the shelf life of bananas after ripening – i.e. keep bananas in a marketable state for additional days while maintaining their following qualities: colour, texture, flavour and firmness.

  • Minimise weight loss.

  • Prevent discolouration (browning) of skin bruising.

  • Protect bananas from additional bruise and rub damages.

Once you pick a fruit, it begins to suffocate and therefore starts consuming oxygen and emitting carbon dioxide, to try to stay alive. Our aim is to slow the process down, while keeping the characteristics. Using our film, we could extend that life for 20 days, but we wouldn’t get good results on the shelf or for the consumer. We guarantee an additional four days shelf life on any product using our film, but the performance is optimised when the conditions are synchronised with the fruit.

Any fruit can absorb only a certain level of oxygen before it begins to deteriorate rapidly. So our method is to go as quickly as possible to that optimum gas area – then maintain the equilibrium. If we can do that, we find the holy grail for that particular fruit.

If you put a banana in a bag, it continues to respire, but the trauma means it breathes very quickly as it starts to suffocate. At a certain point, the fruit will begin to breathe in less oxygen than is getting into the bag through the holes. The banana is also a climactic fruit and at a certain age, it begins emitting ethylene. This plays a major part; if you don’t control the ethylene levels, you could have a banana that is half green, half yellow.

Humidity is another factor – if there is not enough in the bag, you will experience a lot of weight loss. If there’s too much you will see excessive splitting and/or scaling.

So much depends on the fruit being exposed to the right conditions. We have done a huge amount of work with bananas and it is a process of trial and error, as we have to benchmark the results with naked (unpacked) bananas and many different bag configurations.

Our ExtendCast Modified Atmosphere Packaging films are tailor-made for a specific fruit, vegetable or herb based on its unique respiration characteristics, water loss rate, mass and post-harvest processes. They are designed to optimise fresh-cut produce shelf life, appearance, nutritional values and weight.

Extensive research we have done in the banana category has showed that XC-Banana:

  • Extended banana retail shelf life up to double compared with unpacked (naked) and PP microperforated bagged bananas.

  • Maintained all required banana values.

  • Prevented weight loss up to 21.5%.

  • Delayed manifestation of bruising discolouration.

  • Allowed for ripening in a retail bag.

We have a legacy of engineering film and we can extend shelf life significantly using cast polypropylene (CPP) – it is not so easy using biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP). I don’t believe you can accurately control the properties or create a multilayer film with BOPP. It is shiny, crispy; it looks sexy, but it is very difficult to engineer it with any consistency. For Marks & Spencer packaging a shirt, definitely not a problem, but for a tray of tomatoes, you want something more than for it to just look nice. You want a bag that creates the right atmosphere for the product, with the right gas mix, the right humidity transfer and the right ethylene transfer. The goal of course is to let the product age more slowly, and to mature it along the desired curve, you need all of these things to be right.

We are not a company that makes claims because we think the customer wants to hear them. We don’t say that we can give them eight or 10 days extra. What we will say is that by working with us and using our film, you will be guaranteed four days more shelf life than you are getting today. What you do with that of course depends on the original condition of the fruit.

It’s not that we only extend the shelf life of the fruit. We are very proud that if you were to take a banana off the shelf four days later than you normally would have done, its maturity will be at the same stage and its external and internal conditions will have been maintained. If that isn’t done properly, a supermarket buyer might get the extended shelf life in terms of appearance, and the supermarket can sell it, but they will not get the benefit of consumer satisfaction as it will not taste as good.

This type of shelf life extension has not been possible before, and I think therefore that retailers generally have educated the consumer to downgrade their expectations on all sorts of fresh products, because it has suited their logistical needs. If you can upgrade the quality and performance of your bananas, particularly if they are branded bananas, then the consumer is likely to buy more. They notice if a brand underperforms consistently, but if they recognise that a particular chain is doing a better job in the category, they will go to that chain.

Working with Van der Windt Packaging, and Paul Summers, its packaging manager for fresh produce, how do you intend to spread your message to a UK audience?

GW: We will be exhibiting at the London Produce Show and Conference in June and will run a workshop there. My plan is by the third quarter of this year we will also have held a professional seminar in the UK and brought people who work in produce, not packaging, together to learn about produce – how it is really grown, how it is handled and treated, how it matures and build a better understanding of the agronomy. Once we share our own knowledge of the product with people, the advantages and benefits of our film will be clearer.

It is not perfect yet, but it’s an evolving technology that is getting better every day. I’m very optimistic - we are looking at a curve, not the apex and I don’t think most retailers have begun to look yet at the real value and advantages of getting this right in the long term.

When someone buys processed food for instance, they have all of the nutritional values laid out for them on-pack. Generally when you buy a banana, you don’t get that, so they judge on a) the colour and appearance, and b) the taste. Twenty years ago, labels weren’t giving the information they do now and using products like ours. I can see a time in the near future when the same nutritional information is supplied for fresh produce. At the moment, it’s as though the sector is one step behind its rivals for consumer spend.

Fresh produce is a highly sophisticated business, though it is rarely perceived that way – even by people within the industry. When you see the new seeds, the DNA manipulation, the growing and post-harvest technologies etc… you realise that where the industry is actually behind is at the point-of-sale. I think that’s going to change and it will do the industry a lot of good.

What are the barriers to your success in the UK market and how will you overcome them?

GW: The biggest barrier that we face is not that people don’t want this, but that there is a level of disbelief out there that we can actually do what we say. It is tried and tested though – we have done the work and have the results to prove it, both judged by ourselves and third parties. Sometimes we need to trust the solution will work, even if it doesn’t fit in 100% with the logistics at the company today. We can always modify and adapt, but the key thing is that we have a deep knowledge of what we are doing.

Even if one person sees why this is so important, that’s a good thing. But we want much more than that. It’s not that hard to see why something is better and, even if we were claiming to add one day’s shelf life to one banana we could definitely justify our product – the bigger picture is that we can add four days to the life of every banana and when you multiply the meaning of that across hundreds of delivery trucks to thousands of sites, that’s a huge improvement to anyone’s business.

ROP and Van der Windt packaging exhibited at London Produce Show and Conference in June.

Watch Gal's presentation at the London Produce Show here.

And download his presentation slides here
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