Gal Wollach, vice-president of international sales at R.O.P., says there has to be far more to modern produce packaging solutions than simply extending the shelf life of the product to gratify buyers
Most exponents of modified atmosphere packaging are forcing the process as they are first and foremost plastic companies. They start the process with standard films and using perforation, brute force and information from the public domain, they attempt to create a product. I would deem the chance of that approach to be successful as very limited.
R.O.P. has more than 40 years’ experience of working closely with growers, shippers and retailers, to tailor a specific product for each fruit, salad, vegetable and herb. We begin every development project with thorough research to build a deep understanding of all the aspects that revolve around the product – the cultivar, its growing and harvesting chain, and specific point-of-sale conditions. Only once we have done all that would we start engineering the film.
The fact that we are also a film manufacturer enables us to engineer a polymeric formula that will best suit the product’s specific needs in order to optimise its quality over the longest possible timeframe. Today, we already have over 150 different film formulations.
Our number-one goal is not to extend shelf life for the sake of it, or even to sell more packaging, but to create the solutions that allow fruit and vegetables to perform and to taste as they really should while keeping all or most of their nutritional values. We are able to work across a whole range of products. We have made great progress with some and I have lots of case studies that I would be happy to share with anyone that show what we have achieved and can achieve. But we’re interested in new challenges – mushrooms for instance.
More than MAP
There are some good MAP companies out there, but there are more bad examples than good. And fairly or unfairly, I think MAP is increasingly being seen as corny by buyers in Europe. We are in the midst of a real paradigm shift. MAP has been introduced over 10 years ago and now everyone thinks they have the MAP coin in their pocket. It’s easy to say you are doing it, because people assume they understand it.
One of the challenges Paul Summers (R.O.P.’s UK sales director) has faced therefore is that many people have become cynical about any packaging solution that claims to extend shelf life. They think that with MAP, they have heard it all before, tried it out and it wasn’t always successful.
Science and differentiation
If they haven’t seen R.O.P.’s products before though, they haven’t seen it all. Our product is being used extensively across the US and it is widely used in Europe, but it is still relatively new to the UK. We have proved many times now that it works, that we can do what we say we’ll do consistently well, that it is fairly simple and comes at a reasonable cost. Paul asks people to try a simple desktop test and leaves them some product in a bag for them to keep in whatever the conditions are in their office. Almost without fail they are calling back a week later, amazed at the condition of the product and saying ‘wow, when can you start?’ Naturally, this is just the beginning of a long, but very rewarding journey.
We are coming from a scientific angle and with science, you need to prove something before people believe it. Paul spends a lot of time with customers, at their premises on a daily basis measuring gases and monitoring performance, to perfect the process and to prove it works.
One of the things that differentiates us most is that we are very strong on the retail side. We do the box lines, of course, but our real claim to fame is that our bags are going all the way from the harvesting point through to the consumer’s home and delivering huge added value for them.
The fresh produce industry is still years behind certain other sectors in the way it looks at life extension of its products, and particularly in the way it integrates that thinking with a desire to supply the end customer with healthy and nutritious product that they will find it hard to resist.
The subtle difference between the products being developed by R.O.P. and most of the other shelf-extending methods comes right at the beginning. When you start conversations about what we’re doing, it’s assumed that we are there purely to talk about extending the shelf life of a product, whether that’s broccoli, lychees or whatever. No-one is focusing on the nutritional values and what we can do to optimise them through using bags that are ideally suited to them.
Every single fruit or vegetable has its own distinct set of characteristics and we work extremely hard to understand that and develop our products accordingly. There is absolutely no long-term benefit from Marks & Spencer, for example, getting great benefits from being able to extend the shelf life of a product, if the product quickly breaks down when the customer leaves the store. Our bags are proven to continue that performance once the products are in the consumer’s home. If you can do that and retain the nutritional values of the product too, which we can, and avoid the tremendous level of waste (estimated today in the UK at roughly 40%) then everyone wins.
“We have already demonstrated that we can add at least two days shelf life to iceberg and loose leaf lettuce, which is excellent for the fresh cut industry. They used to dip the lettuce in chlorine, before the laws changed and they couldn’t do that any longer. Once you cannot do that, the only solution is to create the conditions where it isn’t necessary and rather than turn to more chemicals, which in my view is not the answer, why not focus on finding the way to preserve the product better in a natural way?
That not only preserves product in a desirable condition, but it reduces waste, saves money, improves the long-term taste and nutritional profile of the product and and as that consistency of offer increases, almost inevitably, so will sales.
People are beginning to associate their food more and more with its nutritional value and what that means to their lives. It has always been understood that fruit and vegetables are generally healthy to eat, but the evolving consumer and the increasing access they have to information about their food is making them more curious. If we can find ways to ensure consumers better understand precisely why their fresh produce is adding value to their lives, and deliver a consistent product that makes them want to eat more, we will succeed.
The produce industry has got used to waste – it’s an accepted part of the equation in just about every packhouse you ever go into. But go into an Intel facility – you don’t see microchips lying all over the floor. People still see product waste as predestined, while investing in more expensive packaging, which will prevent the waste as money out of their pocket. A more enlightened approach would be to view it as an important step towards making the company more efficient and more profitable through a holistic calculation.
A question that often comes up is ‘why would I want to extend the shelf life of my product, when my main aim is to sell more volume’. But if you spend a little more on film and it saves 20-30% of your total costs by significantly reducing waste, reducing customer claims, promoting your brand and allowing you to sell much more, it’s hard to see the argument against that. But there are still psychological barriers to cross in this industry.
That is not the only psychological barrier the industry needs to clear. I look on the shelves and see bagged bananas selling for 30-40p a kilo more than loose bananas. If we could conclusively prove that bagged bananas performed more consistently, tasted better and we could sell more of them for 30-40p more – even slightly less maybe – why wouldn’t we do that?
The point-of-difference is in the sales cycle. It’s easy to question why you would double the life of a broccoli, but if the consumer eats that broccoli and enjoys it, they will come in again a few days later and buy more of your broccoli. If they hate it, they are lost to the category. It’s not simply selling volume through the retailer that drives long-term sales, it is still the quality of the product that goes on the shelf. Providing customers with a product that they enjoy and does not go to waste lifts their expectations higher – with our solutions we meet those expectations, as well of those of our customers.
Ours is not a plug-in product, if you take these bags and work with us, it will add value to your business – this is not selling plastic.
Gal Wollach is part of the seminar programme at London Produce Show and Conference. He will be appearing on stage 2 in the Great Room at the Grosvenor House on June 9.