The Real Reason For Over-Packaged Produce: Us.

If you’ve ever grumbled over a hermetically-sealed piece of produce and wondered why on earth a retailer would choose to sell fruit that’s wrapped more snugly than a swaddling infant, you’re not alone. A quick Google search for “produce over-packaging” reveals pages of pictures by irritated consumers of individually-wrapped cucumbers and apples in hard plastic clam-shells. And while there are plenty of folks who are vocal in their disdain for excessive packaging of produce, it turns out, the reason for all the wrapping is probably us.

This weekend, retailers, growers, food reporters and trend analysts gathered in Atlanta to talk shop at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit, and one of the big topics is produce packaging. The summit, which is essentially a trade show for people for whom fruits and veggies are more than just a source of vitamins (they’re a source of income), covers topics from trends in advertising and consumption of produce, to what retailers can do to increase their revenue. And this year, a major topic was packaging–what its purpose is, what kinds there are, and most of all, what consumers want produce packaging to do for them.

Produce packaging, which includes the corrugated boxes that fruit is shipped in, as well as the various plastic containers that house salad, berries, and even apples, is  a multi-billion dollar industry. According to one 2010 report, demand for produce packaging is expected to reach $2.4 billion by 2014. And, according to industry insiders, it’s mostly due to increased consumer demand.

As people are trying to add more fresh fruits and veggies to their diet, they’re looking for packaging that works for them, and they don’t buy as nearly as much much packaged produce as your (or retailers) might think they do. In fact, one self-reported survey found that most consumers stated that less than 15% of the produce they bought was packaged. And if the price is right, shoppers will almost always go with the less expensive, less-packaged items. Still, in a recent PMA survey, almost 90% of consumers agreed that packaging was important for preserving taste and freshness, and that convenience and storage were very important.

Additionally, consumers are interested in convenience and appearance. They’re more likely to buy products that look nice, and that they can inspect before purchase. Which, with a tower of apples, can be difficult to do. Individually-wrapped items, however, are easier to pick up and look at. They’re also easier to take to work, put in school lunches, and store in the refrigerator.

Which means that grocers are opting for the excessive packaging because, basically, it’s what we want. We want produce that looks pretty, goes well with out busy lives, and is wrapped up to keep it from going south. We want to be able to look it over, make sure it’s a good value, and know that it’ll make it home. But we also want our produce to be eco-friendly, and to not be wrapped in all kind of garbage. And with fresh produce, getting all of that in is a tall order. How can retailers and packagers actually make us happy?

Easy: by listening and learning about what’s really important.

The best way to relate that you’d rather have a bruised apple than a cubic ton of plastic waste is to let your grocer know, either with an email or letter, or with your dollar. Big box stores and small operations alike make decisions about what to carry and how to package it based on what their consumers want. And while all the summits in the world can try to predict and project what shoppers are going to buy, it’s what people are actually purchasing and saying that matters. Write to your grocer and let them know what’s important to you, whether it be biodegradable packaging or none at all. Or, skip the whole thing and buy in bulk. Either way, every time you purchase a product with poor or excessive packaging, no matter how much you grumble about it, if you bought it, you sent a message–and the industry is listening.

Image: The Daily Mail

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