Pre-Packaged Produce: Fresh Foods Get a "Bad Wrap" for Sustainability
Something Has Changed in the Produce Aisles
Visiting a supermarket where I used to shop frequently, I was surprised to find that most of the fresh produce was pre-packaged.
It wasn't that way before.
There I was with my washable, reusable, environmentally-friendly grocery bags, and I was picking up things that were encased in plastic, cellophane, styrofoam, and cardboard.
This Is the Way It Should Look
As soon as I realized what was happening, I began to put some of my selections back. Then picked a couple of stalks of broccoli that were packaged only in a rubber band. (Even the rubber band wasn't necessary—I would have taken two stalks, anyway.)
I selected some loose apples, lemons, and oranges. I chose a head of lettuce that did have plastic wrapping, along with a leaf lettuce that merely had only a wire wrapping band around it.
Change for the Better?
Some of their displays had been changed around since the last time I visited there. This is not unusual. Supermarkets are always changing things around.
It is a large store, and I always liked their selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The produce was still at the far end of the store, stretching from the back to the front in an area that is about 40 feet wide with refrigerated cases along the walls and bins filling the center section.
Near a back wall were the fresh, unpackaged vegetables, and I noticed that the long sidewall that stretched from the back to the front of the store also had vegetables and fruits, but most of them were packed in plastic in bags, plastic clamshells, and other containers.
There were containers of cut up and peeled fruits, bagged salad greens, packaged mixed cut up vegetables, and a large array of natural fruit and vegetable juices in the cases.
There are also a lot of complete salads and ready-to-eat meal components.
In the bins, there were also packaged fruits and vegetables and a few loose things, like apples and oranges and onions, but as I checked around it looked like about 70% of all of the fresh fruits and vegetables were packaged in some way.
Fresh and Trashless
I like buying fresh vegetables but don't like the fact so many of them now packed in wrapping material that conceals, rather than preserves, the freshness.
Using the least processed, least packaged product saves money, even if it costs a little more time.
The packaging needs to be thrown away and is not the kind that is easily recyclable.
I make most meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. When I'm preparing them, the only thing I usually have to throw away are the peelings in and trimmings. (These go to the chickens and the compost heap.)
I'm not throwing away cans and jars and boxes, or plastic containers and plastic bags.
Beets and Coconuts
I saw some precooked steamed beets that were sealed inside some tough plastic, then covered with a cardboard sleeve that concealed the product.
At first, I thought it might be a good idea. Beets are a little messy to peel, clean, and cook.
But then I realized that I might as well buy canned beets, if I want something pre-cooked and processed with additives. At least cans are recyclable.
One of the most puzzling things I have seen fresh packaged was a coconut.
It was on a styrofoam tray covered with plastic with a little label. What??? Don't people know that coconuts come in their own packaging?
Is This Really Necessary?
Good Things for the Consumer
1. Packaging prevents dehydration. It protects crispiness, keeps in fresheness and vitamins. (At least this is what packagers claim.)
2. Packaging keeps food more sanitary. It discourages handling, squeezing and pinching by the customers.
3. Packaged products are time-saving. More people opting for fresh fruits and veggies as snacks. For convenience, small portions prevent unnecessary food waste.
4. Kids like them. Kids, and adults, will eat more fruits and vegetables in lunchboxes, if they are conveniently packaged in single servings.
Bad Things for the Consumer
What are the problems with pre-packaging?
1. Disease Outbreaks: Salmonella, lysteria, and e.Coli outbreaks have been traced to bagged fresh produce, especially spinach and salad greens. Think about the possibility of a tiny bit of contamination from manure or tainted irrigation water that is in a plastic bag being trucked across the desert. A perfect incubator for bacteria.
2. More Unrecyleable Trash: Styrofoam trays are one of the least degradable packaging materials known to man. The plastic, cellophane and saran are not likely to be recycled either.
3. Loss of Nutrients: Precut vegetables and fruits lose vitamins and other nutrients faster than whole products.
4. Expensive: You generally will be paying more, by weight, when you buy packaged produce. A prepared package of cut up fruit, for instance, usually costs at least twice as much as whole fruit you can cut yourself. And if you're buying from a farmer's market, you probably can save 50% more.
5. More Technology Pollution: Manufacturing the plastic packaging materials for these fruits and vegetables to help them maintain their freshness may create more pollution.
6. Spoiled or Overripe: You have to inspect packed produce carefully to make sure it is not spoiled, moldy, or dried up. The refrigerated fruit could be in a "chilled gas chamber."
7. Taste and Smell: Compounds sprayed on produce (chlorine and ozone are two) to retard spoilage may leave unpleasant traces.
8. More Government Laws and Agencies: It takes government entities to make sure that packages are labeled correctly with contents, weight and place of origin. Laws and regulations have to be made to make sure fresh food is properly weighed, cleaned, processed, branded, identified, labeled, packaged, presented, transported, stored, and tested.
Is There a Difference?
Good Things for the Seller
1. Less Waste: The bruised apple, the imperfect potato and the damaged artichoke will no longer be left behind if it is hidden in a bag with other more acceptable pieces.
2. Less spoilage: More "peak ripeness" foods will survive handling and be bought by unsuspecting customers. Packaging helps prevent damage and loss from browsing customers.
3. Fewer employees: There will be fewer produce people trimming lettuce in the back room or pulling out imperfect items from the bins. There will be less cleanup in the store.
4. More Profit, Higher Margins: The packaged items are almost always significantly higher per pound than the unwrapped fruit and vegetables. Less product, more packaging (have to cover that cost), still equals more profit.
This is why pre-packed produce is called a "value added" product. With their colorful labels, they look good and seem easy, which entices the customer. Perfectly cut portions look nice, too. They may even come with printed recipes or a plastic fork.
Bad Things for the Seller
1. Pre-cut vegetables and fruit need to be kept on ice or refrigerated for best quality.
The point is, there doesn't seem to be many bad things for the seller. It might be bad if people start buying their produce from farm stands or growing their own. These alternatives are not available to everyone.
What does it mean?
Probably we will see almost every fresh product being packaged in the future-- even bananas, pineapple and coconuts.
Lettuce: A Heads-Up Case Study
These are typical prices for comparison. Prices vary with region, season and weather which can affect availability.
Bagged Lettuce Mix Organic: $3.99 for 11 oz. = 36c per oz. I rarely buy bagged mixed salad greens. There are always a few badly wilted (or worse) pieces in the bag. These mixes seem like a great convenience, but they are also one of the items most likely to be contaminated.
Often they contain pieces that have been culled from greens which would not be presentable in whole form. Substandard lettuce heads not packaged in the field are sent to packing plants where they are sprayed with "preserving agents" and cut into pieces for pre-packaged sale.
Some people think that the plastic bag encourages growth of any bacteria which may be present, especially if there has been a lapse in refrigeration during transportation of storage. By weight, bagged salad can easily cost 73% more.
Romaine Hearts: $ 2.99 for 18 oz =17c per oz. Tops of the "hearts" were a little wilted, not really crisp. Though the package is dated with a "best by date" that still had time remaining, it seemed that the lettuce hearts may have been culled from bunches that had possibly become wilted on the outer leaves.
The bag recommended washing before use, so little work was saved for the consumer. The bottoms of the stem ends were "rustier" than the unbagged bunch of lettuce, indicating an older age.
Leaf Romaine Lettuce: $1.29 for 20 oz. = 6.5c per oz. Though some of the outer leaves needed to be discarded (given to chickens), the lettuce was crisp and there was considerably more green leaf in the total content.
Retailers may be paying for a 45-lb. box of untrimmed iceberg lettuce and have to trim 10 pounds off even though they’re still paying for it to be shipped. They pay for labor and disposal of the bad lettuce. Obviously they would rather sell the bagged salads.
This Has Already Happened With "Fresh" Meat.
In the "olden days" patrons told the meat cutter how much of what kind they wanted and and it was custom cut, or customers pointed out their choices from the refrigerated case. The meat man weighed it and wrapped it in paper.
Now most supermarket meats are pre-cut and prepackaged in refrigerated for the "convenience of the customer". More and more of it of it is even pre-seasoned and/or precooked.
Some of it is even sealed into unrecyclable cryovac packages along with tenderizers, preservatives and other artificial ingredients. We are seeing less and less fresh cut meat that has not be tampered with.
When this first started with fresh meat we probably didn't realize that the beef, pork chicken and other protein may have been cut up days ago. Perhaps, even more to the point, we didn't realize how much saran, cardboard, plastic and styrofoam trash it would add to our landfills.
Now it looks like produce may be going in the same direction.
Hope for Local and Home Farmers
What else can we do?
Shop at your local farmer’s market. for fresh and healthy food. Farmers might sell “cosmetically challenged” produce at a discounted rate. You can often find real bargains that taste better than you would expect.
Buy direct. If you are close to farms or sources of food, it is cheaper. Visit localharvest.org to connect to farmers and other food producers in your area.
I hope our fruit trees do well this year, and I'm planning to give the vegetable garden a little extra attention.
I really want to eat more fresh food—more real food—without bringing home all the the trash, litter, and other problems that may be lurking.