Glancing around his office, Kevin Donovan spies 15 types of packaging, all vying for attention.
“We keep looking for a container that’s more environmentally friendly and works with mushrooms,” said Donovan, national sales manager of Kennett Square, Pa.-based Phillips Mushroom Farms.
That seemingly simple request has led growers on an international quest with no end in sight.
“Nothing keeps mushrooms as well as a Styrofoam till,” said Bill St. John, sales and transportation manager for Kitchen Pride Mushroom Farms, a regional grower in Gonzales, Texas. “But we don’t want the stigma associated with it.”
Over the years, St. John and other growers have tried everything from palm fiber, bamboo and cornstarch to heavy cardboard and recycled paper sheets that distorted and came loose in the store within a few days.
“We found some in Malaysia a few years ago,” St. John said, “but shipping was a problem and they couldn’t guarantee a supply.”
This year’s winner is a plastic tray made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) in blue, green, black and pink for breast cancer month.
“We think it’s a superior product because it’s recycled and can go around the recycling loop a lot,” said Gary Schroeder, president of Oakshire Farms, a Dole supplier, which plans to be selling all of its mushrooms in RPET trays by March.
Aldergrove, British Columbia-based Champ’s Mushrooms will begin transitioning its entire line into RPET this month, said sales manager Rick Watters.
“More people know what to do with the plastic container than with the biodegradable ones out there,” Watters said.
Donovan said Phillips is content with RPET for now, but he’s still keeping his eye on cardboard.
“At the end of the day, it’s a marketing choice by the retailer,” he said. “We’re happy to do either one.”
At Watsonville, Calif.- based Monterey Mushrooms, vice president Joe Caldwell is thrilled with his 2-year-old sustainable package made of corrugated paper.
“It’s a little more expensive but it now makes up 90% or more of our U.S. retail packages,” said Caldwell. “It’s also biodegradable and offers more information for the consumer,” he said, “from nutritional information and recipes to other serving suggestions.”
Though the natural paper till is more durable than previous versions, it doesn’t keep its pristine shape and tends to produce a little mould as it absorbs moisture from the mushrooms.
“That was the biggest concern for retailers new to the product,” Caldwell said, “but it has not detracted one bit from consumer acceptance. … The response has been amazing.”
In Olympia, Wash., family-owned Ostrom’s Mushrooms has almost completed its switch from a glossy white to a coated kraft paper till.
The recyclable but not compostable till is made of recycled material sourced 20 minutes from the farm and cut and printed two hours away.
“It’s hard to take the step of paying more for your packaging,” said Fletcher Street, Ostrom’s director of marketing and sales, “but being a small company in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re all hugging trees and worrying about water quality, it’s really important for our customers.”
Finding a paper tray to replace foam for portobello caps and sliced has proved more challenging, Street said.
“The longer the trays are, the more there’s torque if you’re wrapping them and there are stability issues,” she said.
Though the colors aren’t as vibrant on the new kraft tills, Ostrom’s still color-codes its packages by variety.
“Mushrooms tend to be an impulse item,” Street said. “Any way you can make that section of the store look a little more interesting with different colors, sizes and package shapes, it helps.”