( Courtesy The Mushroom Council )

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The trend in packaging for the produce industry early this year was toward eliminating single-use plastic or even doing away with packaging altogether, merchandising fruits and vegetables loose in bulk displays.

That seems to have changed with COVID-19 as consumers opt instead for more packaged fruits and vegetables that are untouched by other shoppers.

“With the pandemic, things seemed to have turned around,” said Jane Rhyno, vice president of sales and marketing for Highline Mushrooms, Leamington, Ontario 

“Many consumers are considering packaged product to now be safer than buying bulk — or loose — product,” she said.

The mushroom industry, which already seemed headed toward sustainable options, continues to review the packaging scene.

“COVID-19 has impacted the consumer’s perception on the requirements for packaging on produce, which we anticipate as a long-term consumer shift,” said Michael Richmond, vice president of sales for South Mill Champs, Kennett Square, Pa.

But he said this does not change the need for the industry to continue to pursue and deliver long-term sustainable packaging changes.

“Like many companies, we continue to look for ways to replace the existing packaging requirements with more responsible and forward-looking solutions,” he said.

The pandemic has shifted a good percentage of consumers from bulk to packaged mushrooms, said Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing for To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, Pa.

“We are focusing a lot of time analyzing individual pack sizes to ensure our retail partners have the optimal product mix for their consumers,” he said.

Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, Pa., also is conservation-minded when it comes to packaging.

The plastic tills the company uses for its Gourmet Blend are 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, which goes a long way toward removing plastic from the waste cycle, said Sean Steller, director of business development.

“We believe this is a big step forward for packaging fresh mushrooms, and (we) continue to look for future improvements,” he said.

Ponderosa Mushrooms & Specialty Foods, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, has completely switched to compostable tills, said Joe Salvo, president.

“We got rid of all Styrofoam a long time ago,” he said.

Now the company has done away with PET plastic.

“We’ve gone exclusively with a product called EarthCycle fiber pulp trays,” he said.

The trays are home compostable, fully sustainable and recyclable, he said.

Many retailers have requested the package, but he said it’s not practical for every chain.

“It’s quite expensive,” he said. “There’s quite a cost moving to a kind of packaging like that.”

EarthCycle trays cost 3 or 4 cents a unit more than typical trays, or twice the price of PET plastic, he said.

“Chains may want that product, but there’s a cost associated with it,” Salvo said.

Ostrom Mushroom Farms, Olympia, Wash., has offered a paper till for more than five years, said Fletcher Street, marketing and sales director.

The till was inspired by a Walmart supplier conference.

It took about a year to develop the till, which is made from coated paperboard that is printed with soy ink that is able to handle the moisture of the mushrooms.

“It handles it really nicely,” she said.

The package is made locally and fully recyclable in paper recycling programs.

It costs 2-3 cents more than plastic, though.

“It’s not the cheapest thing,” she said.

She estimated that about 30% of the company’s mushrooms are packaged in the paper tills. 

 

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