Packaging will play a central - and in some cases, active - role as the produce industry moves forward with its food safety efforts, said Jim Gorny, vice president of food safety and technology for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.
"Certainly, you're seeing a lot more packaging, which reduces the potential for contamination," he said.
Packaging does a lot more than hold product - it conveys information, Gorny said.
"When you pick up a head of lettuce or (an) apple, you don't know what brand it is, but with more packaging, you can see traceability down to the package label," he said.
Then, there's "smart packaging" that will tell a consumer even more about the product inside the bag or clamshell, Gorny said.
"I think you're going to see a lot more time-temperature indicators - basically, sensor technology through nanotechnologies that are becoming readily accessible," he said. "They can actually sense if there's salmonella present by some type of aroma or gas that we couldn't detect. It will turn blue or red on the label and say don't eat. Smart packaging is going to play a role. It's on the near horizon."
More packaging would seem counterintuitive in fresh fruits and vegetables, said Jeff Hall, food safety specialist with the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association.
"We are seeing more packaged product, but there's always going to be that consumer impulse to pick up and feel and smell the produce. It's a very tactile purchase, and people are always going to want to have some of that," he said.
Packaging is, in many cases, a crucial last line of defense in safeguarding food from contamination, said Jon Kimble, food safety services manager with the Sacramento, Calif.-based Safe Food Alliance.
"Fully enclosed packaging has begun seeing use with products it has not been used for in the past. Additionally, functionality like tamper-evident seals protect consumers against potential harm," he said.
The Lawrenceville, N.J.-based data firm GS1 US, which deals in bar codes and other information conveyances, has been working with the Grocery Manufacturers Association's SmartLabel initiative, in which food manufacturers have agreed to provide additional product information to consumers in a consistent format available with the scan of a (quick-response) code on packaging, said Angela Fernandez, vice president of retail grocery and foodservice with GS1 US.
"We anticipate a lot of brands will look to this and other smart packaging technology to satisfy new requirements for GMO labeling and nutrition facts panel changes," she said.
Packaging may be more ubiquitous, but it still has to provide product visibility, said Jim DiMenna, president of Kingsville, Ontario-based greenhouse vegetable grower-shipper Red Sun Farms.
"Don't forget produce is a touch-see-feel product, and the packaging has to be clear so you can see what's inside," he said.
The "touch" aspect is gone, inevitably, DiMenna said.
"There are some tradeoffs, I guess," he said.