4. Fresh produce packaging

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4.1. What is a package?

A package is created when fresh produce is brought together and contained. The package could conceivably contain different types, sizes, grades, or stages of maturity of produce. The important thing to remember is that the reason for bringing the produce together in the first place is to create a more manageable unit for conveying more than one item of produce in one handling step instead of several.

The question is not so much what is a package, but rather what should a package do, what different types of package are there, and how do we choose the right package? These and some other questions are tackled below, but for a more comprehensive coverage of the subject interested parties and extension workers are referred to "Packaging for Fruits, Vegetables and Root Crops" by Cornelis Schuur (see Section 12 for reference details.).

4.2. What Should a Package Do?

4.2.1. It Should Contain the Produce!

A package should above all other things be a container for produce and create a more efficient handling unit which can be easily be handled by one person. Clearly there are some packages in everyday use in the Huckster and Trafficker trades which do not fit this description because they may take two or more people to handle them effectively.

The package should provide a more convenient and efficient unit for the marketing of produce and allow for the weighing of produce as well as handling and transport to be accomplished in fewer steps.


4.2.2. It Should Protect the Produce!

The package should protect the produce at all stages of the marketing process from the producer to the consumer. Fresh produce is inherently perishable and needs to be protected particularly from mechanical damage inflicted during handling. Mechanical injury to produce, including cuts, compressions, impacts and vibration rubbing, will all lead to wounding and bruising of the produce and will seriously shorten the marketable life of the produce if not totally ruin the produce.

Careful harvesting and subsequent handling of the produce will eliminate most of the risks associated with cutting and wounding of the produce. In addition, the package containing the produce should not have sharp edges or corners, and nails and staples carefully placed so as not to pierce the produce.

Compression bruising of produce can be avoided by packaging in containers strong enough to withstand multiple stacking. Particularly delicate produce such as most fruits should be packaged in shallower containers such that the weight of the upper layers of produce do not crush those below. With any produce, the package should never be overfilled. The practice of many Hucksters/Traffickers is to overload their giant-sized crates and then sit on the lids to cram the produce down while an assistant nails the lid shut. This will cause serious loss of the produce and probable loss of the trade!

Impact damage to the produce is mostly caused by dropping or throwing the package, and by shocks in transport caused by excessive braking and accelerating and by driving too fast over bad roads. Dropping and throwing can be eliminated by using packages which are easily handled by one person. The package should never exceed 50kg and preferably not exceed 25kg and should have built in handles.

Vibration rubbing of produce results from transportation vibration transmitted to the package and causes abrasions ranging from light rub marks to removal of skin and flesh.

To prevent vibration rubbing, the package design should follow two important principles:

This may be achieved by including specially shaped liners in each package which conform to the shape of the produce, or by wrapping each individual item in tissue paper or some other like material. Citrus is often packed loosely and then lightly vibrated on a special rig which settles all the fruit down before the lid is applied with enough pressure on the produce to keep it in its place but without injury.

Packaging also has a role to play in acting as the interface with the environmental conditions experienced during marketing. Fresh produce must be ventilated or it will die from lack of oxygen, fruits such as bananas must be ventilated in the package if they are to be ripened with ethylene. However too much ventilation may cause drying out of the produce, or chilling of the produce in a cold climate or over-cold storeroom. Accordingly, the package design must incorporate ventilation suitable for the marketing and distribution system targetted.


4.2.3. It Should Communicate the Contents!

The package should be labelled in such a way that its contents are clearly understood. For the extra-regional export markets, and ideally for the regional and domestic markets as well, the package label should include the following information:

Communicate the Contents

The labels, for whatever market, should be printed clearly in waterproof ink on the outside of the container, usually on the short sides of the package. If the labels are hand written they should be in block capitals.

In the highly competitive extra-regional markets, where large volumes of produce and many thousands of packages are being constantly moved, it is vital that each package is properly labelled but equally important that your exports catch the buyers eye when he/she is busy and has a great deal of choice. Many exporters from all over the world have resorted to the use of multicoloured graphics and artwork to decorate their packaging purely to make it stand out from the crowd of rather plain brown Kraft paper packs sent from less marketminded exporters. Locally, the Caribbean Agricultural Trading Company (CATCO) has reported very favourable response from their brightly coloured packs for high value produce.

Clearly, the export marketing of fresh produce has entered a "cosmetic" phase where considerable investment is made in design of appealing logos and graphics none of which offer any physical advantages for the produce but help ensure market attention. Nevertheless, such is quality control in the extra-regional markets that the package must not only look good from the outside, it must contain produce which is up to an acceptable quality standard, or the bright distinctive label will become a signal for rejection by the buyers rather than the intended appeal.

The extra-regional markets now handle most produce in the form of palletised loads where packages of the same produce, pack design and origin are stacked in a tight pattern on a wooden pallet and moved by fork-lift trucks. The buyers and wholesalers are not often dealing with produce or even with individual "boxes", but with labelled stacks on pallets which may not be inspected until they reach a retail outlet.

4.3. Different Types of Package

There are many different types of package in use throughout the world, many of which have been carefully evaluated with respect to produce and market systems, while other types have often been adopted for general use without evaluation. Package types include sacks and nets, wooden crates, cartons or fibreboard boxes, plastic crates, baskets, pallet boxes and other such shipping containers. The uses, advantages and disadvantages of each of these packaging types is described below.


4.3.1. Sacks and Nets

Sacks and nets of various description, sizes and materials are in widespread use in the Eastern Caribbean for the domestic and regional marketing of many root crops such as sweet potato, dasheen, eddoe, yam, carrot, other crops such as pumpkin and fruits including citrus. the material used for the sacks may be woven natural fibres or more commonly nowadays the synthetic materials especially polypropylene or polyethylene. One of the most popular sacks in use in the Eastern Caribbean is the so-called " crocus bag".

Sacks are the cheapest form of packaging available, and are often used several times over, being easy and cheap to return. The sack occupies very little space itself, which gives some advantage to the shipper in the regional trade. However, cheapness is the only advantage that sacks have over other forms of packaging.

The disadvantages of sacks as packing materials are considerable. They are difficult to clean and sterilize and allow the build-up of decay organisms during multiple use. The lack of rigidity of sacks means that they offer no support for the produce, and when stacked do not prevent compression of the produce. Often the sacks used are too large to be conveniently handled and tend to be thrown rather than placed. Most of the sacks in use, particularly the "crocus bags", have a mesh size too small to allow proper ventilation of the produce. Sweet potato shipped in sacks are often broken and rotting by journey's end.


4.3.2. Baskets

Traditional round wicker type baskets have been used in Grenada for many years for exports to Trinidad and are still in common use. The baskets have the advantage that they are relatively cheap and are made from locally available and readily renewable resources. In addition, because of their spherical shape they may be rolled around if they are too heavy to lift. However, this rolling around is one of the worst features of the basket because the weight of the produce inside distorts the shape of the basket and the produce is alternately rubbed against the rough interior and crushed by the produce around it. The basket offers extremely little protection to the produce when several baskets or other containers are stacked on top of each other.

The basket also provides a suitably opaque container for contraband and this factor alone may prove to be its downfall in the Trinidad market because of extra attention from Customs officers, increased handling damage from the inspections and possible future legislation.


4.3.3. Wooden Crates

Wooden crates are widely used by the Hucksters and Traffickers in the inter-island trade in fresh produce. There are no standard sizes and designs in current use except for the wire-bound veneer crates which were obtained in Trinidad (actually used to import Irish potato into Trinidad from the Netherlands) for a short while. The normal procedure is for the traders to make up their own crates, typically from broken down pallets, with the result that the crate may be up to one cubic metre in dimension and weighing many kilograms empty. The size of the crate offers advantages to the traders in that the shipping cost is less on the inter-island schooners than for several smaller containers with the equivalent volume.

Wooden crates are relatively resistant to different weather conditions and to sea-water, and offer good ventilation for the produce. In addition, wooden-crates are often the only suitable container for very large commodities such as water melon.,/font><-p>

The disadvantages of wooden crates are chiefly concerned with the material itself. Untreated wood can easily become contaminated with decay organisms and may be difficult to wash effectively and keep clean. In addition, the rough surface of the wood may injure the produce unless it is planed down and/or a liner is used with the package. Manufacture of wooden crates from local timber may put extra pressure on valuable but limited resources.

The extra-regional export market will not often accept wooden crates unless they are of a standardized and accepted design. In any case the weight of wooden crates prevents their use for air freighted exports because of the very high cost.


4.3.4. Fibreboard Cartons

Fibreboard boxes or cartons may be of solid or corrugated fibreboard construction of varying thicknesses and resilience depending on the produce to be contained and the market to be supplied. They have the advantages of being light to carry, clean and smooth surfaced, they allow for easy printed application of labels and can be manufactured to a wide range of sizes, shapes and strength specifications.

The disadvantages of fibreboard cartons are particularly pertinent to the regional Huckster and Trafficker trade in the Eastern Caribbean, in that cartons are not reuseable, they are easily damaged by water and rough handling unless impregnated with wax at extra cost, and they cannot be produced economically on a small scale.


4.3.5. Plastic Crates

Plastic crates and containers can be manufactured to a wide variety of specifications, generally from either high density polyethylene (HDPE) or polypropylene (PP). Usually, plastic crates are more expensive than other forms of packaging, but have a very long lifespan allowing their use on a return basis for many Journeys. Plastic crates are nearly always the container of choice as a field crate where their use can be controlled, but they have few applications for most distribution systems unless transport, wholesale and retail are closely integrated.

Plastic crates are expensive and require a very high capital outlay. Some manufacturers do make plastic crates in the CARICOM region but these are not generally of a suitable design for fresh produce and import from outside the region is the only recommended avenue of supply at present. Occasionally, a Huckster may acquire a small supply of plastic crates for the inter-island trade but their use is far from widespread because they cannot be securely closed and pilferage is common. Plastic crates are not suitable packages for the extraregional export markets.


4.3.6. Paper, Plastic Film and Plastic Bags

Paper or plastic film is widely used as lining material and dividers for other forms of packaging. Tissue paper, shredded paper or plain Kraft paper helps prevent produce rubbing together or against the package walls and is generally only used with high value delicate commodities. Polystyrene foam wraps are very effective but very expensive and only economic on the most high-valued of export fruits.

Multiple layer paper sacks are used successfully for Irish potato in the extra-regional markets but have no practical application in the Eastern Caribbean because of higher ambient temperatures and humidity and the general insufficiency of refrigerated storage space. Large and small polythene bags and sacks are widely used as retail and occasionally as wholesale packages throughout the world and including the Eastern Caribbean, because they are relatively cheap and widely available. However, produce in plastic bags sweats horribly and heats up rapidly giving rise to perfect bacterial and fungal rot conditions. Their use should not be considered unless they are fairly small and properly ventilated with perforations and utilised only as a retail package.

4.4. Choosing the Right Package

The most important criteria for selecting the right package for your needs quickly boil down to the factors of cost and supply. Assuming that you have made the decisions about which market you are going to supply and the cost of the produce and the cost of transport are known, there remains the choice of package materials. The first criterion for any form of packaging is that it must add to the value of the produce handled, sufficient to cover the additional capital outlay and operation, plus a margin for profit.

The best way to cost packaging is as a unit cost per pound or kilogram of produce, and it does not matter what the cost is as long as it can be recovered from the market. In practice this means that the packaging and the produce must be competitive with those marketed by other suppliers. Good packaging of good produce has a clear financial advantage over poor quality produce which is poorly packed and presented.


4.4.1. Packaging for the Extra-Regional Markets

If the market is extra-regional then the only choice is fibreboard cartons, with the possible exception of pumpkin shipped to ethnic extra-regional markets. The next decision is which type of carton, which size and from which source. Several suppliers are located within the Eastern Caribbean:

A limited range of standard box designs are available from these suppliers, such as banana, mango, and 'Kenya' vegetable boxes, but not all suppliers can produce each type of carton. In St. Lucia and St. Vincent, the banana industry always takes precedence over orders for other produce exports, with the result that the suppliers are often slow and inconsistent. In addition, the regional suppliers are still limited to one or two colour print designs and usually on a brown Kraft paper background. The quality of the fibreboard and the adhesives used may also give cause for concern. Only SAPIL in Guyana has plans to install waxing machinery for cartons.

There are numerous suppliers in the USA and Europe of a very wide range of tested and tried designs of fibreboard carton. Provided a sufficiently large order is placed, these suppliers can construct custom dies for new designs and there are no restriction in printing designs and backgrounds. The quality of the fibreboard must meet stringent specifications and supply is rapid and reliable. Clearly, suppliers outside of the region have much to offer over the regional suppliers but may not be the obvious choice for supply of packaging because of foreign exchange requirements, imposition of local import duties and taxes, and possible application of protective measures. All of these factors may make extra-regional suppliers more expensive.


4.4.2. Packaging for the Regional Markets

A considerable array of different packaging types are in active use in the Eastern Caribbean for the purposes of regional trade of fresh produce. Figure 4.1. (see Figure 4.1. The inter-island trade in fresh produce) illustrates typical packages and conditions prevalent in the inter-island trade in fresh produce. The high percentage of post-harvest losses, estimated to be in excess of 25 per cent and often as high as 50 per cent or more, experienced in the inter-island trade says a great deal about the inadequacies of current handling and transport systems and indicates the very real inadequacy of much of the packaging used.

For the reasons stated in 4.3.2. above, wicker type baskets can not be recommended for the regional trade. Sacks and bags will no doubt continue to be used for many different crops but especially root crops. However, with the recession in Trinidad and the increased production of root crops in that island, it is likely that Traffickers from St. Vincent in particular will have to concentrate on lower export volumes of much better quality root crops if they are to continue supplying the Trinidad market. Clearly, the use of cartons and crates is favoured over sacks in such an environment.

Plastic crates are likely to prove too expensive because of their necessary import in large numbers from extra-regional sources. In addition, plastic crates do not offer sufficient security from pilfering and may themselves be the targets because of their potentially diverse other uses.

Wood crates and fibreboard cartons offer the most practical and economic choice for packaging for the inter-island trade, but availability of suitable designs at the right price and of consistent supply remains the greatest challenge to improvements.

In Dominica, in 1986, the British Development Division in the Caribbean (BDD) introduced some 250 wood crates for commercial trials with the Dominican Hucksters Association (DHA). The crates, designed and developed by packaging specialists at the Tropical Development and Research Institute (TDRI but now renamed as ODNRI) in England, were made locally at a small workshop from local timbers, principally 'Gommier' (Dacroides excelsa) and Mahot cochon. The design as illustrated in Figure 4.2. (see Figure 4.2. The Dominican collapsible wood crate), is of a lightweight collapsible crate intended to make at least eight return journeys with approximately 25 kg of produce each journey.

The trials were a success and many of the crates lasted for 20 journeys or more if carefully used and properly repaired. In addition, the Hucksters themselves expressed their satisfaction with the crate as being "stronger than it looks and easier to carry if nobody else there to help you". However, the Hucksters as individuals were not in a position to place a large enough order to ensure that the workshop would be sufficiently occupied. Indeed, the workshop has since closed. The FAO Regional Project on inter-island trade is ordering some 2000 of the crates from a small workshop cooperative in Dominica for supply to the Hucksters through the DHA, and possibly also for supply to other inter-island traders in the region if the workshop sees sufficient business.

In Grenada, there is an urgent need to replace the wicker baskets and giant crates which are inappropriate for the trade, but it is by no means certain that the crates could be economically manufactured in Grenada because of more limited forestry resources and higher labour costs than Dominica.

St. Vincent would clearly have to import timber to manufacture the crates and in any case has a carton factory on the island. St. Lucia also has a carton factory (WINERA) but does not have any significant regional trade in fresh produce which requires wood crates in preference to cartons.

The DHA in Dominica has resolved to introduce the "Hucksters Code of Practice" in which there is a considerable reliance on improved packaging as well as handling of the produce. However, they have met with considerable difficulty in acquiring a regular supply of suitable cartons for the inter-island trade whose requirements differ from the extraregional export trade. Cartons exported regionally must withstand rougher and more frequent handling and are often exposed to the elements with the real risk of collapse when wetted with rain or sea water. Waxed cartons have to be imported from outside the region at greater expense than can be supported by the Huckster trade. In addition, cartons require stapling machinery for assembly and which is usually not available to the Hucksters. The DHA experimented with a special carton obtained from Guyana which did not need staples, but the carton proved too weak for packaging of most produce other than very light commodities.

The inter-island trade will almost certainly continue to need different packaging types appropriate to the handling systems prevalent in different markets and determined by the economic packaging cost which can be borne by the produce.

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