Containing the Food Industry

Sept. 1, 2002
Plastic containers have been around a long time in the food industry. Here are new ones that push the boundaries of conventional containers.

Containing the Food Industry

Elsewhere in this issue is a major story on what’s happening in the food distribution industry. One challenge when writing (and reading) food stories is to not get hungry or want more when the story’s finished. Lack of space (on the pages, not in my stomach) prevented me from serving up the container part of the story, so I’ll offer a few after-story tidbits here.

Reusable plastic containers have been around the food distribution industry probably as long as they have the automotive industry. There’s a constant evolution in container design technology. Cross-pollination of ideas from one industry to another seems to grow more and better ideas. From humble beginnings as trays holding various fresh produce in the supermarket, their use has grown to following foodstuff from the growing field or ocean bottom to the retail store — and back.

While not technically a shipping container, a cool product from Buckhorn caught my eye one day while I was visiting its manufacturing plant in the Corn Belt town of Bluffton, Indiana. Turned out that the strange looking “container” was not a container. It was actually a plastic version of the traditional wooden lobster trap. The trap withstands the rigors of the ocean bottom for lobstermen from Maine to Florida.

However, there is a container that does hold lobsters. It’s manufactured by IPL Products Ltd. The FlapNest Lobster Crate is said to be the first plastic container developed specifically for handling live lobsters. The crate is used onboard the lobster boat because it floats, allowing lobsters to remain submerged, even with the cover open. IPL also has another container designed for transporting creatures like live crabs from the sea to the market.

If you’re more the meat-and-potatoes kind of person, container manufacturers have a host of specialty products to satisfy your hunger. Buckhorn’s two-tone MultiPac, designed to be meatcase-ready, features three stacking levels for handling steaks, chops and chubs. Several manufacturers offer containers in bi-colors to assist in identity of stacked units. Full and stacked nesting positions offer different color schemes.

For vegetarians, and those who enjoy a good salad with their dinner, thanks to some containers from Orbis, your favorite veggies are traveling directly from the field to grocers’ shelves unscathed. Orbis’ stack-n-nest design has a unique cross-stack feature that allows for unsequential stacking. The cross-stack design secures the stack for shipping integrity and decreased product damage.

This new design is also said to simplify the harvesting process. Using smaller containers eliminates the tendency for field workers to load too much product into the box, thus damaging fruits and vegetables. Smaller containers are also easier for field workers to handle.

And now we get down to my favorite part of the meal, dessert. Why dessert is traditionally the last course and not the first has always been a mystery to me.

Fresh fruit is not only healthy, it tastes good, too. A research study conducted by the University of California — Davis, and released in August, shows that strawberries packed in five-down (five down refers to a footprint size that fits five containers per layer on a standard GMA pallet) corrugated common footprint containers cool faster and suffer less bruising. With corrugated containers, growers can fit more product per pallet than with reusable plastic containers.

The study was co-sponsored by the Reusable Pallet and Crate Coalition and the Fibre Box Association on behalf of the California Strawberry Commission. Its purpose was to compare the effects of packing strawberries in five-down corrugated containers versus five-down reusable plastic containers versus six-down industry-standard corrugated trays.

A similar study done earlier indicates the Fibre Box Association’s corrugated common footprint containers provide the best protection for peaches and nectarines, with less statistically significant bruising in simulated transit testing.

Well, that takes care of the two major food groups — plastic and paper. Time for lunch.

Clyde E. Witt, executive editor, [email protected]

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