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January 8, 2008

FRESH FOOD: Packaging/Traceability: What You See Is What You Get

Packaging trends have long been inherently linked to changing lifestyles and consumer preferences. But with more foods than ever being sourced across international borders, and a spate of recent foodborne illness outbreaks that seems to become more convoluted and confusing with each passing day, the case has never been greater for creating packaging applications that offer sophisticated and transparent solutions right on down the supply chain.

To be sure, pressure is mounting from retailers, consumers, and even some lawmakers for fresh produce and meat suppliers to provide more information on how and where their products are grown, and the conditions under which they're grown, stored, and transported as they journey from farm to table. Couple this pressure with the requirements of the forthcoming country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law, set to commence Sept. 30, and it's clear there's room for a bigger role for efficient, sustainable, transparent packaging.

Traceability, and the many questions relating to the cost of implementation and compliance, is the focus of the Joint Produce Traceability Initiative Council, set to convene at the end of the summer and anticipated to produce a long-awaited set of industrywide standards.

Sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association, and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and comprising roughly 50 companies spanning the foodservice, distributor, retailer, and grower-shipper communities, the initiative seeks uniform guidelines and timelines for case-level traceability initially, and item-level traceability down the road.

Hot tomato
The drumbeat for traceability standards had been accelerating in recent years already, but picked up dramatically in the consumer press through the summer, following a protracted, frustrating investigation into a salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that has sickened more than 1,100 people across the country since April, and was at first erroneously linked to fresh tomatoes, with disastrous results.

Appearing in headlines far longer than anticipated, the stalled salmonella investigation prompted consumer groups to call on Congress to mandate traceability systems and production and handling standards for high-risk produce items, among a slate of other related regulatory demands.

At presstime the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration had finally lifted the ban on all tomatoes after their probe failed to find evidence of contamination along the supply chains involved in the tracebacks.

But the damage had already been done by way of massive pipeline disruption and economic losses dealt to the North American tomato industry. And the die has been cast in making traceability a prominent issue and requirement for industry action.

Interestingly, "the tomato debacle," as one major grocery official puts it, sheds light on one of the least discussed, though acutely important, aspects of any efficient traceability system: the ability for producers not affected by a recall to confidently and effectively communicate to the public that their products are safe.

HarvestMark, a company specializing in brand security solutions based on product codes, has created what it calls the HarvestMark traceability solution, which features codes on labels to provide unit-level traceability information to any constituent in the distribution chain, including consumers, via a secure Internet portal. Different levels of information can be made available to each constituent group. Grant considers this a reliable, affordable solution for instantly tracing produce, meat, and seafood back to the source of harvest.

"In addition to speeding the narrowing of the potential source of contamination, traceability offers the ability to unaffected growers to communicate to customers that [their brands] are not affected," says Grant. He labels the traceability issue "clearly one of the biggest challenges," adding that traceback problems are often compounded by companies that employ "internal" systems that not only slow down an investigation, but also aren't designed to provide information quickly to end consumers.

Grant contends it's essential that company systems be fully compatible with the produce traceability initiative and related global trade item number (GTIN) standard that can be deployed for case and pallet trace-forward and traceback, as well as for full unit-level traceability.

In addition to untold lost dollars, time, and resources, the damage to the industry's image caused by the series of high-profile food safety scares has been nothing short of devastating, especially for the produce industry, which has struggled mightily to increase consumption in a fragile economy.

Anyone who's remotely connected to the produce industry, however, knows just how seriously its players take food safety.

"I know it can be hard for consumers to understand just how hard growers and shippers work to keep the supply chain safe," says Grant. "Something we're striving for with HarvestMark is to give the produce industry an opportunity to tell its story better."

Grant acknowledges that unit-level traceability in the U.S. fresh produce sector is in its infancy, but he says it would be ideal for some specific produce types, such as field-packed produce and line-packed clamshell product. Watsonville, Calif.-based berry supplier Driscoll's is taking a lead by spearheading efforts to provide unit traceability on a national scale.

"Adoption of unit-level traceability by major brands, such as Driscoll's, makes it a lot less risky for other companies to jump in, too," explains Grant. "These early adopters recognized the brand benefits of item-level traceability, as well as the food safety message. We expect that once customers realize they can find out all this interesting origin and safety information on certain brands, they're going to wonder why they can't get it on all their produce."

Wielding influence
It goes without saying that food retailers -- particularly the large chains -- have tremendous influence over growers' decisions in this and many other areas. "With this influence comes a great responsibility," says Grant. "Retailers have the ability to engender systemic change for the better, such as requiring their suppliers to adopt time/temperature tracking."

Similarly, he adds, grocers play a key role by buying from growers that have adopted well-established food safety standards and verifiable traceability protocols.

"All retailers strive to bring fresh, safe produce to their customers, but they also operate on very thin margins, and have unimaginably complex supply chains. That means vendors like us have to offer solutions that are cost-effective and practical in the reality of the retail environment."

Grant also suggests that among all of the agents in the supply chain, retailers have the biggest opportunity to help educate shoppers about traceability. To that end, he claims that the first HarvestMark kiosk will be implemented in a retail store in mid-autumn. While he declines to identify the retailer, Grant does emphasize that the implementation would be the first time U.S. consumers could instantly scan a fresh produce item at the point of purchase and obtain "informative, meaningful, relevant traceability and safety data."

The HarvestMark traceback system in action

HarvestMark are working diligently to spread the word that there are "doable, cost-effective solutions" to the challenge of fresh product traceability that aren't disruptive to operations.

"A lot of growers and shippers would assume that traceability is difficult, expensive, and requires a change in the way they operate," he says. For this reason, the company conducted a case study evaluating an implementation of its new Harvestmark solution, results of which are on its Web site,

HarvestMark's clamshell code labels provide unit-level traceability information to anyone in the distribution chain via a secure Web-based portal. Here's a closer look at how it works: With the HarvestMark solution, every clamshell package gets a unique code preprinted on its label. The code is then associated with relevant harvest information, regardless of whether the clamshells are field-packed or linepacked. This harvest data is, in turn, made available throughout the supply chain and controlled by the brand owner.

Next the coded labels are added by the label printer, and applied in the normal manner by the clamshell manufacturer. HarvestMark's software allows the grower/shipper to easily upload harvest data, and incorporate both marketing messages -- for instance, a map of farm, photos of the harvest, and information on the particular variety -- and up-to-date food safety information and messages (i.e., "This product was grown in California and is not affected by the recent recall of Mexican tomatoes").

Grant says there are certain features that distinguish the HarvestMark solution: Ease of implementation: Depending on the packing process, the HarvestMark solution can be implemented without pushing technology to the field. The solution also comes with significant back-end intelligence so that operator training is kept to a minimum. HarvestMark can be ready to go on day one.Resistance to errors: HarvestMark coded labels aren't sequential, appearing to be completely random, a scenario that provides three important benefits, says Grant. "First, it makes clamshell deployment in the field simpler, as the grower doesn't need to worry about using cases of clamshells in a particular order. Second, it dramatically reduces the chance of an end user getting what's called a 'false negative,' where they get the wrong harvest data if they mistype a code." Because HarvestMark codes aren't sequential, it's very unlikely that a mistyped code would result in a valid response," he says, adding that instead, the system prompts the user to check that an error wasn't made.Codes can be used as proof of purchase: In this case, if a brand owner wants to offer a refund (say, for spoiled or recalled product), the consumer can simply enter the code, whose built-in security makes it impractical to guess.Reliability and security: HarvestMark, the company that developed and built the HarvestMark system, has years of experience in developing and deploying large-scale, highly secure item-level identification solutions, according to Grant. "HarvestMark has issued well over 100 million secure codes, and has had solutions running continuously for over two years without a hiccup, and maintenance-free. HarvestMark builds and maintains the data centers that ensure that growers' data is securely held and instantly available, 7/24."Web-based access: "Many solutions boast 'farm to fork,' but we really do it," says Grant. By extending the solution all the way to the consumer, the system allows people go to a secure Web site in their own homes and enter their code. The secure site also allows authorized parties such as the USDA to access more detailed data.

Small changes, big results -- G-P style
With the average grocery store logging between 35,000 and 40,000 SKUs and so many products vying for consumers' attention, the typical retail environment has turned into a product battlefield. While sustainability is currently top of mind for all players, shelf impact remains a high priority.

Typically the first point of contact a consumer has with a new product, the "total packaging" -- color, texture, graphics, and branding -- has the potential to make or break a sale. Thus, with so much of a product's brand integrity tied to package design, any redesign -- big or small -- is an important decision. By taking a closer look at the entire packaging supply chain, companies can achieve both profitability and sustainability goals without compromising the integrity of the product or its shelf impact, contends paper and packaging pioneer Georgia-Pacific.

Keeping in mind that even the smallest changes can yield significant results, there are several ways to optimize a package without incorporating drastic changes, says the Atlanta-based company. A small package redesign usually goes undetected by the consumer and may not involve significant financial investments.

Using a lighter-weight material can greatly affect sustainability results and reduce costs. Choosing an alternative material such as microflute can help to achieve sustainability results. The lighter-weight material offers the strength of traditional corrugated and allows for superior graphic reproduction. Its benefits allow the package design to remain intact while offering clear sustainability results.

Having an open dialogue with your design team and supplier is critical to discovering the right opportunities for optimizing your package. Although major package redesigns require a larger initial investment, they typically yield more significant sustainability results. As new products are regularly added to retail shelves, having an eye-catching package becomes crucial to maintaining market share.

Studies have shown that the best way to attract consumer attention is to revitalize packaging. By reducing overall material usage and incorporating new artwork and package redesign, brand owners can present the product with a new look and feel. These changes will likely result in a refreshed product image, increase overall sustainability, and ultimately improve sales. Proof in the package

As both a corrugated supplier and a CPG company, Georgia-Pacific understands that an optimized package can enhance function, increase shelf appeal, and, in many cases, increase profitability and sustainability. This understanding is behind Georgia-Pacific's recent major package redesign for Dixie PerfecTouch Grab N Go insulated 12-ounce paper cups. Traditionally, paper cup packaging consists of a polyurethane bag filled with large quantities of stacked cups. In stores, this form of packaging can typically be found on the very top or bottom shelves, out of the prime viewing area of the consumer. This package design also leaves little room for branding or graphics to grab the attention of consumers and entice a sale. To enhance the shelf impact of its Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific redesigned the package to provide an excellent canvas for a variety of eye-catching designs, while communicating product benefits to the consumer. This new package design led to better shelf placement in stores and increased consumer convenience. The result was a highly optimized package that drove improved bottom-line results.

The big picture
Addressing a package's shelf impact is just one way to achieve sustainable results. Others include improving package design, addressing material optimization, consolidating SKU use, improving systemwide productivity, creating alternative packaging, optimizing material handling, and addressing warehousing and transportation efficiencies.

Georgia-Pacific is no stranger to helping customers meet their sustainability and profitability goals. Using its "Packaging Systems Optimization" (PSO) program -- developed at its Innovation Institute and comprising a rigorous fivestep process in which a team of packaging engineers analyzes a company's entire packaging supply chain -- G-P helps CPG companies adapt quickly to the dynamic retail environment.

After three weeks, G-P's PSO team delivers a detailed report that clearly outlines areas where cost savings, profitability, and sustainability can be mutually achieved.

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