Post COVID, the fresh food industry can see clearly that the struggle between time and distance must be solved, as well as protecting the supplies and goods as they move through the chain, said Jeff Rebh, president and chief executive officer of Innoseal Systems Inc.

“Smaller, more manageable package sizes are being investigated. Again, less touch and an increased demand for a more hygienic delivery.”

Key examples of solutions are being examined and implemented. That means more grab-and-go sized packaging, Rebh said, and moving away from bulk bins and developing smaller, efficient pre-packaged goods. 

The packaging industry is fast moving and ever changing in light of demands from retailers, government regulations, and consumers.

“In being a leader in flexible packaging specific to fresh produce, we have a sincere sense of urgency to actionable improvement of packaging systems, materials management, and recycling while maintaining our most crucial mission—protect fresh food and contribute to lifespan extension,” said Keith Fox, president of Fox Packaging.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a tremendous shift in how Fox Packaging conducted business ― prices were increased across many facets of its supply chain and film was not readily available; all the while, orders were being stacked and demand phenomenally increased, said Craig Fox, executive vice president of Fox Packaging.

“Sustainability did not take a back seat; our team prioritized research of material types and design optimization, by using this data and reinforcing our supplier relationships, we are improving the efficiency of our product line,” he said. “Although our expertise is in the fresh produce sector, flexible packaging applications continue to expand to new product lines and types; the stand-up pouch bag is a store-shelf staple that has transitioned to e-commerce, as it is a convenient design for store presentation and shipping. As consumers have become increasingly aware of their touch points of their produce, packaging has served as a protective barrier that keeps produce untouched and offers peace of mind to buyers. As automation technology advances, packaging will continue to be a design of preference for both buyers and consumers. We continue to develop our products with environmental mindfulness.”


Supply chain challenges

Paul Frantz, president of food and delivery, Novolex, points to several global supply chain challenges for the industry. Domestic and global transportation slowdowns have hampered the movement of raw materials across countries. Once supplies come on shore or when finished goods are ready for distribution, domestic labor shortages throughout the entire supply chain can still affect plants and the third-party logistics sector, made up of truck drivers that the industry depends on to deliver products.

“As a converter, Novolex is only one step of the supply chain from materials suppliers through to our customers and their consumers. To manage, we remain in close contact with our suppliers and customers alike to manage expectations,” he said.

Companies and their partners need to factor in additional lead-time to meet customer requirements, Frantz says. The pre-COVID supply chain was relatively predicable, and Novolex was able to plan for raw materials, labor, and transportation in advance, providing a high value chain that could produce goods at a consistent pace. COVID completely changed this for reasons noted in my response to your first question.

“As a manufacturer, we’ve had to work with our customers and raw material partners to meet demands in adequate time,” he said. “There are indications that parts of the supply chain may be stabilizing but we're keeping a close watch so that we can deliver products like our produce bags and rigid plastic packaging for hot and cold self-service stations.”

“It's all about capacity and that's where we're investing. In the last 24 months we acquired four paper packaging businesses. These acquisitions added four plants to our system and multiple production lines.  We're particularly proud of the acquisition integration strategy that we've honed over the course of multiple acquisitions and that's enabled us to bring these new facilities on-stream fast to quickly support our customers.”

Everything at Novolex begins and ends with the customer; what do they need and how do we get it to them, Frantz said.


Responding to crisis

So how has the production/distribution system changed because of COVID, and what are the key takeaways for the fresh food system to understand?

Rebh pointed out that restaurant delivery can serve as an example. Packaging has been changed to protect the consumer from door to door. Food safety and packaging is ever more important to the consumer. The example of using tamper-evident packaging in restaurants and food delivery services can be easily transferred to other fresh food systems.

Innoseal manufactures and distributes tamper-evident bag closing systems. 

“We use a proprietary blend of FSC recycled paper and polypropylene tape to create a virtually airtight seal. We take pride in minimizing our packaging waste and offsetting our carbon load with newly installed solar panels at our manufacturing facility in The Netherlands,” he said.

Innoseal sources material locally and globally distributes products by maximizing efficiencies through the entire supply chain. Their goal is to minimize the energy it takes to move raw material and finished product through the system.     

“It always comes down to education,” Rebh said. “The consumer demands accountability from energy to sustainability.  We, the supplier(s), need to do better at being transparent. What is best for the individual consumer, the market, and the entire ecosystem.    


Sustainability benefits

At Fox Packaging, Keith Fox explains that the review of packaging designs and materials has continued to stay at the forefront of packaging conversations.

“We’ve continued to review the components of our products to offer greater sustainability benefits and have been proactive in communicating the importance of reviewing your packaging program to ensure that the key features are addressed in an environmentally mindful way. Our sister company, Fox Solutions, has been working alongside us in review of our Stand-Up Pouch Program as we continue to develop designs that stand out on the shelf and can be seamlessly packed with pouch bagging automation. Part of our culture is nurturing respectful and professional relationships, we understand our customers’ needs and in turn, our customers can reach out to us with packaging concept ideas and our team will realistically approach them; this type of collaboration is key when selecting a packaging partner.”

Their team has been proactive in reviewing pouch bag materials from a sustainability perspective. Performance is key; ideal materials do not require you to sacrifice sustainable properties.

“We’ve been able to restructure the chemical performance properties of films without impacting the recyclability of our product or the overall cost of a finished bag. As members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and approved printers of the How2Recycle label, the research and development aspects of our product line has been paramount as we work with our customers to fill their needs and achieve their organizational goals,” said Victoria Lopez, marketing manager, Fox Packaging.

Fox Packaging is seeing a new range of commodities that are now being transitioned into flexible packaging. Marketing, engineering and Fox Solutions teams have worked in collaboration to approach the individual characteristics of these new commodities to design packaging that serves their lifecycle and unique properties. The company appreciates the trust that customers place in us to lend expertise and serve their needs in an innovative way. Having a domestic packaging partner is an enormous benefit to growers as the overall lead time for delivery is significantly reduced, said Craig Fox.