Cancel OK

Plastic in produce gets a pass – for now

I know I’m going to incur the wrath of a lot of people when I say this, but I think right now – more than ever – we need plastic packaging.

I know. I know!

I’ve spent the past several years reporting on plastic. From the utter failure of our recycling system to keep up with it, the problem with litter, the overzealous use of plastic packaging in the fresh produce department, to retailers that have taken drastic measures like removing all plastics in produce.

But now is not the time.

People are washing fresh produce as if they’re doing dishes – or, even worse, avoiding it altogether.

And that’s unacceptable.

Retailers are responding by lifting plastic bans in the US and Canada.

In my reporting, I’ve also advocated for plastic when it serves a function. And right now, that function is reassuring consumers that their food is safe.

If you listen to experts, they will tell you there is no evidence food transmits COVID-19. Coronavirus is not ingested. It’s a respiratory illness.

But that doesn’t seem to matter.

People are scared. People are listening to family practitioners who tell them to leave groceries in the garage for a few days and disinfect their broccoli with Lysol wipes.

Or, they’re buying canned and frozen.

When we break out fruit and vegetable sales at retail, fresh typically is 85% of sales dollars. Right now, canned and frozen are taking a huge bite out of that. Fresh was only 70% of that pie as consumers increased canned vegetable purchases 200% year-over-year.

Tell me the last time you thought canned asparagus was better than fresh.

I have a soft spot in my heart for canned peas, but I’ve also been told I’m a monster for that preference.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with canned and frozen, except that there’s an entire economy of fresh fruits and vegetables that is suffering right now, amid some of the highest retail demand ever recorded.

This is, of course, oversimplifying the situation. There’s a lot going on in supply and demand with foodservice basically out of commission. Hotels, schools, and restaurants are a huge driver for fresh produce purchases.

But fresh produce distributors are having to scramble to stay open, and growers are going to have to start leaving fruits and vegetables in the field if we can’t find a way to move more produce into the retail channel – and motivate consumers to buy it.

If they need the reassurance of pre-packed cilantro, I say give it to them – for now – while we continue working on making better, recycle-ready packaging and improve our vastly inefficient recycling system.

Pamela Riemenschneider is the Retail Editor for Blue Book Services.