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Storage of horticulture produce is of the utmost importance to achieve successful delivery to the marketplace. Further, both the volume and the uniformity of this product are parameters in which the retailer (i.e., grocery store, department store) is very price sensitive.
For certain produce items, such as head lettuce, the retailer is also very sensitive to visual quality. The desired market product has a visually pleasing appearance, e.g., leaves have good color and minimal bruising. Moreover, the appearance of the product should be consistent from package to package.
To obtain good visual quality of the produce item, e.g., head lettuce, for a package delivered to a retailer, the lettuce must be harvested when it is the appropriate size or the appropriate maturity. Ideally, the produce should be harvested at or near the time of sale. However, not all lettuce is harvested at this time, or even near this time.
It has been common practice to stack the lettuce in polyethylene bags and seal the bag. The bags are then shipped by truck to a central packing location and are then stacked and shipped to another central distribution location, e.g., a grocery store. When the retailer orders this product, the bags of lettuce are placed in refrigerated display cases by the retailer.
There are several drawbacks to this method of storage. First, the cost of transportation of this product is relatively high. Typically, the costs of shipping are more than the market value of the product. Moreover, a significant portion of this shipping cost is attributed to ancillary equipment used in the distribution chain, e.g., bulk storage, bulk shipping and associated equipment. For example, in distribution of bulk fresh-cut vegetables, a significant portion of the cost is attributed to shipping of ancilliary equipment used to store and distribute the product, e.g., bulk storage facilities.
In another example, the product, e.g., lettuce, is stored for a period of time, e.g., two weeks, to allow for acceptable visual quality. However, even though the product is stored for this period of time, this time period is short enough that the product still retains a significant market value. The amount of product that can be stored by this method is limited by the space available at the central packing location. Moreover, there is also a labor cost associated with packing the product into these storage facilities.
Alternatively, the product may be frozen, e.g., after harvest, and stored for a period of time, e.g., one to two weeks, to allow for acceptable visual quality. This solution is not desirable because freezing requires a significant amount of energy and results in a significant loss of product.
A third solution is for the retailer to assemble the product himself at the point of sale, or point of need. As used herein, the terms "point of need" and "point of sale" are synonymous. The most common example of this is in the case of a vegetable that is a head lettuce. In this example, the head lettuce is assembled, for example, by placing a desired amount of leaves in an appropriate container, e.g., a basket, and then securing the container together to form a package.
The most common method for assembling this type of produce is by wrapping it in a blanket or sheet of plastic, e.g., polyethylene. Wrapping provides some measure of protection to the product during shipping and during display in a refrigerated display case. However, the aesthetic appeal of the produce is still somewhat limited by this method.
As used herein, the term "produce" refers to any type of horticulture product. Horticulture products, e.g., fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, are grown on an industrial scale, e.g., in large controlled environments.