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Researcher learns from packing line

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New clamshell packaging designed to improve shelf life


By DAN WHEAT


Capital Press


WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Eva Almenar was excited to discuss the little bubble-wrap pads in the bottom of each plastic clamshell for cherries.


The soft material cushions the cherries but is needed more as a space filler, said officials of Stemilt Growers Inc. as they led Almenar on a tour of the company's Olds Station cherry packing line.


It was the first time Almenar, 37, watched a cherry packing line in action. She wasn't just any visitor. An assistant professor in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, Almenar heads a team there researching biodegradable and microperforated plastic packaging to double the retail shelf life of sweet cherries.


Some of it is being tested with stemless cherries, which is another part of a four-year, four-state, $3.9 million federally funded program to improve production and marketing of cherries. The program is in its second year and is headed by Matthew Whiting, stone fruit physiologist at the Washington State University Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.


On the July 14 tour with Almenar, Whiting said it would help her understand packing so the packaging she designs is compatible with existing technology. Beside Stemilt, her two-day trip was to take in Western Sweet Cherry Group in Yakima and Allen Brothers in Naches.


Almenar said she has an idea for another use for the bubble wrap but didn't want to reveal it until she has a chance to experiment with it.


Zach Williams, Stemilt procurement manager, explained that the one-pound open clamshells are sealed in perforated plastic wrap to help hold cherry moisture. He said it can be difficult to get retailers to accept new packaging.


Stemilt's wrap is not biodegradable. Almenar is experimenting with plastic made of polylactic acid which is biodegradable, compostable, made 100 percent from renewable resources and has been approved by the FDA for contact with food.



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