Staying ahead of the pack

IS it just me or is contemporary food packaging in danger of outsmarting the average consumer as big businesses compete to out-convenience and out-clever one another?

This occurred to me the other day when my teenager – whom I consider to be pretty intelligent (despite his Afrikaans teacher’s insistence to the contrary) – stomped angrily into my office brandishing a readymade cheese burger in its nifty transparent and microwave-friendly pack, which looked like it might be more expensive to manufacture than the contents thereof.

“I can’t work out the stupid child-lock thingy on this burger,” he fumed, flinging it impatiently onto my desk.

With difficulty, I read the infinitesimal printing on the pack. Some of the instructions were delicately stamped into the clear material, making it ideal perhaps, for those educated in brail but near impossible for me to figure out, even with my -9 contact lenses and a pair of -1 reading glasses in place.

Eventually, Master Huff Puff and I confirmed that the pack did not, in fact, feature a child-lock. Even so, unfastening it required an intense session of crow barring using a pair of scissors and a letter opener. And, when we at last succeeded in releasing the catch, the pack sprung open with such force that bun, patty and cheese bounced out, parted ways and landed in various places on my desk and alongside it on the floor.

We found a slice of gherkin lodged between ‘k’ and ‘l’ on my keyboard, a piece of tomato clinging to a stapler and a sliver of onion perching on the Pritt.

“Are you serious?” grumbled my son, as he rounded up and reassembled his lunch. “They call this convenience food?”

For sure, “convenience” is an adored word of food marketers, particularly when they unveil new packaging, it seems.

At the recent launch of UK-company John West’s No Drain, Less Mess canned tuna, marketing director, Jeremy Coles said: “This new launch is set to add significant incremental growth to the canned fish category by offering consumers the opportunity to trade up for added convenience and better taste.”

No Drain, Less Mess tuna is, says the company, packaged using “patented no drain technology” that was developed by John West over 18 months. The new product is backed by a £3-m marketing campaign and the packaging technology “takes away some of life’s little dramas” by reducing the quantity of liquid that keeps the tuna moist during the cooking and canning process.

“Life’s little dramas?”

Reversing full throttle into a beautifully restored classic MG roadster in my old Jeep at the gym is one of life’s little dramas. Discovering, as you land at OR Tambo and head towards home, that you have left your house and car keys in the safe of a hotel room in Cape Town is a little drama. Watching your husband put his fist through a laptop because it has hung up once too often is a little drama. Seeing the neighbour’s pit-bull terrier take hold of your cat is a little drama. Draining tuna is not. And if you describe process as such, my guess is you are either Canadian or you live alone on a very big farm in the Karoo.

Of course, über-convenient packaging does not begin end with burgers and tuna. UK retail chain, Sainsbury’s is currently blasting its trumpet about the new packaging it invented for fresh blueberries. The new ‘how did we ever survive without them’ containers “incorporate holes at the bottom of the pack to further increase customer convenience, as now you don’t have to put the blueberries into a bowl to wash them”.

But wait, there’s more.

In the land of Lehman Brothers and General Motors, that country’s third largest manufacturer of pre-packed lunchmeats, Land O’Frost, recently announced the launch of its “first Sub Sandwich Kit, featuring consumer favourites, smoked ham and oven roasted turkey, in (wait for it) the same package”.

“The Land O’Frost Sub Sandwich Kit caters to busy moms who want convenience, value and consistent quality in everything they purchase for their families,” says Land O’Frost president, David Van Eekeren.

The company claims its Sub Sandwich Kit differs from similar products on the market “thanks to its special packaging design”. Inside each Sub Sandwich Kit, the ham and turkey are packaged separately, ensuring the “lunchmeat flavours do not overlap and promising maximum freshness after each use”.

And did you hear about the newly developed range of biodegradable chocolate boxes that are made from material “derived from annual harvesting of specialised non-genetically modified (hybrid) corn”? In other words, when you have scoffed all the chocolates, you can use the box to fertilise your garden. How convenient and environmentally friendly is that?

And, if you do not have a garden but need somewhere to keep your trinkets, you can go for Masterfood’s Galaxy Jewels Assorted Chocolates. These treats are packed in a jewellery box-style package that features a blingified stacking system, which unfolds to create a useful container that will provide years of convenience long after the chocolates are gone.

Many though, argue that ultimate convenience in packaging is achieved when the pack either self-cools or heats its contents on demand. Self-heating soup and coffee packs have been around in various forms for a while. Nowadays, however, German company, Zeo-Techs also makes it possible to drink cool beer anywhere you want. Its “zeolite-technology” chills beer contained in a self-cooling keg to 6 °C to 9 °C within 30-45 minutes. The drawback however, is that, at present, only 20-litre self-cooling kegs are available, so it is more of a party pack than something to take on an intimate family picnic.

Indeed, the eternal quest for convenience is patently evident in the design of food packaging. It is called “smart packaging” by industry insiders and provides all manner of features designed to make life easier for consumers. For decades, convenience has driven product development – but this could be about to change.

A recently released survey of consumers by the Nielsen Global Food Packaging says that almost half of global consumers would give up all forms of convenience packaging if it benefited the environment.

This includes packaging that makes stacking/storing in the home easier, packaging that can be used for cooking or is resealable, and that which is easily transported.

Making up the list of things consumers were least willing to give up was packaging that helped keep products clean and untouched by other humans; packaging meant to keep products in good condition; information on packaging which includes food labelling, cooking and usage instructions and packaging that helps to preserve the product. Only ten percent of consumers surveyed said they were not prepared to give up any packaging that would benefit the environment.

But excuse me for a minute: the teenager is home. And what is it that he battles to understand and unwrap today? Ah, a readymade sandwich packaged in a container that is made from cardboard created from material from sustainable forests and which, in theory, neatly unzips to multi-task as a handy tray.

“No! Wait! Don’t pull it that way…”

Certainly, I may I owe his Afrikaans teacher an apology and yes, I am definitely among those prepared to give up convenience packaging.

(This article was first published in the Food & Travel section of The Weekender in May 2009. The photograph is from Linpac.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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