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Covid-19 revives the preference for packaged foods

Packaging developers face the challenge of combining safety and sustainability in packaging to respond to new consumer concerns

ALBA POVEDA

30 Nov 2020

The emergence of Covid-19 in mid-March brought with it a change in consumer habits due to the obligation to stay at home. The closure of bars and restaurants and the development of life within the home have caused Spaniards to consume more food inside their homes during the state of alarm. Only in April, the first full month of confinement, the purchase of food by Spanish households grew by 32.5%, as collected by the data collected by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Although flour, eggs and sugar were the products that grew the most in the fourth month of the year, foods such as meat, fruits and vegetables maintained the upward trend that began in mid-March, when the state of alarm was decreed. The intake of meat products in households grew by 30.6% compared to the same month of the previous year, with a special incidence of lean meats such as chicken and pork, also cheaper, as well as processed meats (+ 23% ). Vegetables (+ 44%) and fruits (+ 35.6%) also gained a greater role in the shopping basket.
The health crisis has resulted in a rebound in the consumption of basic and fresh foods indoors and in greater concern for safety and hygiene when shopping. When deciding to choose one food or another, consumers have looked at whether or not it was packaged and also on the formats, to the point of relating packaged products to safety. In fact, at the most critical moments of the pandemic, concepts that were on the rise, such as sustainability, have been slightly displaced.
Producers and marketers of food and packaging agree that Covid-19 has resurfaced consumers' preference for packaged products, also fresh, to avoid direct contact. From El Pozo Alimentación they consider that the rethinking of the needs and priorities of buyers, who are more demanding with food safety and hygiene, "may represent an opportunity for the packaged product."
In the collection phase, before the total confinement was decreed, there was a greater demand for basics from the shopping basket and the consumer opted for already packaged products "as they perceived them as safer compared to bulks," says the head of packaging of the fruit and vegetable group Anecoop, Miguel Lázaro. For its part, in the livestock sector "an increase was detected in the sale of larger formats in basic, such as the 1.5-liter bottle of milk", while in Iberian products "the consumer opted for the smallest at the suppose a lower reimbursement ”, analyzes the commercial director of the Covap cattle cooperative, Rafael Guerrero. However, both the spokesperson for Anecoop and Covap agree that despite the pandemic appeasing the preference for sustainable packaging and prioritizing food safety, consumption trends have been reestablishing over the years. weeks and the entry of the so-called new normal.
Although the coronavirus has caused safety to prevail over recyclability, "both concepts are and must be compatible," they point out from the Hinojosa Group, manufacturer of corrugated cardboard packaging solutions. The health crisis has had a direct impact on the awareness of extreme hygiene and cleanliness standards, yes, "without losing sight of the importance of the materials used in the packaging being recyclable and sustainable", insist from the company. Therefore, the challenge that the company poses at the moment is to work on proposals that are safe and ecological to respond to a consumer who, before the emergence of Covid-19, was focusing on caring for their environment.
Before the pandemic, agri-food companies and packaging manufacturers were focused on finding solutions that satisfied an increasingly environmentally committed consumer. According to the report 'Sustainability: What it is and how it affects the shopping habits of the shopper', prepared by the association of manufacturers and distributors AECOC, 89% of consumers think that the plastic in packaging should be reduced and feel greater fondness for brands that opt ​​for cleaner packs, those that offer alternative solutions to plastic or those that develop reusable formats. They also reward those companies that care about the trajectory of their product - from production to disposal - in which packaging plays a fundamental role. In fact, in the case of packaged foods, consumers are looking for less plastic, less packaging and that it is recyclable or ecological.
Solutions from agri-food
In the race to obtain the most sustainable packaging, the R + D + i departments will focus their work on "the development of bioplastics and other barrier elements that, in addition to protecting food, also take care of the consumer and the planet" , indicate from the Hinojosa Group. Likewise, the trend is to consolidate solutions that allow to follow the traceability of products, with elements such as QR codes. However, for the developer of containers and packaging, the best option to reduce single-use plastics in the agri-food industry is "to promote formats such as cardboard trays, an alternative with great growth prospects".
The bet in the fruit and vegetable sector is clear: look for materials that replace single-use plastic. Before the health crisis, producers and retailers had a debate on the table about the promotion of the sale of bulk fruit in the face of the growing appearance of packaged formats. In this sense, the Anecoop group continues to work on issues that it was already addressing before the Covid-19 pandemic, “such as looking for alternative packaging to plastic to minimize its use or developing consumption formats that contribute to avoiding food waste, in which packaging has a lot to do with it ”, explains the person in charge of the area, Miguel Lázaro. For five years, the fruit and vegetable industry has introduced materials such as Papervest, kraft paper rolled and knotted at strategic points that it uses as a mesh for citrus fruits or for its mini watermelon. It has also opted for biodegradable trays in the 'Bouquet to prepare' line, a solution that includes just the right fresh ingredients to prepare a recipe for four people.
From Unica Group, the leading horticultural exporter in Spain, they do not stop looking for the best solution to combine food safety with sustainability. As explained from the second grade cooperative, "although the primary concern for the agri-food chain is to eliminate or minimize waste, mandatory labeling is normally done with stickers or plastic bags." That is where they have wanted to direct their effort and bet on the most sustainable alternative: the skin or peel of the fruits and vegetables. The company has recently incorporated a new laser system that 'tattoos' the skin of watermelons or cucumbers, in a way that reduces the environmental impact of traditional labeling, since it avoids unnecessary packaging and allows to eliminate waste when engraving the product, without damaging its quality .
For the meat sector, the impact of Covid-19 has not been a great revolution in terms of formats, since the industry "already gave and responds to the maximum demands of the consumer", as highlighted by El Pozo Alimentación. Specifically, the company was already working on the development of sustainable packaging with more recyclable material and that allow to extend the life of the product. As a result of this work, El Pozo became in March 2019 the first company in the meat sector to obtain the Ecosense certificate, which guarantees the recovery, recycling and incorporation into the process of the plastic material used in the packaging of sheet products. and PET tray. For its part, Covap continues to promote the launch of lower grammage formats, with a reduction in plastics, smaller pieces and without additives or preservatives, with the aim of "addressing consumer concern for health, cost reduction and sustainability ”, Emphasizes the commercial director of the cooperative, Ricardo Guerrero.
Sustainable e-commerce
The health crisis and the state of alarm have accelerated the development of electronic commerce, especially for local or kilometer 0 products, towards which the consumer has shown great interest. "E-commerce has experienced great growth during these months and has come to stay, so providing solutions for this type of product will be one of the challenges that companies in the sector will have," they analyze from the Hinojosa Group. Agri-food companies, as well as those related to logistics, must develop packaging systems that provide a satisfactory response to consumers concerned about safety and the impact of their purchases on the environment. In this sense, according to the report prepared by AECOC, 65% of buyers are willing to pay a little more (up to 25 cents) for a more sustainable shipment.
Once the state of alarm has ended, packaging manufacturers and agri-food companies now take on the challenge of continuing to research and develop packaging solutions that satisfy consumers with a strong environmental awareness, single-person households and people with little time to cook, without forgetting the weight that the consumer currently gives to hygiene and product traceability.