Produce Containers are both the unsung heroes as well as the villains within the fresh fruits & vegetables supply chain. The unsung heroes because fruits and vegetables manage to get into retail outlets of all shapes and sizes, enjoying the protection of this multitude of wooden, card and plastic containers of different design, strength, life span and functionality. The villains, because the global produce does share two common problems; the impact produce containers have on fruit trade competition and how to deal with the so necessary containers once they are empty.
Going right back into medieval times, fruits and vegetables were already transported to market somehow. For example, in cane baskets, a view supported by archaeologists and artists of the period. That would have been a relatively easy undertaking for small fruits and vegetables such as peas, beans and tomatoes - but what about cabbage or cauliflower for example?
Unfortunately, there are no authoritative records on how Brassica were shipped, but if this photo from the earlier parts of the 20th century is anything to go by, the packing method was pretty basic.
This obviously would not do as wholesale markets made their professional nature felt and as supermarkets established themselves. Even brassica therefore needed to be shipped in manageable packaging!
Wholesale markets initially had one simple rule - "thou shallst pack your fruits and vegetables in such a fashion that buyers are able to transport the produce they have bought conveniently to their stores." In practice that meant that wholesale markets accepted anything from shoe boxes and plastic bags to second hand banana cartons and wooden crates, as long as the container contained the produce up to an acceptable standard - which differed from crop to crop.
Over time, the need for standardisation of produce bulk packaging increased but several constraints emerged.
The better organised the buyers became, the more pressure growers were under to ensure that the packaging they used to send their produce to market was of a certain standard.
As the calls for standardisation of Produce Containers got louder, wholesale markets began to realise the strategic opportunity produce packaging presented. Soon they began to, directly or indirectly, influence how growers packed their produce. In larger countries, such as the United States, independent packaging companies emerged who supplied growers with the wooden containers needed to ship fruits and vegetables - to wholesale market specifictions. Or growers bought the containers in kitset formats to nail them together themselves. The large central European produce cooperatives and wholesale auction houses in smaller countries, for example New Zealand, went a step further and integrated the provision of Produce Containers into their service offer to grower members or to the growers shipping produce regularly to a specific produce markets.
This immediately removed the hassle for participating growers of having to constantly find their own solutions to the daily packaging challenges. Over time though, the provision of empty produce containers created a dependency which contributed to a distortion of competition in the market place.
Produce Containers and everything associated with them have therefore been under the microscope for the last 20 years and will continue to receive considerable attention.