Three trends define the history of packaged salad in the United States: convenience, shelf life, and safety. As enthusiastic packaged salad historians, we thought we’d share our cliff notes on how these trends have changed over time, and offer a glimpse of how these trends play in the future.
by Johnny Bowman, Edenworks
The 1950 and 1960s: Refrigerated supply chain and convenience
Coming out of World War II, Americans ditched their backyard vegetable gardens (“Victory Gardens”) and embraced store-bought goods in a big way. TV dinners, developed during the war to feed air crews, grew in popularity as the ultimate form of convenience.
The Eisenhower interstate highway system — mandated for national defense to quickly move equipment, supplies, and troops around the country — had a very positive impact on perishable products. Transit times from West Coast to East Coast were cut in half, allowing produce producing regions like California to supply the East Coast, and grocery stores were able to offer perishables year-round.
In store refrigeration rapidly expanded across the United States, making perishables a staple of grocery stores. The supply chain for refrigerated product, known as the “cold chain”, became a critical feature of every major grocery store chain.
1970s: Convenience continues, and freshens up
Coming into the 1970s, consumers were looking for fresher alternatives to home meal replacement solutions. Demand for “ready to eat” foods grew significantly, and the rotisserie in-store cooked chicken was developed by many chains (exactly who was the first is a hotly debated subject). Other hot and fresh foods, like “heat and eat” meatloaf and ribs, follow.
Late 1980s / early 1990s: The birth of value added produce
In 1989, Del Monte was the first produce company to develop value added fresh produce. They cut lower value pineapples from Hawaii into chunks and spears, put them in 5oz and 10oz bags, and shipped them via airfreight to retailers around the US. Despite the airfreight, perishability remained a major issue, with Del Monte experiencing ~35% shrink (waste) in cut pineapples.
In response, improving refrigeration during travel became a major focus for Del Monte and the industry. Training on cold chain integrity was extended from personnel in the field, to the production plant, to airline ramps, to retailer distribution centers.
California lettuce producers saw the growth of the bagged pineapple program and began working on bagged salads. The Taylor and Church families formed Fresh Express as the first major bagged salad company in Salinas, CA. Initially, bagged salads were dominated by head lettuce, chopped into bite-sized pieces. Today, due to the growth of the packaged salad industry, loose leaf and baby green varietals have displaced much of the head lettuce market due to superior flavor, variety, and shelf life (fewer cut edges to oxidize).
*Domestic availability = domestic production + imports — exports. Data from USDA.
Both Taylor and Church jointly participated in the development of “oxygen transfer rate” (OTR) bags, which incorporate microperforations, allowing gas exchange and increasing freshness and shelf life. Similarly, Transfresh, a distributor, alongside retailer HEB, pioneered a concept known as “nitrogen flushing,” where nitrogen is added into airtight containers to slow aging. Both approaches added up to 5 days of shelf life to the product and were quickly adopted by all major grocery chains.
Late 1990s, 2000s: Convenience gets personal, and organic explodes
In the late 1990s, salad producer Ready Pac — a smaller brand with a presence largely limited to the western US — staked out personal salads as a way to gain market share against major incumbents Fresh Express and Dole. Ready Pac came up with the Bistro Bowl — self-contained individual salad including greens, cut vegetables, condiments, protein, dressing, and a spork. It is still today the best selling salad kit in the US.
Meanwhile, Earthbound Farm, an exclusively organic farm in Carmel, CA, grew in popularity. While small compared to Dole, Fresh Express, and Del Monte, they were at the beginning stages of the organic revolution — truly one of the biggest changes in perishables production in the last 40 years. Organic food growth sustained 10%+ annual growth from the early 1990s up until the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Today, 23% of salad is organic — the largest organic penetration of any produce group.
The present and future. Despite advances in refrigeration over the last 50 years, we think the cold chain has a lot more room for improvement. But what does that look like? Simply put, same cold, less chain.
According to surveys done by the Food Marketing Institute, the only thing grocery shoppers want more than organic is local. Beyond just wanting to serve consumer demand, retailers want more local produce too — it’s fresher, so has longer shelf life, allowing for less shrink. 95% of US greens come from California and Arizona, so shipping product 30 miles as opposed to 3,000 miles will add 5 days of shelf life. Another knock on the traditional supply chain is that product is grown outdoors and changes hands several times before the customer gets it. For every 1 hour salad is not in a tightly controlled refrigerated unit, it loses a day of shelf life. The time from harvest in the field to getting product into a refrigerated unit indoors is about 4 hours.
Prediction 1: The rise of indoor farms
Indoor farms, by contrast, can produce next to retailers’ distribution centers and harvest product inside a refrigerator (albeit a room-sized one). The first time product grown in an indoor farm exits refrigeration is the shopping cart. All in all, product grown in an indoor farm can last 10 days longer than the same product grown in the field.
Prediction 2: New indoor-enabled products
Indoor farms don’t just enable better products, they enable different products. Microgreens (even smaller leaves than baby greens) are the first new product we’re seeing emerging from indoor farms and joining the packaged salad category. Because microgreens are so small, just a few days old when they’re harvested, they must be grown and harvested indoors. But even more exciting products are bound to emerge. Indoor farms, because they can control the climate, allow for products that need different growing conditions. Until now, all we’ve seen are products that grow well in the hot, dry climate of California and Arizona. Going forward, we’ll see indoor farms introducing crops from a variety of regions and that require vastly different climates.