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Packaging: Fruit and vegetable sector still at a dead end

Since Saturday, fruits and vegetables under 1.5 kg can no longer be sold in plastic packaging, according to the decree of October 8th 2021 taken in application of the Agec law.

The announcement shook the professionals of the sector. The interprofession then denounced the haste and lack of consultation. “The law is not interested in the substitutes (effective and biosourced),” claimed its president Laurent Grandin.

The professionals do have a delay of 6 months to sell their stocks of packaging, but some products could disappear from the shelves if no alternative is found. “Today, we have the delay but we still do not have the solution that will enable us to transport delicate fruits past this delay,” explains Daniel Sauvaitre, secretary-general of Interfel.

Competition distortion
The problem? This ban on plastic is only valid for France. Several organizations and associations have filed appeals with the State Council, including Plastalliance, Interfel and the French Federation of the Fruit, Vegetable and Horticultural Cooperation, fearing a “distortion” of the competition on the European market. “What I would have liked is the absence of distortion in competition and for the law to be applied everywhere in Europe,” explains Jean-Luc Soury, director of the Limdor cooperative.

No solution for certain products
This is the case for radishes or lamb’s lettuce for example, or humid products that cannot be packed in cardboard. “We need more time to find the right materials and more suitable technologies,” explains Régis Chevallier, radish producer.

“There is no substitute today to pack radishes any other way. The product is just not going to meet consumer expectations, it will be all dry,” explains Jacques Rouchaussé, president of the French vegetable producers.

The label issue
Another problem is the ban on adhesive labels for which Interfel is asking French authorities to postpone the application of the regulatory text, denouncing once again “a text which, as in the case of packaging, cannot be generalized to all products within the delay imposed. This regulation leads to distortions of competition between countries and food sectors. This law prohibits adhesive labels in France, but does not prohibit the marketing of products with adhesive labels outside of the French borders. French operators will no longer be able to identify and promote their products with these adhesive stickers that are used in the rest of the world.”

Investments and raw materials
While the price of cardboard continues to rise, producers/packers must also make significant investments to acquire new machines. Such costs are difficult to sustain for small structures. 

“Limdor has invested nearly 100,000 euros [112,919 USD] for a machine to pack fruits in cardboard trays of 4 to 6 fruits,” explains Jean-Luc Soury. “We had to do it, if we wanted to sell our apples. It is an additional cost for us and for our producers who have to buy this equipment.”

Same story for Pomanjou, as explained by its president James Launay. “For nearly 18 months, cardboard has been soaring, raw materials have been soaring. And we’re seeing a 60% increase on cardboard.” The company has had to invest more than 100,000 euros [112,919 USD] to adapt its production line and change to cardboard.

“For some packaging, when the costs go up to 5 or 6 times the current prices, it is sometimes simply impossible to implement the device. For apples for example, in order to pack them in cardboard, depending on the stocks, the investment can reach up to 1 million euros [1.13 million USD]. Not all stations can afford that,” explains Laurent Grandin.

Suspension granted just in time for the elastic around vegetable bundles
On December 10th 2021, during the French Vegetable Congress in Nantes, the minister of agriculture, Julien Denormandie, had announced a tolerance for the use of the elastic around bundles of radish, carrots and aromatic herbs. “We will make a thorough inventory of all the technical dead ends and hand it in to the minister of ecological transition,” as explained by Cyril Pogu, vice-president of Vegetables of France. 

Differentiating between organic and conventional products
Another source of concern within the sector: “How will we distinguish at checkout between organic and conventional products?” Most of the fruits and vegetables sold in plastic packaging in supermarkets are organic products. 

A lot of uncertainty still hangs over the sector that is struggling to meet the new regulatory requirements in a sustainable manner.