Fresh fruit vending systems food innovation

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What is a ‘Fruit Elevator?

In my daily food innovation quest, that phrase caught my attention in the Oct. 21, 2010, edition of The Wall Street Journal. The article was titled The Great Banana Challenge How to Dispense Healthy Snacks from a Vending Machine: Design a Fruit Elevator. Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. has partnered with the Wittern Group Inc., one of the largest vending machine manufacturers, to develop this equipment.

Fresh fruit dispensing vending machines represent the next logical step of progression in distributing healthy fruits and vegetables to the general public. The first sequence of events began with fresh precut produce which was led by McDonalds and Taco Bell years ago. I was fortunate enough to take it to the next step at Boston Market with precut, portion packed fresh vegetables.

The next step involved precut and prepackaged fresh fruit – aided by packaging innovation and controlled atmosphere packaging innovation throughout the past 5 years. WAWA and Ready-Pac Foods then led the way with prepackaged salads in retail and convenience store environments.

So what is the ‘Great Banana Challenge?

The challenges include preventing bruises, extending the shelf-life, and maintaining fruit quality. To address these challenges, the Wittern Group developed a controlled atmosphere vending machine (CAVM) technology that provides two temperature zones. Bananas are kept in the upper part of the machines at 57 degrees F; while the bottom zone is kept at 34 degrees F, where fresh-cut fruits and vegetables are kept. Wittern says having the two zones helps more than double the shelf-life of bananas, from two or three days to five to seven days. This new technology now enables marketers to position these machines within school, college and university environments.

But Wittern says dispensing fresh produce has a particular set of challenges. Fruits and vegetables spoil more quickly than a bag of pretzels. They cost more to stock and carry a higher price tag. And getting the temperature right is tricky too. Bananas need to be stored at a higher temperature than cantaloupe to stay fresh, for example. And then there’s the bruising issue; a banana can get easily squished from the 4-foot fall from a machine’s top shelf as stated inThe Wall Street Journal article.

The article further describes the new banana packaging that Del Monte developed that keeps them fresher longer. The plastic loosely encases the banana which is relatively green at first, and helps control the mix of gases in its atmosphere that drives ripening. To prevent bruising, the retrieval bin includes a padded lining and angled side walls. And Wittern engineers have developed an elevator system that retrieves products from their spirals and deposits them in a bin.

Businesses also hope this new technology will revive vending machine sales slumps that resulted from high unemployment and thrifty consumers. And customers need to be sold on buying healthy food products. So far, the new technology is still in a test phase, and only time will tell if it will spur fresh fruit and vegetable sales in vending locations. But like all new and emerging product and packaging technologies, it takes consumers time to adjust and embrace these new opportunities. The new technology may even enable established QSR chains to brand their fresh fruit and vegetable products in vending machines to expand their distribution.

So, Kudos to the Wittern Group, and Del Monte, for driving new food innovation technologies. We can all live healthier and longer because of the new innovation by their scientists and engineers

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