Packaging & Labeling
Proper packaging is essential in order to allow safe, easy movement and storage of your products. Good packaging will protect the integrity of your products, keep out contaminants, and allow for the holding of proper temperatures. Wholesalers, grocers, and food distributors interviewed stressed the point that industry standard packaging should be used. Poor packaging and presentation is a common mistake made when delivering produce and other farm products to restaurants. This is especially true when selling to higher-end restaurants. Restaurants—especially those in the fine dining sector—appreciate growers going the extra mile to present their product. But chefs also understand that, like in a kitchen, things can happen on the farm too.
Labels and labeling may seem to be a lesser marketing concern for those selling directly to restaurants than for those selling into other channels. After all, don’t your fresh produce and other products often speak for themselves? And don’t chefs know what to do with the product? Experienced farm-to-restaurant marketers say this mindset defeats the marketing purpose a label has when selling to restaurants. Labels can benefit a marketing strategy by enhancing product presentation and connecting your farm’s name/brand with the product. Product labels can include instructions for use and storage. Wholesale buyers put an emphasis on having COOL and UPC or PLU codes as a minimum labeling requirements for food products. Be aware that any item you are interested in selling through a retail checkout must have a PLU (price look-up number) and or a UPC (barcode).
What are COOL labels?
COOL stands for Country of Origin Label. Country of Origin Labeling is a USDA regulation which requires grocery and retail stores to identify the country of origin on certain foods. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables must comply with COOL. This labeling law informs consumers about where their food comes from - as the label states where the product was harvested. COOL is not required for processed items and is not required at the farmer's market or roadside stands, so this may be a new concept for producers. Producers may comply with COOL by incorporating the Kentucky Proud label on their products. A producer may also combine a PLU code and COOL designation in the same sticker - see more about that below. Read more about COOL and the commodities it covers on the USDA website here and in this USDA fact sheet.
This is an example [pictured left] of a label that satisfies both the Country of Origin Label and the Price Lookup Number.
What is a Price Look-Up Number?
A PLU is a 4 or 5 digit number used on fresh produce items to help retailers manage inventory and shorten customer purchase time. These numbers are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards - so you cannot assign one for yourself. Search the IFPS's PLU Database here.
PLU codes are required for individual or loose items which have differing characteristics. It may be a good idea to work with your buyer to identify which of your products need a PLU code. Because PLU codes only require the use of a 4 or 5-digit number, there is room for creativity and branding on the sticker. Often times, growers use these PLU codes as small marketing opportunities. In the example [pictured left] the Sunset logo is incorporated into the PLU code.
What is a UPC?
A UPC is a Universal Product Code used at retail stores to scan items in the point of sale system, track sales, and manage inventory. A UPC is specific to your company and your product, unlike a PLU which is standardized across produce types. You can get a UPC for your product, learn more about them (and PLU codes) in this publication from NC Cooperative Extension. Additionally, here is another guide on PLU and UPC codes from NC Growing Together.
What should I include in my label?
- Statement of Identity - tells the consumer what the product is
- Net Quantity of Contents - tells the consumer how much is in the package/container
- Ingredients - tells the consumer what is in your product
- Name and Address of Manufacturer, Packer, or Distributor - tells the consumer who produced this product. If you are selling a product made (or manufactured) by you then the manufacturer would be your farm name and address.
- Allergen Information - makes the consumer aware of potential allergens in your product
- Nutrition Facts - tells the customer about your product's nutritional information
It is a good idea to have your label reviewed and approved before you print them. The Food Systems Innovation Center is a great place to start with you labeling questions and concerns. Additionally, here is a guide to all things food labeling from the FDA. You may also reach out to the Label Approval Specialists at the Food Safety Branch to have your label approved.
Here is an example of label from our friends at Crank & Boom Ice Cream:
Other guidelines for labeling?
You may find these key ideas helpful when thinking about labeling your product:
How should I pack my product?
Check out this infosheet on common produce packaging volumes and weights. Additionally, this publication from UGA Extension has the most common weights and processed yields (including pound values) of fruits and vegetables in retail containers.
What should I pack my product in?
There are a lot of different types of packaging. Most commonly, producers package their products in glass, metal, plastic, and paper/paperboard containers. The key is to think about what type of packaging works best for you and your product. It is also helpful to think about packaging that is commonly used in your industry. Here is a great resource from NC State Extension on Packaging Requirements for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.
Is there a cost share program for packaging and labeling?
Yes! The Kentucky Department of Agriculture offers a Promotional Grant for Kentucky Proud members who have direct Kentucky farm impact. Recipients of this grant may be eligible to receive up to 50% reimbursement for certain advertising and marketing expenses (these include packaging and labeling). Check out more about the KDA POP Grant here.
Produce packing standards can be interpreted differently by different groups. Meeting the needs of different players in the produce industry has led to a wide variety of package sizes and materials. It is your job to select the right container for product. Each commodity does have an unofficial, but still well-known standard, for packaging. However, you shouldn't worry. There are resources, such as this Packaging Requirements for Fresh Fruit and Vegetables publication, to help you make the correct packaging choice.
While most fruits and vegetables have standard packing sizes, always ask buyers about their packaging preferences. Some buyers, such as retail outlets, prefer a package which is appealing to the end consumer; while restaurant chefs prefer packaging that is easy to work with.
Have access to the type of packaging that is standard for your product, such as standard sized cardboard boxes or plastic clamshells.
Acknowledge that you might spend extra time packaging your produce. Even though it might seem miniscule, packaging your product neatly is important. It shows effort and care to your buyers.
Pick your packaging first. Then pick a label that fits well with and on your packaging type. You don't want to spend time creating a label for it not to fit or work on your type of packaging.
Pick a label that works with your packaging. For example, use water resistant labels for items that condensate. You don't want a great label to turn un-readable in certain climate/storage conditions.
Understand how labeling can build your farm brand/identity and brand recognition. Labels are a great way to showcase the value of your product to your buyers.
Understand the legal requirements for labeling. Be aware of what needs to go on your label (such as nutritional facts) and what is not required, but will add value to your label (such as a USDA Organic Label, if applicable).
Be prepared to explain the terminology indicated on your label to buyers. Be sure to only use language that you are permitted to. For example, you cannot use the word "organic" if you are not USDA Certified. Here is a breakdown of What is on a Food Label from our friends at Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.
Develop a relationship with a processor, if you are in need of one. Check out this list of Kentucky Proud food processors and processing facilities.