With life so hectic, how can Americans fulfill their desire to eat healthy without dropping their fast-food habit?

Local companies like Ready Pac Produce Inc. and Dole Foods Inc. think they have the answer: packaging.

Packaged baby carrots have already freshened up kids' lunchboxes, and packaged greens make it possible for two-earner families to put salad back on the dinner table.

Now fruits and vegetables neatly wrapped in plastic are showing up at fast-food chains.

When McDonald's Corp. began selling a bag of sliced apples as an alternative to French fries, it chose a unit of Irwindale-based Ready Pac to supply a quarter of its 13,700 U.S. restaurants.

Such deals signal a new round of growth for packaged fruit and vegetables, building on their adoption by the nation's supermarkets. This has led to heated competition and consolidation.

Ready Pac cemented its position as the No. 3 player in the industry when it purchased No. 4 Salad Time from Salinas-based grower Tanimura & Antle Co. last year. Still, it's an underdog to the much-larger Dole, based in Westlake Village, and Fresh Express, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International Inc., based in Cincinnati.

"The smaller players do need to join forces to compete with the big guys," said Bob Nielsen, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of Tanimura, which became a 25 percent shareholder in Ready Pac.

The intensity of competition is reflected in a lawsuit filed by Dole, accusing Ready Pac of poaching several executives.

After a Dole executive jumped ship last year to become Ready Pac's chief executive, three sales executives followed this spring despite signing non-competition agreements, Dole alleged in the lawsuit, filed in Monterey County Superior Court.

Eric Schwartz, president of Dole's fresh vegetables division, wouldn't comment on the suit other than to say it was dropped last week. Officials at Ready Pac declined comment.

Diet debate
Overall, U.S. sales of fresh-cut produce rose to an estimated $15 billion in 2004 from just $3 billion a decade earlier, according to the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association.

Sales of salad bags in supermarkets are growing much faster than produce as a whole; they reached 7 percent of U.S. produce sales a year ago, surpassing bananas as the top-selling produce item at 6.8 percent, according to a Food Institute report.

Volume helps operators like Dole and Ready Pac keep prices for the salad bags lower than shoppers would pay buying the ingredients separately. And it's also a more profitable segment than commodity produce. In its 2004 annual report, Dole said it was shifting its product mix toward value-added foods, such as ready-to-eat salads, because they were growing faster and had higher margins.


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