Zespri faces online backlash for individual kiwifruits wrapped in plastic packaging

Tauranga-based kiwifruit marketer Zespri has faced backlash online over free fruit samples being individually wrapped in plastic packaging in the US.

Reports of the individual SunGold kiwifruits packaged in plastic ziplock bags, emblazoned with the Zespri Kiwifruit logo, have sparked outrage on social media.

A Reddit user based on the West Coast uploaded a picture of the packaging to the 'Mildly Infuriating' forum last week, captioning the image: "This individually-wrapped singular kiwi that came unsolicited when we did a grocery pickup."

The image was later shared to the popular 'New Zealand' forum, the user writing: "Zespri - stop with the needless single-use plastic... I'm a Kiwi and I was hoping we could remind ourselves we all have a part to play... the OP [original poster] is an American who now has a bad impression.

"Zespri has a wonderful opportunity to show leadership here and we can and should do better."

A Reddit user based on the West Coast of the US shared the picture to a popular forum, sparking outrage in the comments.
A Reddit user based on the West Coast of the US shared the picture to a popular forum, sparking outrage in the comments. Photo credit: Reddit

Others took to the post to share their own anecdotes, including one Canadian who noted "every single passionfruit" at their local store in Vancouver is "wrapped in plastic". Another user based in Japan acknowledged the "amount of unnecessary plastic packaging on everything". 

Two other Reddit users based in Ohio and Wisconsin also claimed they had received the individually-packaged fruits. 

'A world where consumers are increasingly conscious of food safety'

Chief innovation and sustainability officer at Zespri, Carol Ward, says the kiwifruits were individually packaged to protect the fruit from "excess handling" in a world "where consumers are increasingly conscious of food safety". 

Earlier in the year, reports emerged of people washing their fresh produce with soap out of fear that COVID-19 could be surviving on food touched or picked over by infected supermarket customers. A US-based family doctor even went viral for his social media tutorial advising viewers to pre-soak their fruit and vegetables in soapy water, before washing the produce for an additional 20 seconds. There were also numerous reports of people going to extreme measures to avoid the virus by disinfecting product packaging and mail, with the findings of one study - published by the New England Journal of Medicine - suggesting the virus is capable of surviving on plastic for at least three days.

"Packaging plays an important role in making sure customers and consumers receive their Zespri Kiwifruit in premium condition. It also helps to preserve fruit quality and maintain our strict protocols for food safety," Ward said.

"In a world where consumers are increasingly conscious of food safety, some North American consumers recently received kiwifruit with purchases made through local click-and-collect and food delivery services. 

"This was designed to meet supply chain requirements and protect our fruit from excess handling amongst the other products being delivered and represents a very small proportion of the packaging we use in North America."

Zespri kiwifruits.
Zespri kiwifruits. Photo credit: File

In February, Zespri announced a series of sustainability targets and commitments, including the goal to make all its packaging worldwide 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

The organisation also pledged that any plastic packaging it uses will be made from at least 30 percent recycled plastic, Ward said, as well as a commitment to reducing its packaging footprint by 25 percent per kilogram of fruit produced by 2030.

"Today's consumers care about what their food is wrapped in, want to know more about where it comes from and are seeking reassurance that it's been grown in a way that enhances the environment and supports livelihoods," Ward said in February.

Ward noted that Zespri's new clamshell - a hinged one-piece packaging container commonly used in supermarkets - is recyclable and made from 100 percent recycled materials.

The company is currently using "environmental impact assessments" to work out what type of packaging is better than others, as well as collaborating with its customers and in-market distributors who repack the fruit in-market.

Single-use plastic in New Zealand

In July last year, the majority of plastic bags were officially banned in New Zealand as part of the Government's commitment to reducing waste nationwide.

It was announced in December that the Government would phase out other single-use plastics, its first target being to move away from single-use packaging and beverage containers made of PVC and polystyrene, as well as non-compostable fruit stickers and cotton buds. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the time that the Government would ensure these "hard-to-recycle" items would be replaced with recyclable alternatives, including PET, HDPE and polypropylene.

Zespri International Limited is the world's largest marketer of kiwifruit, formed as a cooperative of kiwifruit growers in New Zealand in 1997. It's headquartered in Mount Maunganui.

Outside of packaging, Zespri's other sustainability commitments include being carbon positive by 2035 and developing an industry-wide climate change adaptation plan by December 2022.