In Store

But the Dang Thing Won't Open

By Joyce Gemperlein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 12, 2005

Mona Doyle recently filmed people attempting to open bags of pre-cut lettuce. The tape plays like a bit from the television show "America's Funniest Home Videos." Everybody uses force and torque that would otherwise be reserved for the gym. Either the bag opens suddenly and sprays lettuce all over the floor, or defeat is conceded and scissors or knives are employed.

When Doyle, whose Philadelphia company does research about food and beverage packaging, showed the tape to an audience of produce packers, they chuckled. But Doyle says that belligerent packaging is making consumers spitting mad. They use words "hate" and "difficult" to describe products that seem to be welded shut.

Why, oh why, are we not yet a slide-lock or, at least, a press-and-seal nation? More and more food packages -- for cereal, potato chips and pre-cut salads, for example -- are being marketed as "convenient," but neither the formerly effective "pinch-and-pull" technique nor that old fallback, teeth, can open them.

In many ways, food packaging has come a long way since the days, for example, when potato chips were sold out of bins. The common snack bag has evolved from waxed paper ironed into packets in 1926 by the female employees of Laura Scudder's potato chip factory in their California homes. (Thomas Edison, by the way, invented waxed paper when he was 25 years old.) Also in 1926, Karl Prindle, an employee of DuPont, developed moisture-proof cellophane. Prindle is also responsible for later developing the zip-tab for cellophane packages. Zip-tabs are the thingies that stick out from under the cellophane on a package. When you pull them, the cellophane tears.

Many modern snack bags are now made of polypropylene materials that bar humidity and moisture, which make Cheez Doodles and the like droopy. That layer is bonded to a microscopically thin sheet of aluminum that keeps out rancidity-promoting oxygen, says Mary Ann Falkman, editor-in-chief of Packaging Digest. In addition, most package seals aren't formed by glue these days but by pressure from huge metal jaws that clamp down on the layers.

The reason for such intricate packaging is to keep food fresher longer -- this cuts down on waste and saves the company money. Secure packages also eliminate spillage during shipping. But these days "security" is perhaps the more effective buzzword. This is because "poisoned" is a much scarier word than either "stale" or "messy."

Fears of food tampering predate even Snow White and the wicked Queen with her apple. But more recent fuel on the fire includes the 1982 lacing of Tylenol with cyanide, which resulted in a revolution in the drug- and food-packaging industries. That was reinforced by the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001; then came the Bio-Terrorism Act of 2002, which outlines measures to protect the food supply. A recent report about concern that school lunches could be a target of terrorists may fuel this fire further.

And need I even mention those amazing before-and-after pictures of Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned at a dinner during his campaign for president?

"Packaging is now a very important part of people's purchasing decisions," Doyle says. "It didn't used to be. But now there's this Catch-22. Yes, packages need to be harder to open -- be tamper-evident -- boy, do they need to be sealed. But, especially with aging baby boomers, the packages must become easier to open.

"A lot of [older] people tell us that they just can't cope with bags that they need scissors to open, and so they don't buy them," Doyle says. It also irks people that, once opened, the bag is often ripped down the side, making it impossible to use it to seal in leftovers.

Doyle has no solid statistics on injuries caused by our hassles with packaging, but they do exist in England. One study there shows that "wrap rage," as it is called by the Brits, has been the cause of more than 60,000 injuries. These often occur when consumers resort to knives and scissors to deal with stubborn packages, according to a 2003 report in the Daily Telegraph.

(That said, here's a paradox: Hard-to-open bags don't seem to be stopping us from buying pre-cut lettuce, considered the biggest marketing phenomenon in the history of produce. Sales of the convenience item are soaring. The Produce Marketing Association reports that sales hit $2.6 billion in 1994, then $8.8 billion in 2003. The numbers are expected to zip up to $10.5 billion in 2005. Obviously, cutting our own lettuce into bite-size pieces irritates us even more than cutting open a bag.)

Doyle says American consumers' demands for ease and convenience have evolved over decades and, once given an easier way, we demand even easier ways. In plain language, we are spoiled.

For example, American consumers were once thrilled with press-and-seal zippers on plastic storage bags. But as time has gone by, Doyle has found that more and more people say pressing the two sides of a plastic bag together until the grooves mesh is trickier and more time-consuming than it seems. We now consider slide-lock bags, which have a plastic nubbin you pull across the bag to seal it, to be the most consumer friendly.

Doyle says food producers may understand that consumers want slide-lock salad greens and potato chips, but so far they are unwilling to spend the billions of dollars it would take to change the packaging. Still, she is optimistic and foresees a world in which grocery stores are full of slide-lock bags and packages that look and work something like the plastic-lidded cardboard canisters that contain raisins and oatmeal.

I comforted myself with her vision last week as I spent 10 minutes in a school cafeteria prying 13 foil lids off single-serving containers of chocolate pudding because, even when kindergartners dropped them on the floor, they wouldn't open. They frustrated fifth-graders, too. The lids were not only tight under assault from my fingernails, they burped pudding onto my shirt as I finally broke each seal.

Go ahead, laugh.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company