Going Green at the Deli

From utensils to meat, a change is in the air

Healthy Turkey Sandwich on a Bagel with Lettuce and Tomato
Bob Johnson

The deli is turning green. 

How far or how fast the change will go is anybody’s guess, but the trend toward both packaging and foods that are easier on the environment is real, and this is far more powerful than a fad. 

Plant-based alternative ‘meat’ slice products are already in some delis, and interest in this growth category by well-financed concerns suggests more are on the way.

There is a rise of conscious eating, whereby consumers are looking for products and ingredients grown or manufactured in a manner that reflects one’s own beliefs and preferences, according to the Madison, WI-based International Deli Dairy Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) What’s in Store 2019.  Sales of organic products continue to grow as well as interest in alternatives, such as plant-based proteins.

The report also noted that transparency is among the top consumer-driven trends, which encompasses local, organic, sustainable and ethical foods as well as a desire for clean labels.

A focus on sustainable seafood can drive growth amongst multiple customer demographics, according to What’s In Store 2019, and provides retailers with an opportunity to increase storytelling around products, curation and sourcing.

Retailers are looking for cleaner labels that convey ‘green,’ a nebulous term that generally includes organic, fair trade and free range. 

Making a Green Statement

One of the most definitive ways to make a green statement is in the materials used for packaging and utensils. 

Styrofoam is already so yesterday and plastic may be soon to follow as a material not suited to these environmentally-conscious times. 

“We are seeing a lot more interest in sustainable utensils,” says Peggy Cross, founder of EcoTensil, Corte Madera, CA. “It’s coming from the big retailers; it’s not being forced on them by government regulation. We have increased every year since we started in 2010; when things change in this business, it’s for the long term.”

EcoTensil’s flagship product is an award-winning compostable paper taster that uses one-fifth the space of other tasters and is widely available at major retailers, including Target, Costco and Whole Foods. 

“What rises above all of it is just useless material, whether they are compostable or not,” says Cross. “Our products use 55 to 85 percent less material. It’s easy for companies to go with eco tasters for sampling. It’s just a few bites, and it’s very visible. It’s an easy way for companies to show their customers that they care about the environment and reducing plastic.” 

The European Union has an outright ban on plastic utensils scheduled to go into effect in 2021, according to Cross, and on this side of the pond there is growing consumer interest in reducing plastic. 

“The last year has marked a global turning point on elevating the importance of the role single-use packaging plays in protecting our environment,” says Kathy Deignan, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Sabert, Sayerville, NJ. “Many companies have made pledges to reduce, reuse and recover plastic packaging with ambitious commitment dates.”

Sabert makes a full line of green packaging options, including attractive compostable cutlery, bowls, plates and trays suitable for the deli.

“With the United States accounting for 4 percent of the world’s population and producing 12 percent of the world’s total waste, having sustainable packaging at the deli is more important than ever,” says Mark Marinozzi, vice president of marketing at World Centric, Rohnert Park, CA. “According to the EPA, the U.S. landfills 52.5 percent of waste, recycles 25.8 percent and composts only 8.9 percent.”

World Centric offers a variety of compostable products and distinguishes itself by offsetting all the carbon emissions from its manufacturing and delivery and donating at least 25 percent of its profits to grassroots social and environmental groups.

“Deli operators need to know that they are generally providing their offerings in materials that are not recyclable,” says Marinozzi. “Facilities in the U.S. are not equipped to recycle items, such as plastic containers, coffee cups, plastic bags and other items that are not clean and dry. Recycling facilities in the U.S. only accept paper, cardboard, bottles and cans that are clean and free of food residue. Attempting to recycle items outside this criteria, like food-soiled petroleum-based plastic containers, is considered ‘wish-cycling,’ also known as tossing something in the bin that doesn’t belong.”

Sonoco of Hartsville, SC, has a Sonoco Sustainable Solutions, or S3, program to help manufacturers achieve zero waste to landfill by finding ways to convert waste streams to revenue or find alternative uses or disposal methods for previously unrecycled or landfilled materials.

Meat You Can Live With

Burger King’s vegan Impossible Whopper and the Beyond Meat products that appear in high-end supermarkets brought widespread attention to a new wave of vegan ‘meat’ products.

 But some of the pioneer plant-based proteins have been consumed by health or animal welfare-conscious consumers for many decades.  

“The market size for plant-based meats has proven to be explosive. Recent data from the Washington, D.C.-based Good Food Institute shows that plant-based meat captures 2 percent market share of retail packaged meat sales,” says Jaime Athos, president and CEO of Tofurkey, Hood River, OR. “The plant-based meat category is worth more than $800 million, with refrigerated plant-based meats driving category growth and sales up an impressive 37 percent. In comparison, sales in the conventional meat category grew just 2 percent during the same period.”

Tofurkey pioneered in the vegan meats segment with its introduction nearly a quarter century ago of a soy-based high protein turkey analog.

“Plant-based foods are no longer reserved for vegans and vegetarians, but flexitarians, curious carnivores and conscious consumers alike, as well,” says Athos. “Many delis use our plant-based meats, and there are several ‘groceraunt’ delis that serve our slices in plant-based sandwich builds.”

The latest of the plant-based sliced ‘meat’ product available at the deli was developed by a Millennial mother in Vermont who did not want to feed her infant processed meats. 

 “We are selling plant-based ‘meat’ in the deli at Fairway Market and at Roche Bros.,” says Véronique Beittel, founder and owner of Green Slice Foods LLC, Richmond, VT. “But at most stores, Green Slice is still in the produce section with tofu and other meat alternatives. At Wegman’s, Green Slice organic meatless deli slices are in a dedicated plant-based foods section.”


Green Slice produces organic veggie dogs, vegan and vegetarian deli slices in many flavors, and classic, mozzabella, and bell pepper jack vegan cheese alternatives. 

“In 2020, we will be rolling out our Green Slice organic meatless deli slices in the deli section at a major supermarket chain,” says Beittel.

Many other meat alternative options are also already conveniently available near the deli section. 

“We have Good & Green deli slices that are sold in the area near the deli,” says Marie Curcio, customer service and logistics manager at Maestri d’Italia, Lakewood, NJ. “We won Best New Vegan Product at Expo West in San Francisco.”

These Maestri d’Italia ‘meats,’ imported from Italy and sliced in New Jersey, come in prosciutto, carpaccio, lupine bean and spicy flavors, with two more on the way. They are available at markets, including Shop Rite and Harris Teeter.

“If you go by the responses we get on Instagram, people love it,” Curcio says. “We’re getting good feedback from the people who have tried it.” 

Corporate interest in plant-based ‘meats’ and ‘cheeses’ indicate that well-financed enterprises have taken a look and see opportunity in the category.

Amazon’s Whole Foods offers a plant-based herb-roasted sliced deli turkey made of vital wheat gluten; soy; salt; bean flour; yeast extract; rice bran; organic dried tofu; dried onions; dried garlic; citric acid; and natural smoked flavor. The vegan ‘meat’ was joined recently by Whole Foods’ dairy-free vegan sliced ‘cheese.’

Investors launched Chicago-based Greenleaf Foods in 2018, and the firm acquired plant-based food leaders Lightlife and Field Roast. 

Lightlife has been producing plant-based proteins for 40 years, and has the leading brand of vegetable-based hot dogs and tempeh, and Seattle-based Field Roast was a pioneer in 1997 when it began its line of vegetable-based deli slices, sausages, burgers and roasts.  

While most of the growing interest in plant-based foods comes from the search for healthier diets, and some from concerns about animal welfare, the category could benefit from environmental efforts to combat climate change.

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency estimates that agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, with animal agriculture accounting for about 4 percent of the total.

The most detailed greenhouse gas inventory is probably that maintained by the California Air Resources Board under the state’s cap and trade legislation, which estimates the animal agriculture, including the nation’s largest dairy industry, contributes a bit over 5 percent of all climate changing emissions. 

But the major reason people actually buy plant-based foods is they believe they are healthier. 

“It’s people looking for a health food item,” says Curcio. “It’s not just vegans.”

Millennials are trend-setting foodies, and we may have passed an important benchmark when a majority of women in this age group became mothers. 

Véronique Beittel invented Green Slice because when her toddler Francisca started to eat solid foods, Beittel didn’t want to feed her processed meat.

The Green Consumer

There is mounting evidence that more consumers are looking to eat foods that are healthier, fresher and produced in environmentally responsible ways. 

 “It is important to address the use of petroleum-based plastic and virgin wood fiber in single-use disposable foodservice ware versus compostable materials, such as sugarcane bagasse, bamboo fiber and bio-based plastics,” says Marinozzi. ”With over 28 million tons of petroleum-based plastic ending up in U.S. landfills each year, and human activity testing the limits of our planet’s bio-capacity, we need to find better alternatives to everyday single-use plastic and polystyrene disposables.” 

There is a significant potential market reward for a deli that can convey the message they have gone green.

There is also already a growing market for environmentally friendly utensils in the supermarket deli. 

“Next year we will be doubling in size, especially with the change in Europe,” says EcoTensil founder Cross. “We’re opening a warehouse in the Netherlands.”

European regulations may be a harbinger of greener packaging in blue states and localities on this side of the Atlantic. 

“With the ban on single use plastic becoming effective in the EU by 2021, we have been seeing a huge demand from that side of the pond,” says Cross. “I’ve been to numerous trade shows, done in-store research and talked to quite a few industry people over there.” 

Many localities have already banned the use of Styrofoam by retail outlets, including delis, and the next wave in green packaging could target reduction in tree-based products as well as petroleum-based.   “In addition to reducing our use of petroleum-based plastics, using sustainable paper alternatives can make a measurable and significant reduction in the environmental damage caused by our tree-based products,” says Marinozzi.     DB


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