(Nov. 23) In the produce industry, the oil-futures market is kind of like the weather: Everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it.

Well, almost nobody.

Surging fuel costs — up by nearly 50% in the past year, even with a recent decline taken into account, according to the U.S. Department of Energy — have pushed up the cost of shipping produce to dizzying heights.

Not that they weren’t stratospherical, anyway. According to the Freedonia Group, a market research company, the produce industry spent $1.6 billion on petroleum-based produce packaging in 2003. The industry also spent $226 million for bags and liners for salads that year.

According to ACNielsen, the industry had used 43 million 1-pound garden salad bags in 2005, through October.

Indeed, the price of polyethylene terephthalate — the most common petroleum-based material used in produce and packaging — has gone up by 30% to 40% in the last couple of years, according to Ray Massey Jr., vice president of product development for Calhoun, Neb.-based Wilkinson Industries Inc., a manufacturer of food packaging.

Packaging — from returnable plastic containers to bags, clamshells and sleeves — traditionally has been petroleum-based and, therefore, a considerable factor in the high cost of goods shipped in them.

“Through the California Lettuce Producers Co-op, we’ve tried to compare notes…and we came to the conclusion that somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% of the f.o.b. cost is fuel-related,” said Woody Johnson, vice president of sales and marketing for Growers Express LLC, Salinas, Calif. “You have fuel-related costs in all segments.”

Now, manufacturers are finding markets for packaging technology that doesn’t rely on oil.

In fact, the base material in these new packages is found in items as common — and renewable — as the leaves of trees and stalks of corn.

Perhaps making the biggest splash in this area is Minneapolis-based NatureWorks LLC, a subsidiary of food company Cargill Inc.

NatureWorks, founded in 1997, has developed corn-based packaging material for fresh-cut fruit, herbs, sprouts and strawberries. The company plans to develop corn-based material for cut vegetables, as well.

The company says more than 7,300 retail stores worldwide have its corn-based packaging and adds that Wild Oats Markets Inc., Boulder, Colo., has introduced it chainwide in its produce and deli departments.

Two produce giants already have signed on with the project: Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart already offers several produce items in the material.

“Wal-Mart’s moving 114 million packages in the first round, through NatureWorks, which is, in almost every case, replacing a (petroleum-based product),” said Ann Tucker, a NatureWorks spokeswoman. “We’re starting in produce.”

Wal-Mart tested the products for a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“This is the right thing to do for the environment,” Tara Stewart, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, told the newspaper. “We are trying to figure out how we can make a lighter footprint.”

NatureWorks supplies the material Wilkinson Industries, which manufactures clamshells, sleeves and bags to retailer and shipper clients.

The market for corn-based — technically called polylactic acid, or PLA — packaging is currently more potential than reality, Massey said.

“The percentage of the market is very, very small,” he said. “I don’t think it makes up one-tenth of 1% yet. I wouldn’t think there’s 50 million pounds of this material in use in the United States, yet.”

That should change, given oil-price trends, he added.

As it is, PLA packaging is about 5% cheaper than traditional petroleum-based products, Massey said.

“We don’t see petroleum-based products are going to come down that much over the next year or so, so the demand for PLA materials will continue to rise,” he said.

Coral Gables-based Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc. had used some NatureWorks packaging for fresh-cut fruit since 2004. But the company announced Nov. 6 that it was expanding its use of the product.

Del Monte Fresh Produce says it will gradually incorporate the corn-based packaging into its full line of products — perhaps half of all fresh-cut produce will feature corn-based packaging in 2006.

Other manufacturers have taken notice and developed their own alternatives to petroleum-based packaging. Vancouver, British Columbia-based Earthcycle Packaging Ltd., for example, unveiled packaging manufactured from oil-rich palm fiber.

The Vancouver-based Oppenheimer Group has signed up to use Earthcycle packaging for cluster and beefsteak tomatoes, peppers and kiwifruit.

Such developments are a market response to spiraling fuel costs that, some companies admit, have put the term “value-added” to the challenge, where products like bagged salads and sleeved items are concerned.

As far as produce shippers are concerned, one of the most popular solutions to dealing with the rising cost of fuel and petroleum-based products has been to simply pass on the extra costs to the customer.