(Nov. 8) Twelve billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but, where the fresh-cut produce industry is concerned, it’s only the beginning.

According to a study recently released by the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-cut Produce Association, consumers spend about $12 billion yearly on pre-cut, pre-washed, packaged fruits and vegetables. About $4.3 billion of that is in the retail sector, with the balance in foodservice.

But findings from the same study reveal that the potential profits from those products — particularly in the foodservice sector — are much greater, especially where fruit is concerned.

The reason? It’s consumer-friendly, said Jerry Welcome, IFPA president.

“I think it needs to continue down the path of convenience,” he said. “I think that’s what’s driving that whole sector. The whole idea that we’re creating product that you can eat on the go, that whole issue of convenience is the one that continues to drive our growth.”

The study, “Fresh-cut Produce Fuels an America On-the-go,” takes a look at the still-young fresh-cut category, what has fueled its growth and what may drive it in the years to come.

The report, compiled by Pakintell LLC, a West Chester, Pa.-based company that provides packaging information and research services, says prepackaged salads account for $2.6 billion in retail sales each year and that precut, prepackaged vegetables have logged $1.4 billion in yearly receipts.

Perhaps in direct response to the increased demand in fresh-cut items, Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Produce Inc. and Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle Inc. formed a merger recently to focus on integrating the latter’s Salad Time value-added business with that of Ready Pac.

The merger that brought the nation’s third and fourth largest fresh-cut salad producers together was completed Aug. 1, forming a new company called Ready Pac Foods that is doing business as Ready Pac Produce.The merger provided a wider customer base for Salad Time’s Cool Cuts fresh-cut carrots and celery.

“I think we’ve been responsive,” said Bill Zinke, Ready Pac’s vice president of marketing.

For many fresh-cut distributors, the fruit category has lagged so far, mostly because of shelf-life issues. But the study indicates that the fruit category, which last year had $300 million in sales, may more than triple its receipts in the next few years.