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Feature

Frozen planet

By Gary Scattergood , 04-Feb-2013
Last updated on 05-Feb-2013 at 13:58 GMT

Frozen is fresher, more sustainable and better value, Brian Young tells Gary Scattergood

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's mantra was famously: "education, education, education". For Brian Young, director general of the British Frozen Foods Federation (BFFF), the priority is very much "perception, perception, perception."

While public opinion towards frozen foods has thawed in recent years helped by cash- conscious consumers seeking lower prices as the economic climate turned arctic Young is clear that his priority is to win the "perception battle".

In his opinion, frozen is fresher, more sustainable and better value than chilled foods. And, at the BFFF, he's determined to shout it from the rooftops. Young who has been in the BFFF hotseat for six years says progress is being made. The frozen sector has had 25 annual growth quarters out of the last 26, but he is eager to show he relishes the challenges of making frozen as attractive to consumers as chilled.

Luckily, overcoming the odds in his business life is not a new development. Nowhere was this more evident than when he played a pivotal role in developing the Aunt Bessies brand at Tryton Foods, where he served as md for seven years.

The Aunt Bessies brand, he says, was established after consumer research showed the public thought Tryton was involved with "either bathroom showers, or intercontinental ballistic missiles. "It's fair to say we knew we didn't have a winnable brand," he jokes, adding that setting up a new brand was the least of its difficulties "because six months after launching it we managed to burn the factory down".

Frozen inferno

While turning a frozen Yorkshire pudding factory into a raging inferno provided "challenging and interesting times", it didn't hold him back. During his stint as md, Aunt Bessies grew from creation to become a £100M band.

"To be part of something that grows really well was fantastic," beams Young, whose other posts have included chief executive of dried fruit firm Sundora Foods, finance director at a Sara Lee and strategic planning manager for RHM Foods.

As he puts it: "I've worked for a family business, a plc and venture capitalists and now I'm at a trade association."

It's his present role he enjoys most. Having been involved with the BFFF for many years he previously chaired the producers' committee he says it was a "wonderful" job to get towards the end of his career.

The variety, he says, helps him maintain a "youthful outlook on life".

It also keeps him positive something helped by frozen's fairly rosy outlook for 2013. From a retail perspective, he's predicting a good year for vegetables and potatoes, not least, he says, because frozen can offer a better standard of supply in the wake of poor harvests.

He's also keeping his fingers crossed for a hot summer because "the ice cream market hasn't had a good one for at least five years, so it deserves a break".

One thing that's not likely to get a break is the UK economy. And while that continues to stutter, frozen should continue to profit just like it did in 2012 when it recorded a 5.8% annual value growth to £5.6bn by last November.

"Meat and protein in particular are very expensive, so if consumers are looking at reduced disposable income, the price benefit that frozen has over fresh becomes ever more important. I think lots of people are switching from fresh meat and poultry into frozen because of the cost advantage."

Despite the retail gains, Young and frozen food firms aren't exactly doing cartwheels at the economic situation because it has severely hindered foodservice, which is a key market for frozen food manufacturers. The number of meals served in 2011 was 10% fewer than in 2008 as cash-conscious consumers stayed at home, and there is little sign of that trend changing in the near future.

In the thriving retail sphere, however, Young believes it is crucial that manufacturers don't rest on their laurels.

He would like to see more "premium type products" in frozen foods to help bolster the perception of the sector and draw in customers from the higher end of the market.

Frozen, he believes, should not be characterised as cheap and cheerful. He says ice cream has been a major "premium success story", and is eager for other sectors to consider following suit.

"When Mars entered the market with an improvement on a choc ice, with a much higher price point and much better quality, everyone else came into the market with great products. Suddenly we went from the standard one-litre tub of vanilla ice cream in the freezer to viewing ice cream as a bit of a treat."

There are also high levels of innovation in fish and pizza, he says, but how can frozen food manufacturers be encouraged to not only innovate, but do so at the higher end of the market? The answer for Young, lies in managed growth that allows for sensible profit margins.

"If you drive a sector and don't leave enough room for a margin to be earned, you won't get the product development, and that's what we saw with ready meals where very low price points were held for far too long and businesses were driven out. There is no doubt this stopped a lot of the product development we might have seen.

"It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If there is enough margin and enough money being generated to put something back into product development, people will do it. So if you look at the fish and ice cream sectors, there is a great deal of innovation because there is enough margin to fund it."

Innovation and premium goods are one thing, but Young isn't naïve enough to assume that a bit of extra quality and some fancy packaging will lead to victory in his perception battle.

Again, like Blair and his spin-doctor-in-chief Alastair Campbell, Young believes the frozen food sector has to shape the debate and be on message. The BFFF has spent £600,000 on "positive PR programmes" over the past four years including its consumer website www.thenewiceage.com. This is designed to promote the generic benefits of frozen food. A key component of this has been funding independent academic research into levels of waste, value and nutrition in frozen foods.

Waste reduction

One study, carried out at Sheffield Hallam University, took a typical family's shopping list and compared like-for-like purchases across fresh produce and frozen.

"This showed that there was a benefit to consumers of around about 30% by buying frozen," Young reveals. "It is hard facts and independent research like this that will help us to change minds and gain media coverage."

The other key selling point for Young is sustainability. This, he believes, is frozen's trump card and he says he is determined to drive the message into the public consciousness.

"I find it almost sinful that the developed world is quite happy to buy food with a short shelf-life, and then throw about a third of it in the bin. For me, that is absolutely dreadful.

"There's no-one in the food industry that doesn't get the frozen argument. It's now about getting the message across to people in a customer-friendly way," he says, promising more research and PR drives in the year ahead.

Other welcome publicity has recently come from the likes of Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver, who have been extolling the virtues of frozen. There have been some clever publicity campaigns, such as commissioning trainee chefs to cook 'Michelin-style' food using only frozen goods. These meals were served to food experts and journalists who weren't aware of the food's frozen origins and received rave reviews.

Eventually, Young wants UK consumers to develop the same attitude to frozen food that the French and Germans have.

"When they have a dinner party over there, they are very happy to tell their guests they got all the food from the freezer centre," he says. "I want that to be the case here."

All he needs to do now is to persuade the current Prime Minister's Chipping Norton set to admit they get their country supper grub from Farmfoods. Now, that would be one hell of a publicity coup.

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