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Related tags: Frozen food, Greenhouse gas, Food, British frozen food federation

Crop failures and inflation are giving the frozen food market a tough time. Rod Addy reports

The word 'frozen' is often used to signify paralysis and lack of motion. Which is anything but an appropriate way to describe the performance of the frozen food industry in the past three years. If only the UK economy had performed as well. We'd still be basking in the heady prosperity of the 1980s.

By now we are all familiar with the dynamic growth seen in the sector for some time. According to the British Frozen Food Federation's (BFFF's) website which is quoting Kantar Worldpanel figures as of September last year, the market had grown 15.9% in value over three years [52 w/e September 6]. That's an addition of more than £700M, taking total value to £5.1bn. This didn't just happen. Behind the story lies the hard work of processors, retailers and trade groups.

Tough times ahead

However, the signs are that times will be tougher this year. BFFF director general Brian Young says while sales in all sub-sectors are still on the up, "growth has slowed a little in value". He attributes this as much to crop failures last year's unfavourable weather led to problems in sourcing frozen vegetables as to the effects of the recession. But inflation of 45% on frozen food undoubtedly hasn't helped. He adds: "Volume has been relatively flat for the last two quarters."

His comments are confirmed by the latest figures from Kantar Worldpanel, which highlight market value up by 2.14% from £5.04bn [52 w/e February 22 2009] to £5.15bn [52 w/e February 21 2010]. However, volume has dropped by 0.75%, from 2.02bn cases to 2.01bn over the same timeframe.

Good job there'll be no slacking in activity, then. In the field of new product development (NPD), Young anticipates more work on traditional English cuisine, such as pies, popularity for which he foresees will increase.

In addition, Birds Eye has already led the way with innovative packaging technology that aims to deliver restaurant-quality food cooked in the bag. Young anticipates more in that vein from the frozen food giant this year. And he says 'fresh' frozen desserts, as "the last product sector to crack" in this area, will be the scene of significant innovation.

NPD won't be the only place where the action is. The BFFF has entered the second year of its frozen food promotional campaign, and manufacturers, importers and wholesalers have already committed more than £500,000 to this next phase.

Last year, the organisation aimed to highlight the benefits of frozen food through three main pieces of research, covering the interests of industry as well as shoppers. 2010 will bring further research projects, says Young, plus work aimed at improving sustainability in the frozen food supply chain and enhancing the energy efficiency of commercial frozen food storage units.

For one of these projects, Manchester Metropolitan University has worked with 10 families over two weeks. The families ate normally for the first week, then switched to an equivalent menu using frozen food for the second. They recorded the relative costs of the menus, the waste each produced and the taste and quality of meals in each case. The BFFF believes the results will reflect favourably on frozen food. "This is the centrepiece of our work on the consumer side," says Young.

In other shopper-focused initiatives, the BFFF will be running competitions giving away freezers on its website. Then, at the end of 2010, another contest will invite children to design their own ice cream.

Green go getters

Meantime, the industry will be involved in environmental initiatives. Young cites its work with [the government's] Waste & Resources Action Programme to cut pre-prepared chilled and frozen food and packaging waste. Covering sandwiches, pizza, quiche and ready meals, the research will kick off in the next two months and map waste generated by product type at every stage in the supply chain. It will calculate the associated greenhouse gas emissions, economic impact and amount of water used and disposed of during processing.

Attempting to cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from commercial freezing facilities will also be a big focus. "We're in the early stages of this, starting to apply for funds with the Carbon Trust," says Young. "The Carbon Trust aims to design the lowest carbon footprint for multi-temperature warehouses. We can use that a benchmark for the industry and help identify changes or designs for new builds." Manufacturers, logistics providers and wholesalers will feed existing and further measurements of the performance from their own storage units into the project.

It must be fresh, it's frozen

The BFFF isn't the only one commissioning investigations to support the industry's credentials. The results of another study conducted by the Institute of Food Research for Birds Eye and released early last month indicate that frozen vegetables are fresher than fresh produce in supermarkets.

The work tots up the time such fresh produce spends in storage and transit to store, plus the time it can spend on shelf and in home fridges before being eaten. It finds that green beans take 1115 days to travel from field to plate; broccoli and cauliflower take 616 days; garden peas take 810 days; and carrots take 910 days. In these circumstances, it claims, green beans can lose up to 45% of their nutrients, broccoli and cauliflower 25%, garden peas up to 15% and carrots up to 10%.

There's no doubt that the frozen food industry is the scene of intense activity and development right now. Just how much all this effort bears fruit in terms of the annual value and volume figures released next year remains to be seen. FM

Related topics: Supply Chain, Fresh produce, Frozen

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