With consumers now taking convenient fresh-cut snacks for granted, one of the prime players in this sector, AgriCoat NatureSeal, believes that moves towards eating quality will propel the industry forward. Produce Business UK talks to the company’s general manager ahead of its appearance at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference
It’s often said that if you don’t keep evolving as a business then you end up as yesterday’s news. Within the fresh produce sector nowhere is this axiom more apt than in the fresh-cut arena – maintaining freshness, extending shelf life and preserving quality is an on-going concern.
As Simon Matthews, the general manager of AgriCoat NatureSeal, the UK-based subsidiary of US edible film-coatings specialists Mantrose-Haeuser, admits, innovation is vital. It was what gave AgriCoat its big break when the company began working with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop the NatureSeal formula. And it remains integral to AgriCoat today.
Fuelled by innovation
“Our company is driven by innovation,” Matthews explains. “During 2017 we are set to increase the capability of the European operation. We have plans to expand further our scientific team and will be expanding into new laboratories. This is an exciting step change in our capabilities, which means that product development in Europe should speed up. While the pipeline of products coming across [is] from North America, Europe has different needs and expectations presenting other opportunities. I am confident that our further investment in R&D in the UK will help us to respond effectively.”
Previously, the fresh-cut sector was propelled by end users’ desire for convenience – eating fresh-cut fruit, and vegetables, on-the-go. AgriCoat was a pivotal player in transforming this convenience revolution. Today, Matthews concedes, convenience is a given.
It’s all about being healthy
“Snack fruit bags were revolutionary in their day,” he says, “but now consumers take for granted that they can graze on fresh, prepared fruits throughout the day and can substitute traditional confectionery, sweet or savoury snacks with something more wholesome. Whilst convenience is important, increasingly we see consumption driven by the desire to be healthy.”
To that end, since Produce Business UK last spoke to Matthews, ahead of AgriCoat’s appearance at the 2015 London Produce Show and Conference, he has noticed an increased focus on eating quality at the end of shelf life, rather than just extending shelf life.
As he says: “A key aspect of our technology is that NatureSeal products maintain quality without any negative impacts on flavour.”
The intervening 15 months have been busy for the company and its customers. Matthews notes that the fresh-cut segment continues to be dynamic and fast growing and AgriCoat has successfully commercialised a number of new applications for NatureSeal.
“Our clients have focused on the need for more variety, colour and flavours in their product mix,” he says. “Whether it be through the inclusion of different tropical fruits or the use of coloured ‘heritage’ vegetables. The recent trend towards spiralizing vegetables also throws up quality challenges where NatureSeal products have been able to offer benefits, whether in maintaining texture or in preventing browning or drying.”
One of AgriCoat’s most eye-catching innovations of the last year was the launch of the new NatureSeal formulation for banana. And Matthews is clearly pleased about the first products containing banana slices that were rolled out in the UK before Christmas last year.
Elsewhere, with rising concerns over allergens (such as sulphites) in food and the desire to move on from washing produce in hypochlorite AgriCoat has also seen increased uptake in its NatureSeal products for prepared root crops as well as for its chlorine-free wash (NatureSeal FS).
The foodservice sector continues to be a growing area for AgriCoat’s range of products. The US might have led the way, but Matthews points out that foodservice is an important driver for business in the UK and Europe as a whole.
“Many of our customers now supply schools, hotels, restaurants and hospitals,” he notes. “Our new NatureSeal formulations for guacamole and for avocado are being used by some of Europe’s leading chilled-food manufacturers, snack producers and sandwich manufacturers. We even have customers using NatureSeal products to maintain crispness in vegetable ingredients when added into sushi. In Scandinavia we have clients offering pre-sliced limes which are distributed to bars and restaurants.”
And while its business to date has largely been driven by the cut fruit and prepared vegetable sectors, AgriCoat is taking confident steps into the world of salads, where it’s only presence hitherto had been its decontaminant wash, NatureSeal FS. Matthews says he hopes this will change as AgriCoat is now screening some novel formulations for cut and shredded lettuce.
He says: “There is still much to do to understand the impact of variety and seasonality but results to date are interesting enough for us to progress with scaled up trials.”
As ever, this all comes back to innovation. Matthews himself has a BSc Hons (1st Class) in Applied Biology and he works alongside an international team of scientists comprising PhD chemists, plant physiologists, food scientists and nutritionists. Situated in West Berkshire, AgriCoat is well placed to partner with Reading University – a leader in the UK in the field of food and nutritional sciences.
The collaboration between its US parent company and the USDA also endures. In the past 12 months NatureSeal Inc. in collaboration with a USDA, ARS, Food microbiologist in Wyndmoor, PA, developed a new, patented produce wash, First Step+ 10, designed for use on whole and fresh-cut fruit and vegetables, including leafy greens and sprouts.
Being such an international player, Matthews is well placed to talk about the ramifications and opportunities offered by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
“Although Brexit hasn’t happened yet,” he points out, “we are currently seeing some turbulence especially with regard to the value of the pound sterling against the dollar and the euro. That in itself is not all bad. In the months since the referendum result we have seen our business in markets outside of the EU increase by some 30%. At home, despite some alarming news stories, consumer spending still seems to be holding up. Last figures I saw from UK retailers showed food sales at their highest levels since 2013. That too was reflected in our own business these past couple of months.”
And while he was surprised by the result of the referendum, he remains optimistic about the future.
He continues: “Given the global nature of our business and the extensive amount of overseas travel involved in my work I have seen what is going on beyond the customs union. I am sure we can make a success of the new opportunities presented by the UK resuming its role as an independent global player. The EU will always be an important partner for the UK. The UK is an important market for the EU. We will always need to work together and it makes no sense to turn the clock back.”