Following the ‘horsegate’ scandal, sales of ready meals dropped as consumers lost trust in the category. However, the signs are that convenience food is back on the menu, and the recipe for success is to be found with healthier, and interesting new formats
It’s the humble potato that offers a glittering example of how prepared produce can capture consumer spend and provide new opportunities for vegetables.
At the recent National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in London, IGD chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch declared that in the wake of ‘horsegate’ “sales of convenience food will strengthen again, including ‘food to go’ or in other words ‘ready to eat’”.
And what can be more convenient and transparent than prepared potatoes? According to Kantar Worldpanel figures from this month, provided by The Potato Council, sales of chilled potatoes continue to outperform the market, with spend up 12% year-on-year.
Jack Skelly, a research analyst at consumer market strategists Euromonitor International, says sales of frozen processed potatoes reached £822 million in 2014.
“Frozen potato products is a consolidated market with a large number of branded manufacturers operating. The industry was seriously boosted by a range of these industry stalwarts introducing a number of successful new products,” he explains.
“McCain, the leading brand in frozen potatoes, launched a new range of oven baked chips that are able to be cooked in just five minutes. It also continued to experience success with its ‘Ready Baked’ jacket potato products, which the company has been extremely effective in advertising through television and billboard campaigns; ‘Ready Baked’ grew by 6% in 2014 to achieve sales of £24 million.”
Skelly adds that overall the frozen and chilled meals market needs more innovation with “a key focus on healthier products” if it is to further grow sales. Formats have not differed significantly from when the US food manufacturer Swanson first introduced the ready meal in 1952.
Many supermarkets and manufacturers are looking at ways in which to re-brand convenience food from one laden with nasty surprises to the healthy and interesting choice for time-short shoppers.
This, says Richard Ford, food analyst with Mintel, is where the fresh produce industry can find more opportunities for broadening its market appeal, especially with the trend for ‘kits’ where consumers buy the ready prepared and measured ingredients, that they then put together as though cooking from scratch.
“The wide variety of fresh produce available in terms of colour, flavour and texture, means it offers a good way of adding interest to chilled recipe kits/meal kits,” adds Ford.
“Herbs in particular could play a role here given that 55% of seasonings users say they would be interested in trying more unusual varieties of fresh herbs (data from September 2014).
“Including more unusual varieties of fresh herbs may encourage uptake of such meal formats at the same time as giving consumers ideas on how to use those herbs. The challenge for operators, however, remains how to keep pre-prepared fresh produce looking fresh and vibrant.”
Heather Yazgi, category manager at UK potato producer Branston, agrees that keeping vegetables looking appealing was among the challenges for manufacturers. “Keeping vegetables looking good and tasting good and providing them in the right format is the biggest challenge,” she says.
“Convincing consumers to buy meals including such produce is becoming less of a problem. The key challenge is getting the right product for the processor. It is not always a matter of harvesting the crop and getting it to the gates of the ready meal processor. They have particular needs that are completely different to retail requirements.
“Many ready meal manufacturers require the convenience of further processed vegetables to ensure that the end product is produced in the most efficient and cost effective manner, which means supplying a range of cuts and dices or floret sizes to ensure that fresh produce looks good in the final product.”
This is not the only challenge, according to Jane Michell, founder of the ready-to-eat meal delivery service Jane Plan.
“It would be good to see more interesting vegetables in ready meals and this is an area that ready meal producers should focus on,” she says.
“People choose our services because they want to eat healthily and by ensuring there are vegetables in most of our meals, we help them to do it. We also ensure that every meal is nutritionally balanced – people are looking for healthier options, coupled with convenience.”
Jane Plan is a great example of the type of operation that fresh producers can get involved with. Although the service is aimed at those on a diet, its range of low fat, low salt, freshly prepared ready meals delivered to the door also appeal to those trying to eat more healthily in general.
“I think a positive trend and increasing influence on the food and diet industry today is how readily available nutritional information is to customers,” comments Michell.
“As a result, I think that customers are savvier in their food choices. We have found our customers to be very open to new meals and ingredients within our plan. I think the assumption that British tastes are limited to be unfounded and it should be challenged.
“We are a nation with a rich cultural mix and heritage and we should be very proud of this and what a vibrant food industry we have. I think that pre-prepared and ready meal companies can further push people’s boundaries and the preconceptions that ready meals are bland or similar in taste. As confidence grows in this market, I think what people perceive to be more usual ingredients will become more accepted.”
Susan Barratt, CEO of Natures Way Foods, a leading salad products producer, agrees that consumers are wanting more out of prepared foods. She added that Natures Way is aware that the traditional salad of lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes is struggling to maintain its appeal, and shoppers increasingly want innovative products with different ingredients that deliver on taste, health and convenience – without breaking the bank.
“Consumers no longer just want salad leaves; they are looking to their salad purchases to provide a ‘safe adventure’, something a bit different to what they might normally buy, but still within their comfort zone – new ingredients, tastes and textures all delivered at a purse-friendly cost. ”
Kantar figures from this month, provided by the Chilled Food Association, appear to back up Barratt’s comments, that while leafy salad kits are down 13.9% in value and 15.9% in units year on year, reports show that bowls with dressings are up 26% and complete meal bowls are up 42% year on year.
While many lament the passing of the days when all dishes were made from scratch, there is no denying that convenience food offers a solution for those who do not have the time or the skills to create a meal for themselves.
Yet with the new trends in ready to eat, the fresh produce industry has a golden opportunity to help consumers with a healthy, but easy-to-prepare diet.