Global influence on ready meals

Sales of ready meals may be buoyant, with premium global cuisines and healthier formulations driving new product development, but tough trading conditions prevail for manufacturers.

Total ready meals sales rose by 9% in value to 1.15bn but 10% in volume to 266,000t for the 52 weeks to 15 May, according to Kantar Worldpanel data supplied by the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). This highlights a strong performance, but no alleviation in price for suppliers feeling the squeeze.

Its not a bad picture overall, but these are challenging times, says Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, with processors caught between economic pressures and raw material prices.

While retailers are keeping prices down for consumers, the cost of livestock and utilities are rising and exports often offer more competitive returns for processors supplying meat into ready meals production. Manufacturers need to contain costs and find efficiencies wherever possible, says Rossides. In this tough economic environment, only the most efficient will survive.

ECONOMIC PRESSURE
Rationalisation and consolidation has continued over the past year, with a potential merger between major ready meal suppliers Northern Foods and Greencore nixed when 2 Sisters Food Group-owner Ranjit Boparan stepped in with a better offer to acquire a leading stake in the former. Meetings were held in June to identify cost-cutting measures and a streamlining of Northern Foods suppliers.

In February, Eismann UK a supplier of frozen ready meals direct to homes entered administration, citing competition from supermarkets online delivery services. Kerry Foods, meanwhile, acquired the Headland Foods ready meals factory in Flintshire late last year only to announce its closure with a loss of 318 jobs in April. The Irish group had come under fire for the acquisition of its rival, said to place it in a monopolising position capable of driving price increases in ready meals.

Ready meal products failing to make it in the economic downturn included the New Covent Garden Cos meat-free ready meals range in 2009 and Birds Eyes frozen Italian pasta meals in late 2010.

Lake House Table, the premium ready-to-cook meal kit range, launched last year by Stings wife Trudie Styler and Ed Olphin, dropped its three organic lines and introduced a new range Kitchen Suppers earlier this year, featuring more affordable non-organic ingredients.

PREMIUM GROWTH
While often driven by meal deals, growth has been strong at the premium end of the ready meals category as consumers replace nights out with more affordable luxuries such as Marks & Spencers Dine in for 10 offer.

M&S continues to over-perform the market in terms of ready meal sales, but competitors are catching up, with Tesco, in particular, accruing chilled meal share following its development of premium lines such as Ken Hom, City Kitchen, Levi Roots and French Classic.

Even budget frozen food retailer Iceland launched the restaurant- and pub-style range Tendercooked Meat, using the sous-vide technique (see below) and Pub Grub last year. And premium frozen food retailer Cook was set to open its 50th shop this month, having added its second in the Channel Islands in April. Cook enhanced its premium appeal in 2010 with the introduction of a range, For Special Nights In, featuring lines such as Haunch of Venison with Crushed Celeriac and Roasted Confit of Duck with a Juniper Berry Sauce retailing from 6.99 to 12.99 for a two-portion meal.

While own-label is the dominant force in ready meals, a branded push is evident among ethnic dishes, with frozen supplier CP Foods launching an Authentic Asia branded range of Asian starters, ready meals and accompaniments in March, while Dragons Den star Levi Roots added ready meals to his rapidly growing branded empire in collaboration with Kerry Foods last year.

PORK MEALS GROW
Price is pretty stable, says Richard Cullen, category development manager at AHDB. At the start of the recession, ready meals were declining for the first time I can remember, but started growing again and have continued to rise pretty strongly since then. There are quite a lot of meal deals out there and they are very heavily promoted, but for a big category to grow like that is impressive. Some of it is people eating out less and treating themselves more in the house.

Pork-based ready meals have seen the greatest value hike over the 52-week period, climbing 17% to 83m, followed by chicken-based dishes up 10% to 316m, while category leader beef rose 8% to 346m.

Just as greater affordability is the likely driver behind pork-based meals, more expensive lamb-based meals have risen by only 2% to 59m and fish-centred dishes by 4% to 110m.

The biggest categories by cuisine are Italian (373m, +12%), followed by English (371m, +6.6%), Indian (161m, flat) and Chinese (85m, +11.6%), according to the Kantar Worldpanel data.

Greatest growth is coming from more niche flavour profiles, led by a 74% value increase for French dishes, 28% for Spanish and 20% for Oriental meals other than Chinese. Theres a lot of variety going on out there, says Cullen. A lot of different countries dishes are coming in.

Identifying Caribbean and South American cuisines as trends with future growth potential, Tesco also listed nine ready meal lines, including chicken, oxtail and goat products served on the bone under the Kingstontown Authentic Jamaican Meals range produced by Port Royal Jamaican Patties.

VARIED recipes and price points
For many manufacturers of ready meals, a good mix of traditional and global-influenced recipes as well as price points has proved a successful strategy for survival in the recession.


French and Italian cuisine influences many of Grimsby-based Coldwater Seafoods ready meals, including its Asda Extra Special Livornese-Style Tuscan Fish Stew, a finalist in the Best Ready Meal Product category of the SuperMeat & Fish Awards 2011 to be held in July.


Coldwater also takes inspiration from further afield such as its Thai Fish Curry with coconut and butternut squash but many dishes feature traditional recipes, including Salmon in Watercress or Baked Haddock & Chunky Chips with Minted Mushy Peas.

As well as supplying premium meals for M&S and the Asda Extra Special and Tesco Finest ranges, Coldwater manufactures basic dishes from a price point of 2.

Cost is a big driver for consumers at the moment, but were coming up for our busiest year yet in terms of product development, says Zoe Moore, account executive at Coldwater Seafood.

The classic fish dish fish pie is always going to be there, but is more of a winter dish, says Moore. Ready-to-eat prawns and salmon meals you can eat straight off the shelf are more popular in the summer.

And despite a number of high-profile failures, endorsement of ready meals by celebrity chefs is continuing, with Bernard Matthew Farms launching Marcos, a range of fresh, ready-to-cook meals created by Marco Pierre White,
in January.

ORIGIN & SUSTAINABILITY
Origin and sustainability issues have filtered through to further processed products such as ready meals, with provenance and welfare also offering premium opportunities for manufacturers.

In May, agriculture minister Jim Paice called for manufacturers and retailers to step up their country-of-origin labelling on meat products in line with the new voluntary code of conduct developed by the British Retail Consortium in conjunction with meat retailers and manufacturers.

Defras first survey looking at compliance in the major retailers and selected independent shops found 24% of meat pies and ready meals featured no origin statement and only 47% offered the origin of ingredients and the product as a whole. Origin labelling of meat products was found to be more consistent on own-label than branded lines.

Sustainability is a major issue for manufacturers of fish-based ready meals, with Coldwater Seafood using only sustainable sources. With over half of the fish it uses sourced from around the UK, we take pride in the provenance of our products, says Moore.

In January, Sainsburys extended its commitment to using only pole-and-line caught tuna, from own-label canned products to tuna used in sushi, sandwiches and ready meals. Meanwhile, the UKs first Fairtrade ready meals, New Mexican Chilli and African Palava Hotpot with Chicken, were listed by Waitrose and John Lewis stores in May.

Health continues to be a key driver of NPD, with the ready meals category facing salt, fat and portion size reduction targets through Food Standards Agency and voluntary industry agreements.

Earlier this year, The Co-operative announced it would keep prices for its low-fat ready meals range, Healthier Choice, on a par with standard equivalent lines as part of its corporate sustainability programme. Many supermarkets charge a premium for healthier lines.


West Yorkshire-based clean-label ingredient specialist Ulrick & Short is currently conducting research aimed at helping manufacturers lower the salt content of processed products such as ready meals.

Although meat products have already undergone rigorous reformulation over the past few years, due to regulations set by government authorities to reduce salt levels, we think that more work can still be done, says Adrian Short, director of Ulrick & Short.

Our aim is to focus heavily on helping meat producers understand and overcome the suppressive effect that some ingredients, such as seasoning agents can have on the taste of food.

For example, many traditional binders and emulsifiers, such as soya protein, mask flavours in finished products, such as sausages, burgers and processed meats, resulting in producers needing to add even more seasoning and salt to account for what has been lost in the binding process.

Our Complex range of functional clean-label binders and emulsifiers, which can be declared as wheat flour, can combat this and have been designed to directly replace soya protein and eliminate flavour masking, which means that less seasoning and salt is required. These ingredients, therefore, not only improve nutritional profiles, but also clean up labels and are considerably cheaper to use.

Ulrick & Short also supplies functional fat replacer Deliquess, which helps food manufacturers to reduce fat in meat products. Free from chemicals and artificial or genetically modified ingredients, Deliquess is designed to reduce and replace fat, increase yield and enhance succulence in fresh or frozen lean meat products such as burgers, sausages, meatballs, kebabs and nuggets.

The product is said to offer cost savings, improve overall texture and retain added succulence over the course of a products shelf-life, thus extending merchandise appearance.

CLEAN LABELLING
Clean labelling represents perhaps the biggest trend across all processed foods, with manufacturers coming under pressure from the health lobby and consumer demand to strip out artificial colours, additives and preservatives.

In addition to salt, fat, sugar and portion reduction targets, the ready meals category has come under greater scrutiny in terms of excessive ingredients listings.

Ulrick & Short has launched a range of Synergie and Eziglaze products, aimed at meeting retailers demands for alternatives to modified starches and additives. Both starches may be labelled as cornflour, aid marinade and glaze adhesion for meat products and are said to increase the retention of juices in finished cooked meats, thus helping to preserve both the protein and marinade flavours. Available as pre-gel and cook-up powders, the products offer significant cost savings, according to Ulrick & Short.

The Synergie line does not require mechanical mixing and can be added to viscous marinades or those with large particulates, while Eziglaze offers finished coatings that lay claim to clarity, sheen and improved textural qualities, such as stickiness.

LATEST TECHNOLOGY
Former Waitrose executive chef Neil Nugent, now charged with improving Morrisons own-label offer, has identified sous vide the slow cooking and vacuum sealing of food which can then be boiled in the bag as the next big trend in premium ready meals.
Armor Inox, a global supplier of cooking and chilling solutions for processing ham and ready meals with a base in Wrexham, offers the Thermix cook cool chill process for industrial production of sous vide ready meals.

Fully automated, the Thermix process offers carefully controlled cooking of vacuum-packaged proteins, which are then cooled and chilled rapidly without operator intervention.

Water immersion is used for the three phases of cooking cooling and chilling, maximising the thermal transfer of heating and chilling and offering unmatched consistency in temperature control, according to Ian Darlington of Armor Inox. The entire sous vide process produces superb meat eating qualities coupled with maximum nutritional value and highest-possible cooking yields, says Darlington. The process offers extended shelf-life as a chilled product, and some manufacturers freeze the component meals after chilling to further extend the useful shelf-life. The Thermix system is modular in design so that the capacity of the line can be extended to cope with growth in demand.

In a more novel twist on new technology, Tesco this month introduced a new range of six chilled Indian curry dishes, which whistle when cooked. Manufactured by S&R Foods under its East End brand, the curries offer 30-day shelf life using in-pack pasteurisation cooking technology. MicVac packaging, developed in Sweden, is used, and does not require piercing of the film or stirring of the microwaveable meals mid-cooking.

PACKAGING INNOVATION
The latest technology in packaging, meanwhile, includes Cheshire-based Packaging Automations new Eclipse range, aimed at offering manufacturers greater flexibility in adapting operations to a wide range of materials and formats, without sacrificing line speed or product presentation.

The Eclipse has been designed as a rugged, versatile and straightforward high-speed tray sealing machine, capable of supporting and adapting to anticipated growth in the ready meals market as the UK economy strengthens.

Sealing packs at a rate of 200 per minute for the TL6 twin lane and 100 per minute for the SL6 single lane format, the Eclipse design was developed in consultation with manufacturers to address falling cost-base and rising line-speed expectations and offer greater flexibility. Ready meal manufacturers are understandably wary of investing in new equipment and need to see the long-term benefits, so we designed for long-term value, giving the SL6 the in-built flexibility to easily upgrade to a TL6 twin lane and double output without increasing the footprint, says Neil Ashton, sales manager at Packaging Automation. It can also handle the full variety of packaging formats and materials on the market today, and so is already proving very popular in this sector.

Further features include an inbuilt tool loading system, pack crush protection system, quick-release cutting blades and internet-based remote access allowing support engineers to log in from Packaging Automations Knutsford base.

Environmental benefits include potential reduction of film usage by 20% and air consumption by 50% and faster heating mats, while the equipment automatically switches to stand-by when not in use.

The convenience food market is always looking for more cost-effective production methods, says Ashton. Tray-sealed packs offer consumers and retailers what they want convenience, protection and freshness. The Eclipse range has been designed from scratch to give manufacturers what they need more flexibility, less waste, reduced pack weight, increased productivity and significant cost savings.

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