The first International Frozen Food Network (IFFN) Round Table, part of the Anuga@home digital program that was broadcast on October 12, gathered key trade association leaders in Europe and the United States to share knowledge about the vital role frozen foods play in providing healthier diets, as well as fostering a more sustainable supply chain. It is now available to view online at: https://www.frozenfoodsbiz.com/frozen-food-is-a-game-changer-for-a-more-sustainable-food-system/
Under the theme “Fresh, Healthy and Sustainable: Why Frozen Food is a Game Changer for a More Sustainable Food System,” the event was organized by the Dr. Sabine Eichner, managing director of the Deutsches Tiefkühlinstitut (DTI), and hosted by John Saulnier of FrozenFoodsBiz.com (FFB), the leading international digital news and information platform.
In addition to Dr. Eichner, panelists that discussed current topics affecting the frozen food industry included Bernd Stark, chairman of the Berlin, Germany-headquartered DTI; Guillaume Le Duff and Luc Darbonne of Paris, France-based Les Enterprises de Glaces et Surgeles (Les EGS); Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF); Alison Bodor, president and chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI); Renato Bonaglia, president of the Rome, Italy-headquartered Unions Nazionale Alimenti Surgelati (UNAS); and Gerben Nijeboer of VriesVers Platform in the Netherlands.
Effects of COVID-19 on the Frozen Food Industry
Mr. Saulnier, serving as moderator of the event, engaged the panelists in lively discussions that covered numerous subjects, including the tremendous disruption that the frozen food industry and the world has coped with for more than 18 months as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis.
Perhaps one of the most notable upsides of the coronavirus pandemic (SARS-CoV-2) is that many consumers turned to frozen food more often and became more aware of both the nutritional benefits and the great taste that frozen vegetables, fruit, ready meals and other products have to offer. Even more critical, the category gained new followers, as an increasing number of shoppers tried frozen products for the first time on a regular basis due to their convenient, affordable, and extended shelf life qualities. Many consumers who previously took frozen foods for granted as primarily convenience products gained a much better appreciation for just how delicious and nutritious, high-quality frozen ready meals and side dishes are.
“During the pandemic period, we found new customers, and we saw a big increase in purchasing of domestic freezers, which in itself is an indicator that consumers increased their frozen food purchases. Therefore, we are confident that frozen food consumption will remain at least at the levels of 2021, if not better, compared with 2020 and 2019. I believe that these new consumers that have adopted frozen food during the pandemic, as well as the new occasions of consumption of frozen food at home, will help the market grow in the coming years,” said Renato Bonaglia, president of UNAS .
Bonaglia’s counterparts from France and the Netherlands seconded his comments by confirming that they noticed the same situation in their own countries. Consumers rediscovered the frozen category and, noting a 10% increase in sales in France in the first half of this year, compared to 2020. In the Netherlands, trips to the stores were reduced as shopper filled their stocked up on more frozen foods and filled their freezers in the process, convinced of the benefits of convenience, freshness and nutrient value.
How Will the Foodservice Industry Evolve?
While retailers thrived during the pandemic, the foodservice sector was severely hit, with restaurants closed and fast food outlets operating mainly with home delivery services. At present, these establishments have reopened, but it is uncertain for how long, taking into account a fourth wave of the coronavirus threat that has already begun.
Panelists discussed the importance of frozen foodstuffs including vegetables, french fries, meat, seafood, plant-based main courses, ice cream and desserts as being essential and indispensable for restaurants.
DTI Chairman Stark remarked: “In Germany, we can view the situation from three perspectives. We had a -10% decrease compared to 2019, and we expect a 10% increase compared to 2020, so we have not yet recovered to the levels of 2019. So, availability is the number one driver. Secondly, consumer behavior has changed in foodservice. Because of the pandemic, office catering has suffered as many offices shut down and people relocated to work from home. As such, many operators had to adjust and adapt to stay afloat.
“Furthermore, since restrictions eased up, many consumers started to travel, and tourist destinations once again became popular, which meant good business for operators in these areas. This is why there was a good development in the QSR (quick service restaurant) and fast food segments. Lastly, the third factor to consider is the guest, who enjoys a perfect meal in a great ambiance, together with friends in a restaurant. Frozen food can help restaurants deliver this perfect experience for all foodservice operators. Frozen products have everything they need just in time, without the need to plan or throw away stocks of food, which is a fantastic advantage.”
Noting that overall sales of frozen products have risen by upwards of 15% in the past year and added approximately £1 billion in sales compared with 2019 figures, Richard Harrow of the British Frozen Food Federation was optimistic about future prospects notwithstanding the current challenges of labor shortages and other matters including post-Brexit supply chain issues.
The BFFF chief executive believes that many foodservice operators will reconsider how much chilled product they will use because they had to throw away a massive amount of such goods during the pandemic. As a result, a significant number of wholesalers are reassessing whether they will continue to use chilled or switch to frozen. So there are increased opportunities in foodservice, as menu offerings made from frozen components are instrumental in helping businesses achieve the return they need to get back on track.
Meanwhile, across the channel in France, PR campaigns to promote frozen food products have gone into high gear, as explained by Mr. Le Duff of Les EGS:
“We managed with our federation to start a promotion campaign to promote qualities of the frozen food products. We chose to focus on three targets: increasing the visibility of frozen foods, re-engaging the audience with influencers and b2b clients, and educating the clients and audience with demonstrations. We tried to work on notoriety and perception of frozen food, and this year we’ve focused on taste and the pleasure of eating and reminding people that fresh and frozen are allies when cooking.”
Role of Frozen Food in Food Safety and Sustainability
Many rumors swirled around during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic when China banned a small quantity of imported frozen food that it claimed was contaminated with traces of SARS-CoV-2. Exporters vehemently denied that contamination occurred at their end. According to the US Food and Drug Administration and other reputable agencies with like responsibilities in other countries, there is absolutely no evidence of food packaging being associated with the transmission of coronavirus or Covid-19 infection.
Rebutting false narratives requires greater focus among food industry trade associations, which find it necessary to step up direct communication to consumers based on facts and fundamental science to debunk unsubstantiated rumors, some of which may start with ill will.
“We haven’t seen any evidence from China about the issue. It’s important for associations to support credible science and to use that science to drive policy change,” said Alison Bodor of the American Frozen Food Institute. “There is no evidence anywhere that Covid-19 is associated with packaging, which the world’s leading health organizations support. The food industry considers food safety and worker safety our utmost priority, and we’ve invested and implemented safety protocols and standards informed by science that exceeded requirements. We did that very early on in this pandemic.”
Moreover, Bodor added, AFFI teamed up with Emory University in Georgia and the University of North Carolina to investigate worker protection strategies related to Covid. That research showed that steps such as masking, standard room air exchange, and hand washing substantially reduce risk by up to 99%. So, food processing plants are some of the safest places to work.
Addressing Food Waste for Many Years Already
Reducing and eliminating food waste has become an ever-important issue in recent years. The versatility and long shelf life of frozen foods are increasingly appreciated in both the private and public sectors.
“We have been engaged in the food waste issue, which is strongly debated politically in Germany and Europe, from the beginning as we see it as a strong advantage for the frozen food industry. Looking at the entire food chain, it is clear that frozen food preserves the rawest materials among all foodstuffs. Therefore, we started a project on measuring food waste at the industry level, and the first figures we have ready-produced shoed that frozen is not in any way wasted as 99.9% gets to the next level of the supply chain, either retail or food service, in such a way that almost nothing is wasted. This cannot be said for other types of food. This is something essential because it aligns both with EU and UN policies to reduce food waste by 50% until 2030, which is not quite far in the future,” said Dr. Eichner of DTI.
Attracting Young Consumers and Promoting the Nutrition
Frozen foods typically have a considerable advantage over so-called “fresh” products when it comes to food safety, as the quick freezing process naturally locks in freshness and high nutrition values at the peak of perfection, and in the process enhances safety. In Europe, the Nutriscore has already been introduced in several countries. It categorizes foodstuffs based on their nutritional value from A (highly nutritious and devoid of trans fats, too much oil, salt, or sugar) to D (sugary, oily, or very salty).
The French and German panelists fully supported the Nutriscore. They said that companies are very involved in being transparent with this classification to help consumers be informed and make the right choices as this has to do with quality and transparency from farm to fork. The German frozen food industry was the first one that supported it. According to the panelists, scientific studies are an excellent way to communicate to consumers, as they are based 100% on facts that cannot be disputed.
Regarding the need to better communicate the virtues of frozen food to the younger generation, Mr. Harrow pointed out that this demographic is highly concerned about all issues that impact the planet, and that the BFFF is actively addressing sustainability and other issues of high importance across all consumer segments.
DTI Chairman Stark took the subject of communication one step further in emphasizing the importance of connecting with hearts as well as reaching minds.
“We need to communicate beyond the rational side and touch on the emotional side,” said Stark. “For example, when consumers go to a farmer’s market, they are already convinced that the vegetables or fruit are better because they are fresh, compared to packaged ones, which come from a factory and are perceived as not as good. So, work needs to be done on the way consumers perceive frozen emotionally to get it on the purchase list. Rational communication is not enough. There needs to be a blend between rational and emotional communication aimed at the consumer.”
In addition, AFFI President and CEO Bodor said that it is essential to communicate the benefits of frozen foods, but not so that it seems biased against fresh products. The consumer is the one who benefits from frozen and the availability and affordability of the category, in the end, she emphasized.
When the panel discussion turned to the admirable job in promoting frozen foods that specialist retailers such as Picard in France and Iceland in the United Kingdom have done for generations, Luc Darbonne of Les EGS made a very insightful point about Picard’s merchandising and marketing approach.
“Picard is advertising a lot,” he said, but in doing so one does not hear the word frozen. The chain sells high quality products, period.
“Now Picard is moving toward in-store kitchens that are going quite well. People come and they buy and eat in the store,” added Mr. Darbonne.
Mr. Harrow of the BFFF noted how impressed he was with the Picard store he visited when last in France, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic: “There were in-store displays of ready meals for office workers to buy that just happened to be frozen, and could be taken to the office and microwaved for lunch. What a clever piece of innovation. Picard always blows me away.”
And so do Iceland stores in the UK, an enterprise founded by Malcolm Walker as a loose frozen food shop back in 1970. Today the retailer operates more than 900 stores and recently, noted Harrow: “They launched 250 different new lines in one period, all innovative frozen products. In the UK, Iceland really stands out.”
What’s in a Name? Plenty!
Frozen Food as Game Changer is the key part of the theme of the IFFN Round Table, and VriesVersPlatform is an important “name changer” for promoters of frozen foods in the Netherlands.
“We have introduced a new and better name for the frozen food category, VriesVers. It’s all about emotion and to get the consumer to act,” said Gerben Nijeboer of the Netherlands’ VriesVers Platform. “We also organize a festival to attract consumers to supermarkets to vote for the best frozen food section in the store, which lasts for four weeks. They can also vote for the best product and private label product and receive prizes for their input. We have received positive feedback from retailers following these initiatives, with sales rising and, even more importantly, new customers coming to the frozen food aisles.
“In terms of communication, we use Facebook and our platform with a wider range of followers, where members can present their new ranges of products. In addition, we use social media to share content on topics such as sustainability and recipes on how to prepare frozen foods.”