With the nation having recently experienced a series of pandemic-related lockdowns, a focus on chilled and frozen food packaging is timely. While food shopping is essential, many have been limiting their visits to the shops. Filling the fridge and, particularly, the freezer has been a sensible move. Packaging and labelling is key to consumer choices whether its innovations such as re-closable packs or instructions on freezing and defrosting.
Outside of the home the pandemic has of course created challenges for the sector as frozen food supplies to foodservice outlets have been hit hard but the retail figures are very encouraging for this category.
With other factors, such as the high quality frozen food products available and value for money, coming in to play, it’s no surprise that frozen food sales finished 2020 on a high. The sector added another £252m in sales in the last three-month period, according to the latest Kantar figures released by the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF).
The research reveals that the frozen food aisle has been the star performer of grocery retail in the last 12 months, performing better in terms of value and volume percentage growth than any other category apart from alcohol.
“In grocery retail frozen food had a fantastic year with many consumers increasing their frozen food purchasing or indeed finding the frozen aisle for the first time,” says Richard Harrow, BFFF chief executive. “During December many retailers were reporting demand remained high especially for frozen turkey crowns and seasonal products with shoppers emptying freezers as quickly as they could be stocked.
“Whilst this year’s performance has been driven by the changing shopping habits due to the pandemic and the return to the big weekly shop, many consumers have been converted to buying more frozen products by the long shelf-life, reduced food waste, value for money and variety of food on offer.”
In addition to offering Christmas shoppers a variety of frozen food options, Iceland also continued its focus on plastic reduction, doubling the amount of reduced plastic Christmas products on in 2020.
“We’re delighted with what we’ve achieved this year – doubling the number of products which are entirely plastic free in our Christmas range,” said Richard Walker, managing director at Iceland, in a statement. “Finding alternatives is complex and requires true innovation, and it’s testament to the dedication and tenacity of the Iceland team and its suppliers that we are making real progress.”
Tesco has also been continuing its plastic reduction, announcing in November last year a significant change to its own-label hard cheese packs which will save 260 tonnes of plastic each year. The saving has been made by switching from the traditional square block shape to oblong packaging and also by removing the current re-sealable zip.
Plastic reduction will also be achieved through Tesco ditching the plastic trays in which these cheeses are delivered and they will now be sent in a new cardboard shelf-ready format. Aldi has also focused on its cheese packaging, announcing it has halved the plastic waste on its Glen Lochy cheese across its 94 Scottish stores by replacing zip lock packs with flow wrap.
While the drive to reduce plastic goes on, it’s difficult to argue against its time-honoured benefits in this area. So, the balancing act between packaging with less, or zero, plastic and keeping food fresher for longer, while reducing perhaps the more damaging but less publicised food waste problem, remains. “I think the demonisation of plastic is a little misguided. I absolutely understand the concerns, following Blue Planet II but it’s a very effective material in the food industry. What we have to do is find a way to keep it out of the environment and create some kind of circularity,” says Harrow.
“There’s a lot of data suggesting that food waste is a bigger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions than packaging waste. I do think we’ll see more messaging from government around the impact food waste has on the environment. That plays quite strongly into frozen food. We can provide good, high quality food that people can keep and not waste.
However, The BFFF remains resolutely active in combating packaging waste too.
“We set up a special interest group on packaging, launched at last year’s business conference. It’s now up and running and we have around 25 members,” adds Harrow. “The idea is to share best practice around reducing the amount of packaging we use. Can we reduce the gauge of the packaging? Can we use a different type of packaging, compostable, recyclable? How can we drive the market forward? Hopefully we can get to the point where we can go upstream to people like Exxonmobile and say to them ‘If you can create a substrate in this form, it will help us’.
“Ultimately, we need more flexible packaging to be collected at kerbside. If we’re going to generate the kind of recycled content the government wants us to, it needs to get into the system. I know they are making moves but it needs to be accelerated as much as possible.”
Time to chill
While the chilled food might not be currently performing quite as well as frozen in stores, it remains one of the most dynamic markets in food packaging. The pre-Covid, 2019 figures in the UK, showed the value of chilled prepared food to be above £12bn.
The chilled cabinets have seen some recent innovations that should appeal to shoppers, not least when it comes to choice of materials as many packs require a combination particular where coatings are required.
“Shoppers, even if they are hurried seem to shop with the emphasis on selecting packs made from sustainable resources, paperboard is a popular choice particularly if the emphasis is on brown, earthy colours with no-fuss graphics,” says Tom Kerchiss, managing director at RK PrintCoat Instruments . “Paperboard tends to be the most widely used packaging medium in many chiller cabinets and is available in a variety of grades each of which offers specific performance properties. Solid bleached sulphate or SBS are premium grade materials that can contain upwards of 80% virgin bleached wood. Most SBS is coated with a thin layer of kaolin for optimum printability and for applications where a pack may experience damp or wet conditions. A pack might be coated with a barrier layer of polyethylene for further protection and to enhance the appearance of some packaging surfaces.”
“Paperboard’s receptive surface and good bill boarding facility provides package printers and converters with the opportunity to make for bold use of attention grabbing colour while still incorporating essential information such as ingredients and cooking instructions. Colour, both well-chosen and well-executed, is essential.
The future may well see a range of plastic alternatives and bio-plastics being increasingly utilised in packaging but, as with frozen food packaging, striving for circularity is also a key target. While paperboard use is an example of largely non-plastic packaging, the current benefits of plastic use in chilled food packs are copious.
“Yogurt and many dessert items are packaged in thin walled pots made from polystyrene, polypropylene or amorphous polyethylene terephthalate,” adds Kerchiss. “Other bio-plastics are being tried out and used along with other materials for recyclability and environmental reasons. Polystyrene allows for the use of snap facilities, allowing for single serve pots of dessert to be removed from a multipack. Polypropylene enables a producer to engineer folded compartments so that a single serve pack can incorporate dual chambers. Plastic laminated printed lidded material seals product freshness in and provides an effective barrier against other spoilers.”
Kerchiss points to the key role of flexography in this category and the difficulty of hitting the colour target consistently due to the variables and potentials of flexography.
Among chilled food pack innovations being utilised is one that comes from, Berry Global company, Superfos’ laboratories. The SuperLock packaging range has been designed especially for products which require extremely good oxygen barrier. Readers of Packaging News will know that the range has been around for a few years now but it has recently been adopted by several brands.
Michel et Augustin is known in France for quality and gourmet products, but the packaging counts as well, says Vincent Abbo, product development manager: “After having considered several options, we decided to go with the SuperLock pot for our new Coeur de Crème. We like this pot because it has a twist-off lid which sets it apart from the usual pots for dessert cream. SuperLock is very visible on-shelf and is a top-quality pot with great stability. The artwork decoration includes an attractive drawing of a spoon.”
Many of the innovations in chilled packaging have been driven by sustainability and supermarkets’ aforementioned drive to reduce plastic. Most recently these include Aldi’s cardboard packaging for meat, sourced from sustainably-managed forests, announced in December last year. Lidl announced a supermarket first: fish packaging, developed with its partners Copernus, Sharpak and Bantam Materials, using ocean bound plastic.
No doubt these are difficult times for both categories, as they are for many markets, but there’s clear resilience and a positive outlook for the, hopefully not too distant, future.
Plastics Pact preparation
The challenge we’ve got coming is the Plastics Pact in April 2022. I’m not certain how the industry can meet that target. Legislation at the moment says you can’t use recycled content in contact with food. The concern is that people do things to get around this, like using a barrier material that might be harder to recycle. We want more of a holistic approach. We are working closely with the British Plastics Federation on a joint strategy to approach this particular issue.
Richard Harrow, chief executive, BFFF
Getting products noticed quickly
Great packaging begins with the right material, one that not only protects, but assists in getting a product noticed and bought. That item could be a food or beverage product, such as chilled sushi or a tub of yogurt with a short ‘sell by’ and ‘use by’ date. It needs to be noticed and purchased as soon as possible. In many instances retailers want an item, especially if it’s a packed lunch item, to be stacked on the shelf early in the morning and to be gone by early afternoon. Any remaining lunchbox items cease to be revenue earners and simply become waste and lost profit.
Tom Kerchiss, managing director at RK PrintCoat Instruments