Let us love our freezers again!
Angus Oliphant - 05 September 2012
Why have we become so hooked on ‘chilled’ foods, when ‘frozen’ works so much better for everyone in almost every way? Chilled foods are either pumped full of preservatives or go to waste in alarming volumes. The truth is that we aren't really given the choice and where is the sense in that?
Who first propagated the myth that the term ‘chilled’ could be synonymous with ‘fresh’? And that ‘frozen’ meant cheap and nasty and only to be smuggled into your shopping trolley under cover of a jumbo pack of loo-paper (extra soft, naturally)? Of course neither category define the nature or worthiness of the products within. Perhaps it boils down to the fact that a shorter shelf life means a more recently produced product, and, ergo, a fresher one – but is it? Not at all, obviously.
Suffice to say, that the supermarkets themselves have perpetuated this misperception exhaustively and for so long that some now declare that frozen goods must be sold for less than their chilled equivalents, which has only entrenched the problem. The result being that the profile and profitability of the freezer department continues to lag far behind the chiller, with very little hope of redemption. “It is almost impossible to alter UK consumer perceptions of frozen food as the cheap, low quality option” according to Malcolm Walker, boss of frozen food retailer Iceland Foods. But is it really, and surely the supermarkets, above all, would want to change this? So what is the answer?
Nutrition - Many frozen foods are nutritionally more reliable than so called fresh foods, because freezing prevents vitamins and nutrients being lost during transit and over time as the food breaks down, as happens with chilled foods.
Safety – Bacteria simply can not multiply on frozen food since the natural degradation process of food is slowed to almost zero. As a result, there is no need to pump in loads of undesirable preservatives or fret about delicate shelf lives.
Waste – In the UK we throw away about a third of all the food we buy (not including the out of date food the supermarkets discard) – mostly fresh and chilled products. This is bad for our wallets, our environment and our psyche. Frozen food stays fresh in the freezer until we need it and takes about the same time to prepare as fresh ingredients – a lot quicker for pre-prepared foods.
Cost – It is true that most frozen food is currently cheaper than its chilled equivalent, so good in a recession. But it is not true that frozen food has to be poorer quality – this is simply a reality brought about by the ‘chilled is better’ perception that drives premium brands to favour this route.
Performance – Without doubt, any pre-prepared, multi component product that would ideally be made fresh at home is not going to be best served by sitting around in the fridge for days at a time. Many ready meals, in particular, will regenerate far better from frozen, whether in the oven or microwave. It is an increasingly common marketing angle to suggest that a product is ‘made as you would at home’ or ‘using only kitchen cupboard ingredients’ and yet how do we preserve our home cooking if not by freezing?
It has never been the freezer that has been the problem, it is what it is filled with. If the freezer continues to be monopolised by the cheap and cheerful and nutritionally challenged, so we will all continue to look down upon it, save for a mad dash for our garden peas and some Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream. Despite the millions of marketing pounds spent by Birds Eye, it is incredibly hard to change perceptions of products already in the frozen club. Mr Waitrose and Mr Sainsburys et al, need to recognise that consumers will buy products if they are good value, good quality and have integrity, regardless of where they are placed in store. But it will take a concerted effort and a decent selection to make the trip worthwhile. Most of all, the retailers need to believe in it first themselves – and given the benefits to them, one has to ask ‘where’s the problem?’
It is true that recently there have been encouraging signs of growth in the frozen aisle (5.2% in 2011 with 7.8% expected this year according to Brian Young, director general of the British Frozen Food Federation). High value and low waste chime more in a recession, clearly, but to achieve longer term perception change you have to have a quality product to start with. Simply repackaging in jet black and silver with sexy shots of fresh ingredients is not going to cut it. What is needed is a wholesale commitment from the multiples to source first time (or hitherto non-frozen) premium brands to the freezer. The frozen supply chain alone will open up the category to a vast number of premium quality smaller producers – the life blood of innovation in the food industry. Supplying chilled is a huge barrier to many of these due to significant leaps in scale in tandem with the rigours of just-in-time, daily distribution demanded by the retailers. We have an incredibly rich seam of passionate, independent producers in this country, many of whom are never appreciated beyond their region. Many of those that do expand are often forced to partner up with the big factories and as a result end up losing the control or the essence of their original and unique offering.
Call to action
So, as one passionate producer of premium, organic meals, we would like to put a shout out to all other like-minded, specialty producers for whom chilled distribution is a nightmare and a barrier to high street listings and wider availability. Would it be too far fetched to gather a portfolio of premium products to promote a new ‘Speciality Frozen’ category to present to the retailers? It would no doubt interest some already in chilled distribution too. Together, I believe it is perfectly possible to reinvigorate the fortunes of the freezer, the perception of frozen goods and the grotesque mountain of unnecessarily wasted food. No one of us can do it alone and the retailers have to commit to making it a serious destination. But with low to zero waste the risk is mitigated and the prize will be one for us all, of that there is no doubt. The freezer is not the cheap street, it is the best place to preserve your most valued products, naturally.
Angus and his wife Shoo started their children's ready meals business from the eight by six foot kitchen of their London flat eleven years ago. Initially supplying 10 London delis, including Planet Organic, they now employ 11 people at Scoff Central, in Wiltshire, and supply over 350 restaurants – including Center Parcs, the Rainforest Café, Thistle Hotels, Esporta and Little Chef – as well as Ocado and Abel & Cole. Their meals and sauces, for children aged 12 months up to 12 years, are 100% organic and have won many awards. Shoo was the 'Practical Parenting' 'Business Parent of the Year 2006', and more recently Miniscoff was voted Best Children’s Food Range 2010/11 by readers of Practical Parenting magazine.