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In this interview with John Hyman, the new British Frozen Food Federation chief executive, we discuss his views on the category across Europe and the UK.

How would you currently describe the frozen food market in Europe?

The frozen food market in Europe is currently incredibly strong with key players such as Picard in France seeing continued growth. This is mainly due to the reputation that frozen food has across Europe, of being of the highest quality. This perception and focus across the industry on premium products has allowed European frozen food brands to reap the benefits.”

What about the differences between the EU and UK?

The EU market benefits greatly from the perceptions of frozen and the quality of products offered through the focus on premium. In Great Britain, the perceptions of frozen have improved enormously in recent years and are continuing to do so with support from big names across the industry including Iceland, Sainsbury’s, Birds Eye and Young’s Seafood amongst others. This shift in perception has converted into continued year on year growth of 0.4% in retail, with the industry currently worth GBP5.71bn. Currently, the foodservice is buoyant, with employment at a record high. The online retail sector is an area where we expect to see real growth in the next few years as it levels the playing field for frozen by removing the physical constraints such as shelf space or positioning that might sway customers. The growth of online retailing will continue to benefit frozen, which already outperforms bricks and mortar retailing significantly, with Kantar data showing that frozen overtrades compared to other sectors.

What is the perception of frozen food currently?

In the past five years, the rise of frozen food in foodservice has been, in large part, down to the changing perceptions of chefs towards the category. A BFFF survey undertaken in 2014 revealed that 86% of chefs and caterers believe that frozen foods are frozen at the peak of their quality. This was a huge turning point as it shows that chefs are confident that by sourcing and using frozen products, they can offer diners exceptional food. In retail, the frozen food industry as a whole has actively invested in promoting the benefits of frozen food to consumers, with huge campaigns from a range of retailers and brands as well as BFFF’s own Cool Cookery campaign aiming to equip consumers with the knowledge and confidence they need to incorporate frozen food into their everyday lives. This has translated into sales, as the Frozen Food Report II, released in 2016 states the value of frozen food sold in the UK in retail is now at GBP5.73bn.

Waste reduction is a hot topic in the UK right now, with national campaigns fronted by influencers such as Hugh Fernley Whittingstall regularly making headlines and recent WRAP statistics estimating the average family wastes GBP700 worth of food each year. As a result of this, consumers are actively seeking out frozen food as an option to help provide healthy, nutritious meals for their family, while benefiting from the portion control it offers, in reducing their household food waste. Frozen food not only offers consumers added choice of products, ease of preparation and reduced waste, it is a good investment for the trade because, as a category the waste levels attached to frozen food are comparatively lower.

What are some of the main challenges associated with the frozen food industry?

Across the retail sector, one of the main challenges in recent years is a fundamental change in shopping habits, as consumers have moved away from the weekly shop and are less concerned about brand loyalty, choosing instead to shop around for the best deal. More frequent purchasing can favor purchases of fresh food, for faster consumption. Mainstream brands have seen the opportunity here and have reacted with easy to prepare frozen dishes, such as Birds Eye’s Stir Your Senses range. However, the premium products offered by discounters such as lobster and beef wellington are often frozen, meaning consumers are more often associating frozen with premium quality.

Another challenge that has been ever-present in the frozen food industry is the perception of frozen. However, the BFFF and its members have put significant investment behind communicating the benefits of frozen to chefs and consumers. The BFFF Cool Cookery consumer campaign is dedicated to helping busy households find quick and nutritious meals that can be made easily with frozen ingredients.

Is frozen food as a category still mainly a commodity? What are your thoughts on the end products targeting shoppers?

Frozen food is being seen less and less as an emergency back-up item and is making its way onto consumers’ plates daily. More and more we are seeing shoppers seek out frozen items, particularly as the range of products has broadened to include ingredients such as herbs, pre-diced onions and spinach. Premium frozen ready meal company Cook recently posted record Christmas sales, with online sales soaring 40%, showing that premium is a definite growth area for frozen. The innovation across the sector has played a huge part in positioning the frozen aisle as a must-visit in the shopper’s journey. Premium NPD including desirable pre-prepared products such as coconut prawns and mushroom, brie and cranberry wellingtons target a new demographic of shoppers that might not have necessarily chosen frozen in the past.

How would you compare the foodservice segment, versus retail?

Across the foodservice sector, the awareness of the benefits of frozen food from chefs has significantly improved in recent years. In 2014, a BFFF survey revealed that 95% of chefs and caterers are now stocking and using frozen food and that 82% understand that freshness is locked into products through the process of freezing. These sentiments are echoed in the retail sector, but a large difference in sales is the role that online retailing plays. Without the physical constraints in terms of shelf space and the ability to easily view an entire range of products in one go, frozen has already seen significant benefits from this channel.

As chief executive of the Federation, what are your goals for 2017?

Despite a difficult and unpredictable year, the retail frozen food sector has continued to perform exceptionally well. Thanks, in part, to BFFF and our members who have built up a significant bank of evidence to promote the nutritional, cost, quality and sustainability benefits, the case for frozen food is no longer in dispute.

In my role as chief executive of the BFFF, my aim is to continue to work closely with our members to promote the benefits of frozen across the retail and foodservice sectors and strengthen frozen food as a whole, as well as working closely with the FDF to achieve the best possible outcome for food and drinks businesses in Brexit negotiations.

Convenience and nutrition are areas in which we can make real headway in the frozen category and I will be encouraging our members to talk up the convenience of frozen and highlighting to shoppers those products that can be cooked straight from frozen, mainly through communication on packaging, as this is still an area in which consumers are unsure.

Nutrition and health are hot topics right now and as freezing is an all-natural process that includes no additives or preservatives, this is a trend that frozen can really tap into. The fastest growing food categories at the moment are fruit, sweet potato and fish and we can really capitalize here. For example, encouraging consumers to make breakfast smoothies with frozen berries creates another occasion for them to visit the freezer, and there needs to be a real focus on moving consumers away from visiting the freezer once a day at main meal time and using it as regularly as the fridge.

Looking at the frozen category in 2017, Brexit will continue to create uncertainty with the causes of inflation playing a major role in how businesses move forward, but it remains to be seen whether this will be a long or short term effect of the UK leaving the EU. However, the recently published Frozen Food Report II predicted strong growth for the frozen food industry over the next five years, with the retail and foodservice sectors expected to grow 1-2% and 3-4% respectively. In times of uncertainty, flexibility is crucial and being able to effectively meet ever-changing demands and challenges of a volatile market is imperative. Moving forward, I am confident that the benefits of frozen food will mean food businesses will have no problem meeting the changing demands of consumers and markets.

What role do you believe BREXIT will play in the British frozen food industry and the UK trade relations with traditional EU partner countries?

2016 was a year of significant uncertainty for the food industry both in the lead up to and the aftermath of the Brexit decision in June. However, the frozen food retail market saw growth in spite of this in the second half of 2016 to see year on year growth of 0.1% in both value and volume in the 52 weeks to the 4th December 2016. The sector saw 0.5% volume growth alongside a value growth of 0.1% according to the latest statistics from Kantar Worldpanel which value the market at GBP5.71bn. These positive results come at a time when much of the food industry is seeing the impact of uncertainty surrounding the Brexit decision.

We recently conducted a survey of BFFF members which revealed that, while 55% of the respondents currently export, only 45% see Brexit as an opportunity to increase overseas trade. Another concern raised was the availability of labor, with several companies saying that the June vote has already made it harder to recruit staff.  Personally, I am encouraged by the Government’s announcement of an International Action Plan for Food and Drink, which is designed to boost the sector’s exports by GBP2.9bn. However, I would urge the Government to think beyond traditional food and drink exports as there are many more opportunities beyond the traditionally exported products, such as whisky, beef and shortbread. To make this change successful, there needs to be a long term commitment to a trade policy that enables and supports new and existing exporters.

Food is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and given the challenges the whole food industry faces, it’s essential we speak to government with one united voice. This is why BFFF is working in close partnership with the Food and Drink Federation to make our case to the Government as negotiations move forward. 2017 promises yet more uncertainty for the UK economy which is likely to prove positive for frozen food as consumers look to take advantages of the cost effective quality afforded by frozen food and the opportunity to minimize waste.

What should our readers expect from the March Conference?

As well as getting together with the main players in the frozen food industry and catching up with old friends, the Conference is always an incredible learning experience with much to take away. With the future uncertain, the Conference will give members of the industry a chance to spend time with others in their field. While Brexit will be high on the agenda, the Conference  promises a stellar line up of speakers for its seventh year, tackling burning industry topics such as how to reach consumers in a modern world, winners and losers in the foodservice industry and of course, ‘After Brexit’. Speakers will include Francis Nicholas, Group Digital Director from Birds Eye, David Devanny, MD-Online, Iceland Foods Ltd, Simon Stenning, Executive Director at MCA Foodservice Market, Russell Patten, Chief Executive at Grayling and keynote speaker The Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable. A chance to hear from experts and industry leaders alike, this is one not to be missed.
Please share your views regarding innovation and its role in expanding the industry

Innovation is vital in the frozen food industry and it is something the industry excels in. As consumers’ palettes and needs continue to evolve, innovation is allowing the frozen food sector to continue to meet them with premium, desirable NPD available across both the retail and foodservice sectors. In an increasingly competitive space, caterers must be up to date with the latest trends in eating out. Diners are looking for choice and innovation which in turn puts significant pressure on chefs and caterers who need to be aware of keeping preparation times, cost and waste to a minimum, which is where frozen can offer significant results. For consumers, innovation is key in bringing frozen food to front of the shopper’s mind, by offering them a multitude of ways to easily incorporate frozen into their everyday diet.”