This was one of the topics at a recent food conference at Packforum, Cryovac's customer care centre near Paris. The conference revealed that with consumer expectations becoming more complex, ready to eat meals would have to follow suit by emphasising freshness, health and traceability.
As a result, operators are looking for the best available techniques.
"Packaging is becoming an essential part of the value chain analysis, regarding food safety, organoleptic characteristics, ergonomics and flexibility," said Adrienne Axler, marketing director of Sodexho, Belgium.
Likewise, packaging is of great importance in the final choice the consumer will make, because it directly involves convenience, appeal, information and branding. "In a very broad sense, the food industry is discovering the food service channel as a new distribution alternative. Alliances between food producers and food service operators will be the only means to develop successful solutions," said Axler.
Cryovac used the conference to demonstrate a number of its recent packaging innovations. These included the Darfresh Microw-Vac system, the vacuum skin pack with easy opening feature for microwave steam-cooking and a convenient self-venting (steam release) feature.
Cryovac Steam Cooking is a modified atmosphere pack providing an alternative microwave solution for steam cooking thanks to the combination of a proprietary PP tray, a built-in water reservoir and a top lidding film.
Convenience appears to be the single biggest driver in the ready meal market. Single person households, working women and those with higher disposable income have become increasingly influential in determining food production trends.
Frozen ready meals still dominate in most countries, except in the UK, but the strongest rate of growth is found in the chilled sector. Another trend is the continued growth of ethnic/exotic recipes. In terms of market value, the leading countries are the UK, France and Germany, ahead of Italy and Spain.
These three countries are way ahead of the others when it comes to volume. Sales of ready meals and other prepared foods are highest in the north, perhaps explained by the stronger tradition of home cooking in the Mediterranean region. The market is characterised by the strong presence of leading brands of multinationals such as Unilever or Nestlé.
"The chilled sector will continue to increase its share of the overall market," predicts Jonathan Thomas, senior analyst with Leatherhead Food International. "And there will be increased competition from the food service sector, with a growing variety of home meal replacement solutions."
In the UK the ready to cook market - meals made easy - is considered as having the largest sales density of any chilled category. This market is growing fast and steadily. Sales channels are multiplying in an effort to catch the busy consumer.
The Packforum event drew over 100 participants from 76 companies in 17 European countries and Canada. Participants came from as far as Poland, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.