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Australia’s ready to eat

Time is of the essence. How to save it? Where to cut corners? What to spend the precious little on? Food manufacturers are tapping into these consumer concerns and the market is being flooded with ready to serve, ready to heat, and ready to eat, prepared meals.

The increase in working mothers, single parent families, and single households, as well as rising consumer awareness about health and nutrition in recent years has meant a move towards healthier prepared meals. Food manufacturers are producing low-carb, gluten-free, low-fat, no dairy, low GI, high protein meals and more, to fit every health fad currently out there, and consumer response is high.

The world’s microwavable foods market is forecast to reach $78.8 billion by the end of the decade, according to a recent report pub­lished by Global Industry Analysts Inc. The report, titled ‘Microwavable Foods: a Global Strategic Business Report’, discusses the prevailing trends, issues, demand fore­casts, and activities that affect the industry.

The attractive factors for this market are taste, food quality, and convenience. Con­sumer lifestyle has been, and continues to be, the crux behind product innovation and development efforts for the industry. The consumption of foods designed specifically for microwave cooking is projected to grow in view of product innovations correspond­ing to changing lifestyles and eating habits.

The demand for microwavable foods is projected to exceed $9.0 billion in the Asia-Pacific region by 2010.

This research clearly proves that the market for fresh convenience meals is significant and Australian manufacturers plan to capitalise on this trend with a great variety of new ideas in fresh, high quality food.

A passion for perfection

Dari and Yehiel Kaplan are known for cook­ing nothing but the best. With a combined experience of over 50 years, the couple has produced exactly what was missing on Aus­tralia’s shelves — quality, healthy products, with a look that reflects their simplicity.

Pilpel Fine Foods was established in December 2004 with the motto of adding nothing that was not essential to the flavour. This is why Pilpel’s range of dips, pestos, soups and curries are all gluten-free, contain no dairy, no egg, no animal fat, no preserva­tives, and no artificial colours or flavours. The entire range is therefore a suitable addi­tion to a vegetarian or vegan diet, as well as for people with various food sensitivities and allergies.

The range of dips, with which Pilpel first burst onto the market, are a great indication of the uniqueness of these products. “We never compromise,” Yehiel has said in the past. “We don’t take shortcuts and we do use expensive ingredients.” This approach stands true till today. Yehiel originally started studying cooking in his home country of Israel. “I still remem­ber the most important rule being written on the board: don’t compromise on quality.” Yehiel has not forgotten this lesson.

Today Pilpel’s point of difference is “the freshness of the pure, fresh vegetables which are not frozen, not dehydrated, and not powdered. We’re working with the highest quality ingredients — extra virgin olive oil, and fresh herbs and spices.”

Before making a decision to open the busi­ness, Yehiel spent several years research­ing the market. “I saw dips on the shelves, and was disturbed by what was going on,” he said. “For example, simple avocado dip which, when you see the percentage, is only 2% avocado, and all the rest is nothing. You see this and you understand that people are getting a very bad product. I wanted to <[lb]>provide a product that was real food.”

After receiving what Yehiel has called an unbelievable response to their range of dips, Pilpel decided to expand into soups and curries. “I was doing research when I started these soups, and I discovered that one of the com­panies, coming from New Zealand, is actually using all Chinese frozen vegetables and dry vegetables, while claiming their goods are organic. I strongly doubt that there is any­thing organic coming from China.”

For Yehiel, using all Australian vegeta­bles and fresh ingredients is about more than just taste. “As an ex-kibbutz farmer, I under­stand what a drought means. I understand how important it is to support the farmers at this time by buying fresh produce from them, and not getting the imported frozen vegetables. The flavour of the fresh vegetables is a lot higher, and so is the impact.

Yehiel understands that the market for ready and prepared meals is only going to expand, and appreciates the niche appeal of Pilpel. “A lot of people, especially a lot of young people, are working quite hard and coming home late. There are two things hap­pening as a result. Either they are buying take-away meals, or they’re buying a ready meal, shoving it in the microwave and having it in front of the TV. And that’s it.

“A lot of people are really quite lazy to cook. Also I believe that a lot of people are look­ing for the value for money. And that is why we created something that is high quality.

“There is a simple saying that says ‘cheap is very expensive’ and that is my belief. That was my belief from the very beginning. We make good, high quality dips, soups, curries, and pestos. Yes, they are expensive but whoever buys them appreciates them and understands that they’re getting real value for money.”

Creative solutions for every day

With its roots firmly planted in the hospitality industry, providing first class products to some of the countries top hotels and restaurants, Peter Cox and his team at Creative Food Solutions has developed a range of cooked meal products for ALDI under the Specially Selected brand.

The product range includes a selection of meals produced from 150 day grain fed Angus beef medallions and fresh chicken breast, each available in three styles. The Black Angus beef and fresh hormone- free chicken breasts are grilled prior to being topped with freshly made sauces and cooked sous vide for 12 hours in a Simple Steps tray.

The product range has been developed to provide a full main course meat portion for two people. Each of the products contains two 180 gram beef medallions, or two 200 gram chicken breasts — the same size as most restau­rant meal mains. By selecting from the range the consumer can have the main component ready for the table in just three minutes.

These products also allow the consumer to vary their meal selection by changing the side dishes served with the meal, and pro­viding endless combination for all seasons.

According to the Creative Food Solutions general manager, Peter Cox, the company has “sourced the Black Angus beef from the Margaret River region in Western Australia as part of Andrews Meat Industries Angus Cattle program. This program allows us to control the cattle from the planning at the farm through the processing, and then to the kitchen.

“Our chicken breasts are all hormone, steroid and chemical free, keeping with our philosophy of fresh and natural products,” he explained. “As we are a team of chefs, we produce all of the sauces from scratch, using fresh veg­etables and all natural ingredients. This process gives the finished product a ‘non- commercial’ look and more of a home-made appearance.” This is an important point of difference for the company.

After months of research and development on packaging with Cryovac, Creative Food Solutions decided on the Simple Steps pro­gram as the Vacuum Skin Packaging (VSP) provided both brilliant presentation and a perfect microwave reheat with a unique self- venting system. This system allows the customer to heat the product quickly, avoiding drying out or turning the product into rubber, without piercing the skin of the packaging and without having contents of the meal explode all over the inside of the microwave.

As the meal heats, select­ed areas of the package vent if the pressure builds past a set point. The skin will collapse over the product after heating, allowing for easy removal and serving.

The VSP packaging system allows the product to be sauced and cooked in the tray, providing extended shelf life without the need for preservatives.

“The skin forms a tight seal over the product keeping everything in its place during the cooking process, the transportation to each of the stores and all the way to the customer’s fridge,” said Cox.

“One of my concerns with the packaging sleeve was that the photos on the outer were a direct representation of the product and its ability to be presented by the customer as seen in the picture. All of the photos were taken using the product reheated directly from the tray and garnished with items that anyone could make very quickly.”

Serving up variety

Fresh food producer Mrs Crocket’s Fast & Fresh has responded to consumer demand with the release of a new range of all fresh, all natural, gourmet soups and risottos, following extensive industry research.

The new, restaurant-inspired meals are presented in convenient, consumer friendly packaging.

Mrs Crocket’s business development and innovation manager, Shelley Davidson, said the decision to redevelop the range was part of the manufacturer’s constant strategy to align itself with changing consumer trends and offer greater options to retailers for convenience food offerings.

“Mrs Crocket’s has been operating within this industry for several years and are determined to be the market leader in terms of our innovation and understanding of customers. We believe extensive customer research is vital in our business activity and currently employ eight team members who are dedicated to product innovation,” she said.

“This range was in development for over three months. The products are made with only the freshest Australian ingredients and feature no artificial colours or flavours to ensure that while consumers are enjoying delicious, restaurant-quality meals, they are also packed with nutritional value.

“We understand that constant redevelop­ment is essential to maintain the interest and loyalty of our customers and aim to keep the range interesting with new flavours.”

Mrs Crocket’s Fast and Fresh is Aus­tralia’s largest manufacturer of chilled con­venience soups, capturing a solid portion of a market worth approximately $14 million and growing at 27% per annum.

The range also features new microwave­able packaging which make the individual servings more manageable for consumers, and merchandising more practical for retailers. Mrs Crocket’s spe­cialise in dressed and leafy salads, prepared risottos, mashes and soups.

The company has recently launched a convenience food range in selected ser­vice stations as part of an ongoing strategy to offer healthier and tastier options to the growing convenience food market.

“We understand consumers are becoming increasingly time-poor and health conscious so we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to meet these changing needs and offer better alternatives to the market,” said Davidson.

“People don’t normally expect to find such healthy gourmet foods at a service station so it’s fantastic that busy consumers can now pick up a meal as they fill up the tank or head to and from work.

“The grab ‘n’ go products are perfect lunch or dinner solutions for people who enjoy nutritious gourmet meals but don’t always have the time to prepare them at home. That’s why we use only the freshest, highest-quality produce to ensure our meals are healthy and nutritious as well as tasting great and saving consumers time.”

Lena Zak is the editor of FOOD Magazine.

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