Shoppers have been chilly toward frozens lately, but the recent introduction of steamable packaging could have them warming up to the category.
Porous bags and self-ventilating trays have had huge success in Asia for several years, and food-makers and supermarkets are hoping to bag similar results in the United States, particularly as sales of frozen food are soft.
Sales of frozens in supermarkets - from pies to vegetables - declined 1.16% in the 52 weeks that ended Jan. 22, according to Information Resources Inc.
"There hasn't been a lot new or exciting that's happened in the frozen vegetable category for the last five or six years, so this could be an exciting innovation," said John Conti, spokesman for Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y.
Penn Traffic's 230 stores added a variety of Birds Eye Foods' Steamfresh frozen steamables to its freezer cases in January, including sweet peas, cut green beans, broccoli florets, sweet corn, corn on the cob and several combinations of mixed vegetables. In all, Birds Eye has nine Steamfresh varieties on the market.
Alliston, Ontario-based QuickWave International Corp. has been making steamable bags for overseas food manufacturers for many years and one of the company's U.S. customers, Target's Archer Foods, has been selling its frozen, steam-in-the-bag vegetables in Target stores since 2004.
Although the first steamable products to hit the U.S. are vegetables, the packaging can be used for a variety of foods, said Shirley Cox, president of QuickWave. Some of QuickWave's Healthy Fx Microwaveable Packaging was designed to stand upright and can be used to cook foods with high liquid content. The pouches can also be custom-made to suit the quantity and type of food product,
from single-serve sizes to family portions, she added.
"Because it is essentially a steaming process combined with the microwave, it's suitable for most foods, like soups, fish, poultry, seafood and trayed foods with meat and vegetable combinations," she said. "They can also be used for both fresh and frozen vegetables."
Ron Shemesh, chief executive officer of Excelsior Packaging Group, the company that makes Birds Eye's steamable ventilated trays, explained how the technology works.
"We have developed a method of incorporating a unique valve, which can release excess steam and sustain pressure in the pack," he said. "The technology can be built into any flexible package and allows the consumer to steam cook in the microwave without fuss."
QuickWave's Healthy Fx Microwaveable Packaging is also self-ventilating. But rather than trays, the company makes bags with special porous strips that allow steam to escape.
The new steamables act much like a combination steamer/pressure cooker, cooking the food from the inside out as well as the outside in. This process is said to reduce the cooking time, which saves energy. Cooking with the porous pouches also is said to retain more moisture, vitamins and nutrients, thus producing better-tasting and healthier food.
Other purported benefits include cleanliness. Because the packaging only allows steam to escape, food is completely encased and therefore can't splatter onto the walls or ceiling of the microwave. And, because there's no need to precisely slit the packaging or peel back a plastic liner to ventilate the product, the contents are less likely to be under- or overcooked, manufacturers say.
Such ease of preparation helped two steam-in-the-bag products, from Target and H.E. Butt Grocery, win accolades from the Private Label Manufacturers Association last fall.
Jim Wisner, president of Libertyville, Ill.-based Wisner Marketing Group, believes that eliminating the need to slit or open a bag will be viewed as valuable to consumers, even though the task only takes a few extra seconds.
"We've done some behavioral research in recent years for clients and discovered that even a seemingly insignificant convenience that can be offered can have a tremendous impact on a product's marketability," Wisner said. "Even small conveniences like eliminating the need to look for a pair of scissors can be seen as a benefit."
Indeed, in a recent national survey commissioned by the American Frozen Food Institute, consumers named ease of preparation as the most important frozen food innovation in the past decade. Variety, taste, product performance, quality after preparation and nutrition followed in importance. (See Page 35 for related article.)
"Steamable bags have implications for each of these areas of innovation," AFFI spokesman Chris Krese said.
With so many benefits, steamable bags stand to win over even those who've been scared away from microwaving, Wisner said.
"Consider anyone who's had a bad microwave cooking experience like having a bag explode, food splatter all over or even having food that's overcooked or undercooked," he said. "A product like steamable bags could be what it takes to get that consumer to try using the microwave again."
The new packaging has its advantages, but there is also one notable downfall: a higher price per ounce compared to regular frozen vegetables. "We anticipate that the consumer will pay slightly more for the benefits that the technology delivers," Shemesh said.
Some supermarket chains also wonder what impact the new products will have on existing SKUs.
Dahl's Food Markets of Des Moines, Iowa, just got its first shipment of Birds Eye's Steamfresh frozen vegetables, which had all nine varieties offered by the manufacturer. Dahl's frozens buyer Dick Rissman expects the new steamable bags to catch shoppers' interest, but he also voiced a concern.
"I'm wondering what the 12-ounce size is going to do to [Birds Eye's] 16-ounce bags," he said. "We'll be able to keep the 12-ounce at a lower price point, and I think the 12-ounce might be a better quantity for smaller usage users. With the added convenience of the steamable bags, they might be competing directly with their other products."
Several weeks after the Birds Eye products were delivered to Penn Traffic stores, the chain began running ads in weekly circulars promoting the new items. April will bring a heavier advertising program with coupons, and the chain's registered dietitian will write about the steamable products in her bimonthly customer newsletter and in items she writes for newspaper ads, Conti said.
In addition, the steamable products are flagged in the weekly ad with a "new" icon, and are on sale along with the regular polybagged vegetables. Penn Traffic planned to occasionally cross-promote them with other dinners and entrees, Conti said.
Price Chopper of Schenectady, N.Y., is shipping all nine varieties of Birds Eye's Steamfresh vegetables to its 113 stores. When they arrive, the new products will be displayed with other Birds Eye frozens, Price Chopper spokeswoman Mona Golub said.
"We'll be promoting the new Steamfresh vegetables along with other Birds Eye vegetables with like prices and at this point, we're mostly promoting them as new items," Golub said. "Of course, space will increase or decrease depending on sales, and we will definitely be sampling them in our stores, as we have a very strong in-store demo program."
Schnuck Markets in St. Louis said it started selling frozen steamables in its stores in January, and Highland Park Markets in Glastonbury, Conn., planned to have three Birds Eye's varieties in stores in the coming weeks.
"We'll be carrying the basics at first and see how well they do," said Tim Cummiskey, spokesman for Highland Park Markets. "If we have the advertising allowances and if Birds Eye offers incentives, we'll likely promote the steamable bags in upcoming ads. With new products, so much depends on the incentives from the manufacturers."
Food Lion, a 1,220-store chain in Salisbury, N.C., is promoting the convenience of its new Birds Eye frozen steamable vegetables.
"We like the idea of offering added convenience for the customer," Food Lion spokesman Jeff Lowrance said. "What remains to be seen is how effectively manufacturers communicate the advantages to consumers and if consumers adopt the new packaging."
New products are the lifeblood of the industry and the frozen food category in particular, said Nevin Montgomery, spokesman for the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association.
"Growth in frozen dinner entrees has had a positive effect on frozen foods in the past year, and the new steam bag technology will hopefully attract even more people to the category," Montgomery said. "The new bags are exciting because they certainly make cooking easier, which translates to convenience, but it's the quality of the food, the nutrition and the value that will be the most appealing to consumers."
Montgomery sampled Birds Eye's steam-in-bag vegetables at a recent trade show and was impressed with the look and the taste of the products.
He expects health-conscious shoppers to appreciate the new frozen packaging and the products' claim that they preserve more of the nutrition than other microwaveable products.
Cox believes that zippered, reusable bags are the next natural application for the technology. QuickWave already makes individual, empty cooking bags in several sizes and the company plans to sell them in North American supermarkets as consumers become more familiar with steamable packaging.
In addition to Target and H-E-B, other chains may come out with their own private-label steamable items if brand names fare well.
"Private label could be something we would consider," Golub said, "if sales are good enough."
The Future Of Frozens
Steamable bags fit the larger trends toward foods that offer convenient and flexible uses, according to Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill.
"As people become more time-pressed, we're seeing a trend toward what I call 'modular foods' or foods that can be pulled from the fridge or freezer and quickly assembled together to make meals," he said.
Foods used in Asian and Mexican recipes, like frozen vegetables and frozen or refrigerated pre-sliced meats, lend themselves well to such quick-meal preparation, he added.
Because food in steamable bags requires no preparation other than microwaving and can be eaten as a side or mixed with other meal ingredients, it's a perfect modular item, he said.
Steamable bags also could fit consumers' demand for individual portion sizes that let them prepare as little or as much as they need, Wisner said.
"If someone has a late meeting or one of their kids has basketball practice, the whole family might not be eating together, and being able to pull out an extra portion or put one back should be an option," he said.
One solution is bulk packaging containing individually wrapped portions. Steamable bags of frozen vegetables fit with such packaging, Wisner said.
"It would enable consumers to include cooked vegetables as an option in brown bag lunches or offer individual alternatives at family meals," he said.
As manufacturers eventually introduce other food items in frozen steamable bags, consumers will be able to easily cater to different tastes, potentially cooking different meals for each person with little or no extra effort, he said.