IQF Vegetables: Tapping Into Demand for Health And Convenience

Frozen vegetables represent an important component of the European frozen foods industry, since they are a widely eaten meal accompaniment. Although the sector encompasses traditional favorites such as peas, carrots, broccoli and green beans, it also includes more exotic varieties, positioned as convenience and/or added-value products – one example is stir-fry vegetable mixtures, which are typically used in the preparation of Asian dishes.

Major Consumers

According to Eurostat data, the EU is a major importer of frozen fruit and vegetables, with almost 4 million tonnes brought in every year. The major consuming countries are Italy, Germany and France. EU production of frozen vegetables is also sizeable, worth in the region of EUR1bn per year by value. Leatherhead estimates that total consumption of frozen vegetables in Europe (i.e. including the retail, foodservice and industrial sectors) is between EUR8bn and EUR9bn per annum, with annual growth on the low side. Western Europe’s leading retail frozen vegetable markets are listed below, with sales estimated by Leatherhead at more than EUR2.54bn in 2015. As can be seen, sales are highest in Italy, at EUR675m – this figure drops to EUR618m for the UK and EUR605m for Germany. Together, these three countries accounted for a combined 74% share of the overall market in 2015, a figure which rises to 90% if France is included.

Expressed as a percentage of the frozen foods market as a whole, the share taken by the frozen vegetables sector is particularly high in Italy, at 20.5%. This figure declines to 11% for the UK and 10.5% for France. At the other end of the scale, frozen vegetables account for a modest percentage of the large German frozen foods market, at less than 7%. Compared with other sectors of the frozen foods industry, the category has suffered because of its mature state, together with a perceived lack of innovation. In response, manufacturers have been turning towards health and convenience in a bid to win back consumers. Many frozen vegetables are now packaged in microwaveable formats, which enable them to be ‘steam-cooked’ for added freshness. Emphasizing the nutrient content of frozen vegetables is a popular marketing tactic, whilst manufacturers have also been experimenting with ethnic-inspired varieties (e.g. Asian) in a bid to move the sector upmarket. 

Market Breakdown

According to Eurostat, Germany is one of the world’s leading importers of frozen vegetables, most of which are sourced from Europe – the Benelux countries account for 66% of imports, if frozen potato products are included. The leading varieties imported into Germany include peas, carrots, broccoli and green beans. Total consumption of frozen vegetables in Germany (i.e. including foodservice and industrial channels) was worth an estimated 495,000 tonnes in 2015, or 5.8 kg per capita. Leatherhead estimates that volume sales of frozen vegetables via the retail sector amounted to 275,000 tonnes in 2015, equivalent to almost 56% of the overall market. Value sales via retail channels were worth EUR605m during this time.

The UK has Western Europe’s second largest market for frozen vegetables by value. In 2015, sales were worth an estimated GBP485m, based on data from the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF). According to the same source, volume sales were worth 304,000 tonnes, or 4.7 kg per capita. Consumption has been fairly static during the past few years, due to factors such as the mature state of the category and strong competition from the fresh produce sector – in response, manufacturers have been developing more convenient products, such as frozen vegetables in microwaveable packaging. Within the last year, vegetables accounted for 11% of the UK’s frozen foods market in value terms.

France also has a sizeable market for frozen vegetables, with household penetration standing at nearly 85%. According to Leatherhead, retail sales increased very marginally in 2015, rising by just 0.5% to EUR400m. During this time, volume sales were worth 170,000 tonnes, or 2.6 kg per capita. Single-variety vegetables such as green beans dominate the sector, accounting for almost two-thirds (65%) of consumption, ahead of mixed vegetables (27%). One of the most popular types is frozen spinach, volume sales of which were worth an estimated 24,000 tonnes in 2015, or 14.1% of the total retail market.

The vegetables sector remains the largest within the Italian market for frozen foods – this is despite the fact that most consumers have traditionally preferred to purchase vegetables fresh, on the grounds of higher quality. Recent data, however, suggests that this situation is changing, especially amongst younger Italians. In 2015, retail sales of frozen vegetables were worth an estimated 224,000 tonnes in volume terms. Market value was worth EUR675m, having increased by around 3% from the previous year. The retail sector accounts for approximately 40% of the Italian market for frozen vegetables, with total consumption amounting to 560,000 tonnes, or 9.4 kg per capita.

In Belgium, over 1 million tonnes of frozen vegetables (i.e. more than 90% of domestic production) were exported from Belgium in 2014, according to data from Eurostat. Leading export markets include Germany, France and the UK, which account for a combined share of approximately 60%. According to the Flanders Agricultural Marketing Board, per capita consumption of frozen vegetables in Belgium is just under 3.6 kg, of which mixed frozen vegetables account for 30%. Total Belgian consumption is therefore worth around 40,000 tonnes per year.

Elsewhere, Eurostat data indicates that the Netherlands represents the EU’s fifth largest grower of vegetables, and the country is a major exporter. It is an especially significant exporter of varieties such as onions, tomatoes and sweet peppers. Leatherhead estimates that Dutch sales of frozen vegetables were worth EUR80m in 2014/2015, equivalent to 8% of the country’s total frozen foods market. Data remains fairly thin on the ground for the remainder of Western Europe, although peas and mixed vegetables account for over half of the Irish market for frozen vegetables. 

Leading Suppliers

Most of Europe’s leading providers of frozen vegetables have a wide customer base, which includes companies in both the retail and foodservice industries. Some also supply the own-label sector, which is of considerable size. Most of the largest suppliers are present in more than country, although the number of pan-European brands within the category is arguably slightly lower compared with other sectors of the frozen foods industry. One of Europe’s leading suppliers of frozen vegetables is Nomad Foods, which encompasses the Birds Eye and Iglo brands, as well as the European operations of Findus. In the wake of its successful acquisition activity in 2015, Nomad now has operations in 15 countries, and annual revenue worth EUR2.1bn. In addition to frozen vegetables, the company also occupies a strong position within other industry sectors such as frozen fish and frozen meat and poultry products.

Frozen vegetables primarily appear under the Birds Eye, Iglo and Findus brands. Nomad supplies varieties such as peas, sweetcorn, broccoli, mushrooms and spinach, which are marketed as being freshly picked and therefore rich in essential nutrients and vitamins. Also part of Nomad’s range in markets like the UK and Germany are steam-cooked and stir-fry frozen vegetables, some of which appear in varieties such as Italian and Chinese. Nomad’s share of the frozen vegetable and potato products market ranges from 38% in Sweden to 16% in Spain and just under 10% in France. The Birds Eye brand also accounts for 44% of the Irish market for frozen peas.

One of Nomad’s rivals is Bonduelle, which accounts for 18% of the frozen vegetables sector in its native France. The company’s vegetables are sold in fresh, canned and frozen format to customers in both the retail and foodservice industries. Bonduelle harvests approximately 500 different types of vegetables in 58 processing facilities, and its products can be found in 100 countries. Its latest revenue was EUR1.98bn – of this, frozen products accounted for a 28% share, ahead of chilled (20%) but trailing canned (52%).

Besides France, the Bonduelle brand can be found in Germany, Italy and the Benelux nations. Its range of frozen vegetables includes peas, green beans, sweetcorn, broccoli, spinach and mixed vegetables – the latter are available in ethnic-inspired varieties such as Mexican and Chinese. The company accounts for 30% of sales of stir-fry frozen vegetables via France’s mainstream food retailers, where it is the largest branded supplier. Until recently, Bonduelle operated as a partner in the Ultracongelados de la Ribera (UCR) joint venture in Spain, with the Belgian-based Ardo Group. Bonduelle announced it was to exit from this in February 2016, by selling its 50% stake to Ardo. As a result, Ardo will assume control of production at UCR’s Valencia site, which manufactures 30,000 tonnes of frozen and prepared vegetables per annum.

Ardo itself operates 20 production and packing sites throughout Europe, and exports to regions such as Africa, the Middle East, North and Latin America and the Australasian countries. Between 2010 and 2014, sales volumes rose from 600,000 tonnes to 805,000 tonnes, and its customers span the retail and foodservice sectors. Its range of frozen vegetables includes the Express brand of pre-cooked vegetables and vegetable mixtures, as well as Bio Organic (a range of organic frozen vegetables) and A Table, prepared products aimed at the convenience market in varieties such as Vegetable Medley and Creamed Leeks.

Another notable Belgian producer is Pinguin Foods, which claims to be the world’s second largest supplier of frozen vegetables. It is a division of the Greenyard Foods Group, which has a turnover worth EUR3.9bn and encompasses other businesses such as Univeg, Noliko and Peltracom. According to Pinguin, it processes over 400,000 tonnes of vegetables per year, of which carrots, green beans, peas, spinach and sweetcorn account for more than 70%. The company manufactures in France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary and the UK, and sells its frozen vegetables to customers in the retail, foodservice and industrial sectors.

German company Frosta accounts for 9% of the frozen vegetables category within its native market. It supplies an extensive range of frozen vegetables – examples include mixed vegetables in a variety of recipes (e.g. German Kitchen and Asian Kitchen) and regional vegetables in creamy sauces, as well as ethnic-inspired varieties under the Pfannen label (e.g. Asia Curry, Italian, Thai and Caribbean). The company also supplies organic frozen vegetables such as carrots and green beans under its Bioland label.

Virto Group is Spain’s largest producer of frozen vegetables, with annual sales worth 250,000 tonnes. Its products are sold to retail, foodservice and industrial customers, and it also produces frozen fruits and pulses. The European region accounts for 90% of its sales, with the US and Japan representing other major markets. The company’s range includes frozen vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, sweetcorn, green beans, peppers and spinach), as well as mixed vegetables and vegetable-based ready meals (e.g. Mushroom Risotto and Mushroom Stir-Fry).

Green Isle Foods, which forms part of 2Sisters Food Group, is the leading branded supplier within the Irish frozen vegetables market, accounting for 45% of sales. The company operates four production facilities across Ireland, and the Green Isle brand is also used for frozen potato products. Frozen vegetables include peas, petit pois, sweetcorn, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, whilst its range also features stir-fry vegetables. In addition to the usual varieties, its stir-fry vegetables include more exotic types such as peppers and water chestnuts.

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