Is the UK's €5.3bn ready meal market missing a trick?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages
© GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages
No organic ready meals, 'double standards' in meat labelling and too few vegetarian options. Manufacturers in Europe's biggest ready meal market, the UK, are failing to seize a business opportunity, a new report says.

The UK is Europe’s biggest ready meal market, with British consumers spending £4.7 billion (€5.31bn) each year on ready-to-eat, convenience meals, according to Euromonitor data.

However, a report published yesterday by Eating Better​, an alliance that groups together more than 50 organisations with the aim of making food and farming more sustainable, says that retailers and private label manufacturers are failing to meet the rising demand for flexitarian options.

It surveyed 1,350 different own-brand and branded ready meals from 10 leading UK retailers – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Morrisons, Asda, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl – and found that meat was the main ingredient in more than three out of four (77%) products.

Eating Better commissioned a YouGov survey last year which found that 44% of British people were willing or already committed to cutting down on meat or cutting it out completely. They also said  supermarkets should offer more meat-free ready meals or meals with less meat to help them reduce their meat consumption.

It also found inconsistencies in country of origin labelling. Tesco, Asda and Iceland did not consistently provide origin information while Co-op and Waitrose were the only retailers to use British meat in all their own-brand ready meals.

It also found a clear distinction in meat origin between ranges, with 80% of premium ranges using UK meat, compared to 52% in regular ranges and only 32% in value ranges.

A significant amount of chicken (35% of meals where provenance was indicated) – and all of the chicken in value range meals was sourced from Thailand or less frequently, from Brazil,” ​the report said.

There were no organic ready meals on offer.

Executive director of the Alliance Simon Billing told FoodNavigator: “Innovation in plant-based products is an exciting space, but our report shows supermarket ready meals are behind the curve.”

While more “savvy​” supermarkets were starting to improve this – this year saw vegetarian and vegan launches from Tesco and Sainsbury’s​ for instance -  there was still too little on offer.

'Double standard' between fresh & ingredient meat

“We have heard very little about improving the welfare standards of meat in ready meals, there is a double standard between fresh meat and ingredient meat in most of the supermarkets farm animal welfare policies,” ​he added. “The meat in these meals is under-valued and better meat hardly features in this category.

“Thirty percent of ready meals give no indication of country of origin. You will be very lucky to find a label of higher standard meat in any of these meals, compared with two-thirds of egg used are labelled free range.”

Manufacturers’ choice of eggs in ready meals – two thirds of which are labelled as free range – shows that opting for higher value, higher welfare ingredients as standard practice is possible.

Eating Better Alliance’s reason for targeting the composition of UK ready meals is down to its massive market size - and hence the impact it could have.

“…The UK ready meal market was £4.7 billion (€5.31bn)​ in 2017,” ​Billing added. “Changing what supermarkets are putting into them would have a massive environmental, health and animal welfare impact.”

Currently 90% of the vegetarian ready meals are cheese-based. Cheese has a relatively high greenhouse gas intensity - eight to 10 times that of milk, depending on the hardness of the cheese -  meaning that cheese can have a higher per kilogram impact than pork.

According to Billing, both the relative lack of vegetarian options and lack of high welfare meat in ready meals were “pressing issues”.

Seize the business opportunity

“What we’d like to see [is] food retailers seize the business opportunities – as well as their responsibilities towards their customers’ health and the health of the planet – in the burgeoning flexitarian market of people who are cutting back on the amount of meat they eat," ​the report said.

We’d also like to see supermarkets serving customers expectations for ‘better’ meat produced to higher animal welfare and environmental standards.”

Are retailers and private label manufacturers listening? Eating Better said it received limited responses from supermarkets – in some cases none at all – but was open to dialogue and could offer support to firms wanting to diversify their portfolios.

Neil Nugent, head chef at Iceland, which specialises in frozen foods and has only 7% of its portfolio vegetarian or plant-based, said: “We have a number of ready meals of which the recipes are vegan, however we can’t currently guarantee these are suitable for vegans as there aren’t many pure vegan manufacturers at the moment. We are working closely with suppliers on this and creating a new policy for vegan products to support."

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