The global packaged food market is expected to show a compound annual growth rate of 7.43% through to 2026, according to forecasters at Mordor Intelligence. Globally, Asia Pacific is expected to be the growth engine for demand. In contrast, Europe is an established – and much slower growth – proposition.
But Thomas Hahlin Ahlinder, Kerry President and CEO for Europe & Russia, is upbeat on the outlook for the ingredient supplier in the region. “It is a great opportunity for Kerry in Europe,” the F&B expert enthused. “It's not only about the emerging markets and fast growth. There are plenty of exciting opportunities in the context of Europe and Russia.”
Indeed, Kerry’s most recent financial results – for the first nine-months of fiscal 2021/22 – point to European growth rates above the group’s average. Overall volume growth in Europe stood at 10.6%, with an ‘exceptionally strong performance’ in the third quarter. This compared to company-wide volume expansion of 8.2%.
How is Kerry picking up the pace in a region that is typically characterised as slow-growth, at a time when economies are still reeling from the impact of COVID-19?
Hahlin Ahlinder believes that the fundamental drivers of the European food sector are closely aligned with the strategic growth pillars the Irish company set out at its recent capital markets day.
“We are going to continue the momentum of driving our position as a leader in taste and nutrition, completely underpinned with our very strong sustainability agenda,” he told FoodNavigator. “We have clearly defined four strategic growth pillars that are going to be fundamental going forward.”
These pillars are: taste capabilities, preservation, proactive health (what Hahlin Ahlinder describes as ‘health documented offerings’ like probiotics, botanicals and omega-3s), and plant-based.
The company has completed a number of recent acquisitions to bolster its position in these strategically important categories, including the deals to take on preservation specialist Niacet and Spain’s Biosearch Life.
“Health and sustainability without compromise on taste and nutrition is really going to be a key focus for Kerry not only in Europe but globally. What is really exciting is, all those trends are driving an exciting future in the marketplace as Europe,” Hahlin Ahlinder said.
Europe is a plant-based ‘hot spot’
Zoning in on the plant-based sector, Hahlin Ahlinder noted the ‘great excitement’ around demand-driven innovation in the space. “I don't think I've ever seen such a great opportunity for the industry. Kerry is uniquely positioned to help and support our customers, who are on a journey to overcome challenges on how you build alternative products towards completely mimicking [animal-based alternatives] in terms of taste profiles, chewability, texture, mouth feel, and total experience.”
The regional chief observed that Europe has proven a ‘hot spot’ for the plant-based movement, with start-ups and larger companies alike ‘embarking on the same journey’. “There is a lot of new innovation happening here, which is truly exciting.”
It is also an innovation area where Kerry can leverage its technical know-how, he emphasised. “We believe we can play a significant role with our strong heritage of dairy and meat, as well as our very strong artistry knowledge through our chef network and the portfolio technology that we are sitting on today.”
According to EU-funded research, plant-based sales in the region surged 49% in the two years to 2020, rising to €3.6 billion. And Hahlin Ahlinder believes that there is still plenty of runway for growth fuelled by the evolution of better tasting and better for you analogue products.
“Plant-based as a segment, is here to stay. It is not a buzz that's going to go away. There is clearly a demand from consumers for those products. But we see an evolution of the products. It started kind of as an alternative for the sake of being an alternative, to then becoming an alternative that tastes [good], now it is moving towards an alternative that is not compromising on nutritional values while tasting exceptionally well and having exactly the mimicking of the original [meat or dairy product].
“There has been a continuous evolution in terms of driving technologies, but also driving the skill set of building those formulations to really make sure you have as clean label as possible with all the nutritional values, without compromise on taste.”
'Sustainable nutrition' means healthy people and planet
This ‘no compromise’ approach informs Kerry’s attitude across its growth pillars. When the company evaluates its nutritional offering, for instance, it does so through the prism of an ambition to reach two billion people with what the company describes as ‘sustainable nutrition’.
This is an initiative that Hahlin Ahlinder stressed the company is ‘driving very systematically and strategically’. “There are ways of doing the products more sustainably in terms of environmental impact as well as nutritional impact,” he explained.
“When we talk about sustainable nutrition, it is actually hitting all lenses in terms of health profile as well as environmental profile. We are looking at [evaluating] all our products with a different grade based on how they contribute – positively or negatively - call it green, yellow or red. And of course, always at the forefront of our head is we are never going compromise on quality and taste.”
According to the executive, Kerry benefits from a ‘long history’ of helping its customers develop more nutritious products. “We’ve been reducing fat, we've been reducing sugar and salt for many, many years. But now we have a much more strategic and structured approach around driving sustainable nutrition that we are embarking on together with our customers.”
The importance of sustainability: 'It is at the forefront in all commercial discussions'
Hahlin Ahlinder said that all of the work Kerry is undertaking is underpinned by its sustainability agenda launched in 2020, Beyond the Horizon.
“That is an agenda we are driving seriously. It’s about CO2 emissions and how we can support reducing that not only for ourselves [but also] supporting our customers to reach their ambitious targets in the space, whether that is from emission reduction or how we can drive a more sustainable nutritional profile of new products.
“It has never been a better moment being in this industry, given the significance that the food industry actually can have on the planet’s welfare as well as people’s welfare.”
The ingredient executive – who has also worked across packaged food brands – said he has witnessed a shift in attitudes to sustainability, which he characterises as now embedded in commercial discussions with customers. “It has gone from a discussion that maybe happened once per year. This sustainability discussion is now at the forefront in all commercial discussions.”
This change reflects the importance that consumers now place on sustainability attributes, Hahlin Ahlinder believes. It is another trend that he does not see abating, even as the economic situation in Europe constricts. “There is a price [for sustainability] that consumers are going to be willing to pay,” Hahlin Ahlinder contended.
He chalks part of this resilience up to the importance that ‘the younger generation’ place on food, health and sustainability. “It is an opportunity that we as an industry partner need to grab, because the moment is here and now.”
It is also an agenda that sits well with areas of the business Kerry plans to go like food preservation. The company is developing a proposition that can help address food waste by prolonging shelf life though clean label ingredients, we were told.
Innovation in upcycling is another opportunity identified by Hahlin Ahlinder. "We will have technologies looking at turning waste into taste and thereby building a circularity, which is also going to reduce environmental impact. I see that as a great opportunity, for us as Kerry, to advance in that space together with our customers."