Fresh food processing:

The frozen food category in past decades established itself as the "fresh" and convenient solution to prepared meals through an expanding combination of product and packaging innovation. However, as consumer perceptions of the freshness and healthfulness of frozen foods wanes and the perceived nutrition and convenience of fresh prepared foods accelerates, the frozen prepared food category is facing a declining future, much in line with the canned foods it displaced decades ago.

How are manufacturers preparing for the ascendancy of "fresh" prepared food? A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, examined the changing consumer perceptions, demographic shifts and responses that are redefining the recipe for success in prepared foods.

Since 1929, when Clarence Birdseye launched his quick-frozen food business, frozen prepared foods offered consumers a practical alternative to canned foods. The introduction of the microwave for home use dramatically accelerated industry growth in the 1980s. The Ice Age took center stage with superior marks on the perceived benefits of convenience, health, freshness, taste and variety. In the 1990s, as consumers embraced healthy eating, frozen food responded with new lifestyle choices.

The very attributes that made frozen foods a successful alternative to canned foods are now more often identified with fresh prepared foods. Consumers gravitate to fresh prepared foods because their environment has not been altered through massive temperature and processing changes. Celebrity chefs and reality cooking shows emphasize fresh ingredients and home cooking. Farmers markets have grown explosively in the past 15 years as consumers have become attracted to fresh and locally grown foods.

Fresh is considered the ultimate, convenient, ready-to-eat solution. Savvy consumers frequent Whole Foods for its fresh, unpackaged take-out and Trader Joe's with its branded, restaurant-quality refrigerated meals.

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