Shelf-stable meals, for the most part, face an uphill battle on two consumer fronts—perception and an understanding of the technology. The perception aspect of the equation centers around the previous delivery method of shelf-stable products—cans. By and large, consumers have opted for canned products because of their convenience and competitive cost. Fresh-like quality is not expected.

Technological advances have produced new opportunities for shelf-stable products. The notion of shelf-stable no longer relegates the product to a can. Free of that packaging paradigm, a number of manufacturers are trying to buck the trend of low-quality, shelf-stable meals. In the process, they have introduced products (both in canned and other shelf-stable containers) that rival meals found in other areas of the store.

Such a philosophy propelled Rip 'n' Ready, Simsbury, Conn., into the shelf-stable arena. Involved in the canned meat business for over 80 years, the company has expanded its focus into other shelf-stable options. With a two-year shelf life, Rip 'n' Ready meals are in packages which provide interesting possibilities for the manufacturer beyond the store shelf. The products fit both in spiral snack and cold food vending machines, and hold promise for other venues, such as convenience stores and cafeteria systems.

No Rush

The possibilities seem enormous, but Efrim Adnopoz, director of technical services with Rip 'n' Ready, believes shelf-stable products are difficult to manufacture. He says the company took almost eight months to develop its shelf-stable beef stew, another year for the shelf-stable barbecue varieties of pork, beef and chicken, and an additional eight months to develop its shelf-stable chili.

“The product concept is very difficult to translate into business. The production of shelf-stable product . . . is very expensive. Line speeds are slow, and you cannot rush it.”

Borden Foods Corp., Columbus, Ohio, discovered that fact when it had to install a new line for It's Pasta Anytime products (under its Classico brand) at its facility in Northbrook, Ill., since purchased by Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill. Borden's first (and, ultimately, only) shelf-stable meal solutions line included a vertical form-fill-seal machine to fill the pasta, an off-line vertical form-fill-seal machine for the sauce and four types of coders. In addition, a thermal transfer unit was required to code the pasta pouch and alert the consumer to the opening notch.

Such a significant investment is one reason that Adnopoz believes companies may shy away from shelf-stable meals. “It has a guarded future, in terms of becoming a big business, because the capital investment to get into it is very high. All of the equipment that now exists in the shelf-stable industry has little or no application, because there has to be a lot of retooling.”

Adnopoz says major companies will eventually get involved in the shelf-stable meals arena, but that it will be the occasional product that shows up on shelves. Products may debut within the next two to three years through co-packing or some experimentation. In addition, Adnopoz has heard rumors that the chicken industry may move to a pouch concept. “I think it's going to be difficult, because it is not the same as tuna, but that is a good starting application—for consumers to get used to it.”

Limited Awareness

He believes one company has done well promoting an innovative shelf-stable concept to consumers. “Starkist (a brand of Heinz, Pittsburgh) has done a nice job with their tuna pouches. It has made people understand that canning is not the only way to make something shelf-stable, and that just because something is shelf-stable, it is not necessarily all bad.”

The success of the tuna-in-a-pouch concept led another tuna maker to another shelf-stable innovation. Chicken of the Sea, San Diego, utilized its own pouch to launch its Tuna Salad Kit, which contains all the pre-measured ingredients to make tuna salad for the whole family: premium, no-drain tuna in a vacuum-packed foil pouch, a proprietary blend of flavored mayonnaise or salad dressing and dry seasoning.

A Quality Future?

Technological advances have led to shelf-stable meals that are higher in quality, and the sector—as a whole—has demonstrated that it can attract consumers. To retain those consumers (and to convert remaining skeptics), U.S. companies must follow the lead of shelf-stable manufacturers overseas. In Europe, the sector has shown significant development and innovation, allowing such items to differentiate themselves with an ever-widening range of meals. These innovations include a variety of main ingredients, recipes with an ethnic flair, low-calorie and healthy options, premium/gourmet meals and vegetarian entrees, to name a few.

If nothing else, the shelf-stable meal market has one important factor on its side—consumers must have convenience. This need is no less evident in families as, often, the children are as on-the-go as the adults, resulting in increasingly fragmented mealtimes and fewer meals eaten together. While ready meals will not entirely solve the “eating together” dilemma, they do provide the family shopper the notion that the family is having a “proper” meal.

Busy lifestyles, however, are just one facet that will boost this sector. Increased numbers of single households and an aging population also hold promise as consumers of shelf-stable meals, which certainly are more convenient than cooking for only one or two people.

With convenience a firm selling point, shelf-stable meals would benefit from an improved range of quality options. Manufacturers could easily take advantage of consumers' exposure to an increasing variety of foreign foods, not to mention the rapidly-growing ethnic population, by presenting more varied ethnic dishes. Increasing consumer awareness of food's impact on health matters should also be a wake-up call to manufacturers to boost the healthfulness of their shelf-stable options.