In spite of its reputation for traditional home cooking, France appears to be taking to the ready meal concept, with sales of chilled processed foods on the rise. Emily Woon of Euromonitor International reports.

The image some of us may hold of French homes as centres of domestic gastronomic excellence, where traditional ingredients are home-cooked in styles handed down through generations, may be somewhat over-romanticised, if recent data published by Euromonitor International is anything to go by.

The data confirms that the chilled processed food market in France is showing dynamic growth, and is forecast to rise by 5% in 2006 to EUR8.6bn (US$11bn). Within this category, ready meals and prepared salads are growing fast, while sales of chilled lunch kits are expected to continue to decline.

In 2005 and 2006, the French chilled ready meals market has seen an influx of healthier ranges, which were predominantly based on the application of “microwave steam technology”. For example, in late-2005, Knorr introduced new “steam” packaging for its chilled ready meals range. This is a new packaging innovation, which allows raw ingredients to be steamed in the microwave without losing any freshness, taste or texture.

Manufacturers are backing up the new product innovation with aggressive marketing campaigns, promoting the health benefits, freshness and palatability of their new lines, and emphasising the key message that they are as good as fresh food. This evolution may go some way to explaining the expansion of this category in a country renowned for its food connoisseurs.

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Product innovation also contributed to the robust growth in chilled ready meals in 2005. Based on Euromonitor International’s findings, ready meals were by far the best performers in the chilled aisle in 2005, registering 13% volume growth and an 8% rise in value sales.

Prepared salads was the second best performing sector in 2005 with volume sales increasing strongly. Value sales increased at a slower rate due to fierce competition and the introduction of larger pack sizes which pushed down unit prices.

Florette (Florette SA) and Bonduelle (Bonduelle Groupe SA) are the top two brands on the market, and Euromonitor International believes these branded players could reverse the current unit pricing trend for prepared salads.

Innovation also has a crucial role to play in increasing unit price. For example, in terms of packaging, companies could switch from existing flexible plastic bags to clear plastic “clamshell” packaging. Not only does this offer better protection but also carries with it a perception of higher quality. Furthermore, as the prepared salads sector continues to develop, there is very likely to be a shift towards “complete meal” salads, which would include fresh lettuce, a dressing, and proteins such as ham, bacon, or hard-boiled eggs. These innovations would offer higher margins than standard bagged salads and at the same time satisfy increasing demand for restaurant-style food at home.

Chilled fresh-cut fruit sales have also developed healthily in France over the past two years. Manufacturers have regularly launched new products and this triggered very encouraging value growth of 125% in 2005, albeit from a relatively small base. This growth is in large part due to consumer demand for ready-to-eat products that take little or no preparation time. The fact that they come in a range of sizes and different varieties that suit many occasions, be it an on-the-go meal for an individual, a quick snack or a side dish for a family, has also had a positive effect.

More than 60% of chilled processed food sales in France are derived from chilled processed meat, which in turn is characterised by the dominance of private labels and discounters. In 2005 and early-2006, numerous products were introduced by branded manufacturers, especially in cooked pork. More product launches are expected across the chilled processed meat sector as branded manufacturers continue to step up their efforts to entice consumers with more choice, and lure them away from private labels and discounters’ products. Euromonitor International predicts 3% volume growth in the chilled processed meats sector in 2006.

Another trend in chilled processed meat is the increased availability of natural and healthy products. New offerings include reduced-fat and reduced-salt chilled processed meats, such as the new range Plaisir & Equilibre from Groupe Fleury Michon, and Le Campagne by Madrange, a reduced-salt ham enriched with omega 3.

A recent trend is for manufacturers to promote their chilled meat products alongside sports events, driving home the message that eating chilled meats is fashionable and healthy. With the next Rugby Union World Cup taking place in France in 2007, Madrange has undertaken a massive television advertising campaign to promote its products by collaborating with Bernard Laporte, the coach of the French rugby team.

Montagne Noire has also engaged sports celebrities, such as the alpinist Jean Christophe Lafaille and the cyclist Julien Absalon, to promote its dried sausages containing omega 3. Manufacturers have also carried out sampling in sports venues, such as ski stations.

Despite aggressive pricing from discounters and private labels, unit prices are expected to increase steadily over the next few years. Value sales of chilled food are expected to enjoy healthy growth as manufacturers attempt to innovate and add variety to their ranges, offering a wide range of choices to consumers.

Chilled Processed Food in France