Loma Linda shelf-stable meals and canned seafood-alternative Tuno set for UK launch

Loma Linda shelf-stable meals and canned seafood-alternative Tuno set for UK launch

US plant-based foods maker Atlantic Natural Foods is nearing the launch of its Loma Linda meals brand in the UK - and is eyeing a push onto the European mainland.

Last autumn, Atlantic Natural Foods announced its plans to launch its Loma Linda brand of plant-based meals in the UK and has held discussions with distributors and retailers about rolling out a range of products, including Tuno, an alternative to tuna.

Eric Woods, the managing director of Worldwide Food Associates, the Liverpool-based distributor of the products, has indicated the introduction of the brand was on the horizon.

Woods, a former executive at UK-based tuna giant Princes, said Worldwide Food Associates was also working on launching Loma Linda into other European markets.

"We are in advanced negotiations and discussions with listings going with all the major retailers - Morrisons, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's," Woods told just-food this week at the Natural & Organic Products Europe trade show in London.

"You will see Loma Linda Tuno on the shelf of a major UK retailer - I can't say who - by 20 May. That's when it goes live in-store. [The ready meals] will be available with the likes of Ocado from the end of this month and they will be with a major retailer by - we're governed by when they can make changes to their fixture, they have range review dates - the end of July.

"The first EU markets, I think we're talking about France and the Scandi countries are very, very interested. They're quite well advanced as far as making dietary choices of this nature."

Woods said Atlantic Natural Foods and Worldwide Food Associates had yet to secure confirmed listings for the products in mainland Europe. "It's early," he said. "But, certainly the feedback we've had from this show and the communication we've had, I don't believe we've got any problems listing it in those countries."

He said the companies did not foresee any problems from launching in the EU if the UK crashed out of the bloc without a deal. "In terms of the distribution methods, we're looking to hold product in the UK and the EU anyway, so we don't believe it will make any difference. It may make some difference to currency movements and so on but we're buying this product in dollars anyway," Woods explained.

The canned Tuno tuna alternative and the shelf-stable Loma Linda meals, which include products such as a meat-free tikka masala and a pad Thai with konjac noodles, are aimed at not just at vegans or vegetarians but also the rising number of flexitarians, or meat eaters reducing their consumption of meat.

Reflecting on the UK, Woods said the market was "exploding right now", adding: "It's here to stay, the change in UK consumption and eating habits is here to stay and it's going to grow and grow and grow. We've got veganism up 34% year-on-year and it's the flexitarians where the real growth and the real volume is coming from. The great thing is the technology that's out there to improve these products... in the past, when there's been plant-based alternatives, they've not really delivered but there's some amazing products out there now."

Asked how retailers and consumers in the UK had reacted to the prospect of stocking and buying shelf-stable ready meals sold in a pouch, Woods said grocers had been unsure how to merchandise the products and suggested millennial consumers, a cohort he argued are ready to experiment, would be prepared to try the items.

"The issue we've got is the growth in the market has all been driven by frozen, fresh and chilled. At the moment, the retailers are, in the ambient fixture, catching up a little bit. They're thinking: 'Where does it sit? Does it need its own category? Do we need to put a vegan banner above it and its own category? Do we put it in free-from? Or do we put it in core categories?'

"We invested in a bit of research. We did some online panelling to find out what people thought and where they'd like to see it. The reality is, people who are this way inclined because of their diet, are very inquisitive anyway. They walk up and down the aisles to find new and interesting products. There was no real preference. The retailers are kind of going to create a plant-based section within canned and packaged. And that's based on the research we did," Woods said.

"The product we have is quite unique. There isn't really a ready meal in a pouch that is complete in the way it is. That's where the millennials are coming into it. It's the millennials who are driving the growth. It's the millennials who are more accepting of change, of something different, of something being presented differently. We're confident that the products will work. The weird thing is that once they've tried the products it works, whether it be the Tuno or the ready meals."

At the Natural & Organic Products Europe trade show, representatives of Atlantic Natural Foods and Worldwide Food Associates also had a third of the US group's brands on display, Neat. In the US, Atlantic Natural Foods offers products including vegan baking mixes and an egg substitute under the Neat brand.

"The strategy is we are absolutely launching Neat and we're talking two major UK retailers with the baking mixes right now. We've just got to do a little bit of work on the packaging to improve the communication slightly but we'll be ready to go with that towards the back end of this year," Woods said.