Change is something that can be embraced, or seen as an unnecessary disruption that can cause anxiety. But what happens if that disruption is unexpected and takes away, literally, your whole market share.
COVID-19 has had a negative impact on a lot of industries and businesses. And while food and beverage have generally come out of it okay from a consumer point of view with regard to supply and demand (pasta anybody?), there are certain sectors that have suffered considerably. Imagine you are a caterer who specialises in weddings, or a major supplier to airlines. One way to try and make up the deficit is to diversify.
And quite a few companies have, according to food-grade gas supplier Air Liquide’s Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) specialist Remi Saget. Like a lot of companies hit by COVID-19, Air Liquide has seen a downturn in some of its areas of business, but there has also been interest in other aspects.
Some impacted food manufacturers have decided to expand offerings and started looking at other markets, whether it is online with home deliveries or via retailers. Supplying food products to such channels helps tremendously when shelf life is extended, which is possible using MAP. And in order for MAP to work, you need a good gas supply, which is where Air Liquide comes into its own.
Saget said there has been an increase in queries from SME manufacturers about how they can get longer shelf life for their food. Indeed, supermarket chains and independent grocers need products to stay on the shelf for longer than a day or two, often making it part of their requirements.
“We have had an upturn in requests,” said Saget. “We have seen more demand for food-grade gas, especially for ready meals. For some companies this is already their business, but many restaurant chains and catering companies had to change quickly to the same business model that would allow for home deliveries, selling at supermarkets, or selling online.”
In order for a company to be able to pack ready-to-eat meals, it needs to have a packaging machine that is capable of getting the meal prepared for being sold in store.
“It’s not a difficult transition to make if you have the correct packaging machine,” said Saget. “Obviously, you need to have one that has a gas flushing capability. You cannot gas flush manually.
“Packaging machines come in all sizes. Even your local butcher has a bench-top vacuum machines that could gas flush, or be retrofitted to do so.”
He said that gas is the last piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, manufacturers need to have the food right, then the packaging machine, the plastic tray and film, and then the gas. For ready meals, Air Liquide recommends a mixture called Aligal 15, which is made up of 50 per cent food-grade nitrogen and 50 per cent food-grade CO2. But this ratio may be adapted on a case-by-case basis.
“How it works is that the machine takes all the air out. It is the oxygen that will spoil the food eventually,” he said. “Then you add the gas. It takes a few seconds. The gas is food-grade, it is not chemical or anything like that. It’s considered a processing gas, so it is not an ingredient or a preservative and does not need to be on the label.”
Saget is confident that while some of these companies have had to look for new markets out of necessity, he doubts they’ll stop producing gas-flushed food products once the industry gets back to normal.
“It’s probably going to be the case for most companies that have gone into the ready meal business that they will stay in there once things have gone back to normal,” he said. “They have been doing it for a few months now and they realise that it is working well, and it would allow them to have an extra stream of revenue. People are used to buying online, so they can easily keep their online shop open and keep delivering to people.”
One such firm is catering company Harvest By Darren Taylor, which saw the bottom fall out of its business, with 100 per cent cancellations of weddings and other events it had been booked to supply food prior to COVID-19.
“They also operate a bakery and make great pies and croissants for cafes across NSW,” said Saget. “The sale of bakery products they did went down by 95 per cent. They had to rethink their business model.
“The good thing was for founder Darren Taylor, he could start pretty much right away thanks to a machine he purchased earlier.
“I helped him with the right gas mix according to his food. We did some tests together to make sure the gas was flowing okay. Now he is selling online and is also selling to independent supermarkets across NSW. He also sells to a big chain of butchers where his packed dishes are available in the open fridge next to the counter where you buy your meat. He is very happy.”
Taylor said he got an opportunity to get into the ready meals market in late 2019 and was planning on getting started halfway through 2020, but due to the effects of COVID-19, he decided to enter the market sooner.
The majority of outlets require prolonged shelf life to avoid dealing with products that are past their use-by date. This is especially true for ready meals, where they are packed in air, and they usually stay fresh for only a few days. A preservative-free conservation method like MAP helps.
“We got a packaging machine in Melbourne, and we looked at all the ways of extending the shelf life of the product and we decided to go with the MAP method,” said Taylor.
“We went with MAP because of the look of the product, it keeps the integrity of the product and it is very safe and reliable. After ordering the machine and getting it in, we did a whole lot of tests. We developed a product that we thought would suit that application.”
Taylor was very pleased with the service from Air Liquide in terms of getting it all set up.
“Remi and his team were amazing,” he said. “Remi was extraordinary. He came in at the very beginning and we got the machine working in a way we were happy with it. Remi helped us with our gas levels, our oxygen levels, etcetera. ”
The beauty to the system, according to Taylor, is that he cooks the food, trays it up straight away, puts it in the blaster until it comes down to 1˚C, and then packs it.
“It’s as good as you can get in terms of packaging. The film, the tray and the label – which is stuck on – are all microwave-oven proof. It has zero additives or preservatives,” he said. “By using MAP, you don’t have to put any chemicals in it.”
With the eyes on the future, Taylor and his food manufacturing business emerges from the COVID-19 crisis better positioned to face ever-changing market demands. The fact that he was able to swiftly adapt his operations is a reminder that tight partnerships with suppliers goes a long way when help is required to come out of a dark time, pandemic or not.