Bird's Eye Steam and Serve

Birds Eye Steam and Serve offers quality vegetables expertly prepared with a gourmet sauce … at nearly 3 bucks.

By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley, Consumer Understanding Editors

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While the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend five servings (2½ cups) of vegetables per day, the average consumer gets only 3.7 servings. Ask them why and they'll say other foods taste better and are easier to prepare and eat.

In their early history, frozen vegetables were considered luxury items. Birds Eye, the first manufacturer of frozen vegetables, in the 1940s and ‘50s targeted women in upper-middle-income households with frozen products that were "grander than the grandest" and the "work-free-est," so they could relax and read a book while the pre-cleaned, pre-cut vegetables practically cooked themselves.

In the intervening years, frozen vegetables, like their canned counterparts, became commodity items. Now Birds Eye wants to move them upscale again with Steamand Serve Vegetables, offered in six different blends that include nuts and other unique ingredients (for this review we focus on Spring Vegetables in Citrus Sauce).

The brand is maintaining the ease of preparation and arguably better nutrition, adding gourmet flavors and ingredients and packaging them in a relatively new steamable tray. The real benefits are greater convenience (cook in the package - no prep, no mess, no clean up) and fresher vegetables steamed to the right level of crispness with a gourmet sauce that announces you know good food.

Understanding the marketplace

World trade has brought us fresh fruits and vegetables in all seasons from growing locations all over the world. Imports were valued at $12.7 billion in 2004, according to USDA. So the challenge for frozen vegetable processors was to prove their products' superiority in some way.

Packaging is one source of superiority. Fresh vegetables have a short shelf life, but canned or frozen vegetables can be kept for months.

A 1956 study by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation found frozen vegetables were nutritionally superior to canned veggies, asserting frozen vegetables had higher levels of thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A, vitamin C and niacin. More recently (2002), the American Institute for Cancer Research provided ammunition that frozen may be better than fresh, or at least imports. Researchers found that shipping and long storage diminishes nutrients, especially vitamin C, in fresh produce. Frozen vegetables are processed within hours of picking and so may retain more vitamin A, C and fiber.

Some numbers for the retailer and manufacturer ton consider: Only 48 percent of all store SKU's are profitable, according to Willard Bishop Consulting's 2005 Grocery Super Study. Fully 60 percent of frozen SKUs turn a profit, while produce produces only 17 percent of the store profit. But 49 percent of consumers perceive private label frozen vegetables as equal to or better than the national brand, according to some studies. That's a tough perception to overcome, especially with this pricey a product.

So while frozen vegetables clearly have profit potential, high-end branded products must have something that makes consumers want to pay more than a commodity price for them.

Product Spotlight: Birds Eye Steam & Serve Vegetables
Birds Eye's Steam and Serve Vegetables drew raves from our raters, despite the premium pricetag, to wit: "For anyone who has had mushy, overcooked vegetables, this is a godsend - especially as consumers are becoming less aware of how to cook vegetables."

Frozen vegetables experienced 4.5 percent growth from 2004 to 2005 with an overall market size of $3 billion. Key growth areas include breaded vegetables, vegetables in sauce and onion rings. The market size of mixed vegetables is $400 million with a growth rate of 1.5 percent, while vegetables in sauce is growing at 5.6 percent from $250 million.

The big drivers of change in the category are the shift from plain vegetables to prepared vegetables (crumbs or with sauces) and newer packaging, including resealable and steamable. Although steamable packaging has been available in Europe and Asia for years, the first U.S. version hit the shelves about a year ago at H.E.Butt grocery stores, where it was offered under the HEB Steamables private label. Boiling vegetables causes up to a 30 percent loss of nutrients, but steaming retains nutrients and is easier and faster.

At retail in the frozen vegetable category, consumers see Green Giant, Birds Eye and other brands. Per capita consumption of fresh vegetables is 147 lbs., consumption of canned vegetables is 100 lbs. per person and per capita consumption of frozen vegetable is 79 lbs., according to 2004 USDA/Economic Research Service data. Fresh consumption has increased 3 lbs. per capita since 2002, while canned decreased by 1 lb. and frozen sales were flat. Clearly, frozen needs some excitement. And consumers are looking for more sauces and unique items in their foods.

Insights

Birds Eye is trying to meet the needs of the consumer for the 75 percent of meals that are eaten at home. The company is seeking to shift the paradigm for frozen vegetable convenience from one of access to nutritious vegetables at any time of the year to nutrition plus ease of preparation and cleanup.

Birds Eye also is addressing the issue of freshness. This is a complex idea because it involves consumer perceptions of what is fresh and how does it link to value and shelf life. Can a frozen food be fresh?

From our own Healthy You! research, we find the key attributes for frozen meal products in ranked order are: taste, price, portion size, product appearance and calories. These attributes can easily lead to a commodity perception, since price is the second most important attribute. Consumers, when asked to trade off a variety of ideas, are looking for: indulgent flavor; zesty flavor; traditional home-style; crunchy vegetables; moist vegetables; branded; and all natural…no artificial flavors or preservatives.

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