Can convenience and sustainability co-exist when it comes to ready meals? Dave Norman at Clearwater Technology explores where and how this can be achieved

The ready meal isn’t always a staple that we Brits are proud of, at least not openly, but it’s an indulgence that we’re more than a little fond of according to last year’s figures. In 2016 alone we collectively spent £3 billion on ready meals in the UK, equating to roughly £9 million per day.

Last year’s figures also revealed that the ready meal market grew by an astonishing £37 million, so clearly there’s a consumer appetite for pre-prepared meals. Supermarkets are feeding this with an ever-increasing range of basic and premium options, with a wide range in choices of cuisine creating diverse appeal. 

As consumers demand more convenient options and ready meal sales accelerate, retailers and producers must question both the cost efficiency and environmental impact of ready meal preparation. A 2017 Unilever study revealed that a third of consumers base purchasing decisions on a brand’s social and environmental responsibility. The study also found that there is an estimated £857 billion opportunity for brands that make their sustainability credentials clear.

The true cost of convenience

There are many areas that must be considered when striving towards a reduction in production costs and increases in sustainability, but in some cases it’s easier said than done. Packaging, for example, would be an obvious area where the carbon footprint could be significantly reduced.

Food grade packing often requires the use of non-recycled plastics known as virgin plastics to eradicate any chance of cross-contamination, creating a significant impact on the carbon footprint that is difficult to reduce. With this in mind, every effort must be made to compensate by reducing energy consumption and recycling resources in other areas.

Water is a widely used for energy transfer in food processing and the water footprint of the ready meal will be a surprise to many, given that the production of one microwave chicken curry requires approximately 2,500 litres of water. Ready meal producers can significantly reduce their water usage in the three important ways. 

1. Raising the game with steam

Steam heating is the most widely used method for pre-cooking meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, sources and gravies, providing a quick and effective means to cooking components to the point at which they’re ready to microwave. Yet this method also involves the sourcing and processing of large quantities of fresh water. If ready meal producers can reduce the amount of make-up water required in this process, they can reduce the cost of operation and the cost to the end consumer while also meeting the growing demand for more sustainable production approaches.

Steam boilers maintain a constant steam load through a cycle of concentration and this can be analysed and optimised to reduce the volume of water required. Implementing a turn-key pre-treatment plant could drastically reduce both the make-up water required, and the waste water generated which would traditionally have been blown down the drain, creating energy expenditure savings of 5 percent upwards, while removing the cost of draining away waste water.

2. Creating cooler energy

Once the meal ingredients have been steam heated to the point at which they’re microwave ready, they must be cooled quickly in order to maximise shelf life. This is typically achieved through the use of chillers and cooling towers which also required large amounts of water to operate and are another area where significant savings can be achieved. The quality of make-up water in the cooling towers can be optimised through effective water treatment, but the system must also be analysed for inefficiencies, losses and leaks. 

Losses and leaks are not always managed in the food production facilities, but simple analysis can result in a water saving of as much as 33 percent. Replacing hardware components such as fans and recirculation pumps with more energy efficient solutions will allow water to be recirculated at a desired rate rather than a constant. The latter typically results in water returning and overflowing the cooling tower base holding tanks, creating further losses and incurring further costs.

3. Energy efficient transport routes

The cost of refrigeration during transportation is significantly higher than the equivalent relative cost of static refrigerated storage. To contend with these costs, many supermarkets and suppliers make efforts to reduce the time refrigerated goods spend in transport as much as possible, leading to supermarket chains establishing their own refrigerated distribution depots which again utilise cooling towers to extend the shelf life of the products by keeping them at optimum temperature. 

Reducing the time spent in transit would be a major step in reducing the cost of operation for ready meal producers, suppliers and stockists, but to ensure the process is as sustainable as possible, they must ensure that refrigerated depots, whether directly owned or belonging to a third party, have undergone the relevant cooling tower optimisation processes.

Maintaining profitability while striving to meet the conflicting consumer demand for both sustainability and convenience needn’t be a headache when it comes to producing ready meals. Lowering the water footprint in the heating, cooling and transportation process can be easily achieved by enlisting a water technology provider that has the expertise and experience to design tailored solutions that deliver true return on investment.