No doubt about it – plant-based foods are key drivers in retail growth. Data commissioned by the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association shows that plant-based food dollar sales grew six percent in 2021, three times faster than overall food sales. But demand for plant-based meats shows different trends from plant-based foods as a whole. This market had a big year in 2020, posting a 45% increase in dollar sales and surpassing the billion-dollar mark. But things started to steady in 2021 and sales flattened in 2022.
According to IRI data digested by 210 Analytics, frozen meat alternatives are outpacing refrigerated, with frozen growing in the high single digits, while dollar sales of refrigerated declines in double-digits.
What do processors need to know before making the move to frozen plant-based meat? CRB’s team of alternative proteins specialists weigh in on everything from processing and packaging to utilities and regulations.
Frozen format impact on capital projects
How has the shift toward frozen plant-based meat impacted companies operating in this space? What are the key drivers and how would you set up a capital project for success in this environment?
“The American Frozen Food Institute reported that frozen food products saw a 21% increase compared to 2019. This consumer trend impacts what the next food manufacturer capital project will look like, especially in the plant-based space where recent consumer trends and public events have impacted the previous hockey stick growth. The rapid increase in demand may justify planning to accommodate a final frozen food product.
“Refrigeration and freezing technologies are never a small investment and therefore this is a driving decision that should be made early. Once it is made, there are a multitude of ways to effectively incorporate this into capital projects. Understand your production needs and ensure the correct refrigerants are used based on production scale. If the projected demand is short-term, cryogenic freezers may be a good option. As some manufacturers also produce traditional meats, this capital approach to shifting final product format could also be leveraged across multiple products as well.”
“Beyond Meat’s CEO, Ethan Brown, recently stated that price is critical to succeeding in this market. A capital project can very much impact the selling price of a good. The equipment and facility design will affect both the yield achieved during manufacturing, as well as the labor on the line, which contribute to the direct costs of goods. Consequently, the overall price of the capital project contributes to indirect costs. So, it’s important to know your price structure, and communicate your maximum allowed costs, before initiating a capital project.
“Conagra Brands’ senior vice president of demand insights, Bob Nolan, also indicated that their Gardein brand is doing well in the frozen food aisle, especially in value-added products, where there’s less pressure from private brands. The general lesson is that it is critical to know what product and package features are necessary to succeed before initiating a project.”
Food safety and regulatory requirements in frozen plant-based meat
In the refrigerated aisle, many products are positioned as raw patties or ready-to-cook. In the frozen aisle, many products are positioned as pre-cooked, or ready-to-heat, like breaded chk’n wings. What do plant-based meat manufacturers need to be aware of if making this change?
“Frozen foods need to be made to ready-to-eat standards, even when they are intended to be fully heated by the consumer. This means bringing the center of any product to 165°F+ to eliminate pathogens and from that point forward, the product must be handled hygienically until frozen. This requires more stringent sanitation, segregation and environmental monitoring programs, as well as validation of the kill step. Microbiological analysis of each lot must be performed and documented. Extra retain samples must be maintained to ensure that liability is minimal, and that any complaint can be resolved quickly.
“Further, considering that the cold chain may break when people run errands after shopping, there must be a study of temperature abuse to ensure that the product can undergo thaw/freeze cycles and that microbial growth is not possible. Temperature-sensitive labels can also be used to easily determine whether the product has been temperature abused during distribution.”
Raw materials, allergens and traceability
Many of the frozen plant-based meat products have value-added elements, like breading and spices. What risks come with introducing new raw materials into the plant, and how could a manufacturer mitigate those risks?
Pablo Coronel, PhD
“Breading and spices are a risk that can cause microbial and physical contamination. Breading might introduce allergens, such as gluten, egg or soy, and that must be evaluated from the start. With today’s supply-chain challenges, substitution of breading could be a high risk and traceability is a must. Mitigate the risks associated with new raw materials if they contain any allergens through segregation and sanitation.
“Microbial risks will need to be analyzed and managed as per my food safety recommendations above.”
Dennis Collins, AIA
Discipline Leader, Architectural
“Traceability from a third-party supplier to the recipient of the frozen goods should be a primary consideration. Keep a record of the temperature during transport to ensure it has been properly maintained.
“Upon receipt of the frozen goods, transfer them from the refrigerated trailer to a freezer as efficiently as possible. Ideally, the facility has a freezer close to a temperature-controlled truck dock vestibule.”
Utility demands for frozen plant-based meat
Impact on utility size and type
What impact will cooling from a refrigerated state to a frozen state have on utility size and type?
“Transitioning from a refrigerated only utility to inclusive of process freezing or frozen storage has many variables. The method of freezing and desired temperatures will directly impact the design of the utility. An example would be to add a spiral freezer and a frozen storage warehouse. Temperatures for these additions would typically operate at -40°F and -12°F respectively. Achieving this with an ammonia, CO2 or HCFC refrigeration system that was designed to support process cooling and refrigerated storage only will require significant modification.
“In addition to the added capital equipment, the electrical requirements to achieve freezing are increased over refrigerated cooling only. System modifications and greenfield facilities can be effectively engineered to support these needs with energy efficiency, system performance and green refrigerants at the forefront of design.”
“The transition of a cooling/refrigerated application to a frozen application can also add a hidden utility that not every cooling-only facility currently has—that additional utility is underslab heating.
“This underslab heating (often a heated water/glycol solution) is achieved in greenfield facilities by laying out tube circuits on a sand base and then pouring the concrete over the tube circuit. This heated layer keeps the frozen concrete slab (exposed to the freezer environment) from inducing frost heave in the soil under the freezer block/building. This is typically a straightforward process for a greenfield facility that is already pouring a new foundation for a freezer area. However, making space for this heated slab section is an additional critical consideration that brownfield (retrofit) facilities need to consider.
“Note for retrofit applications: Switching from a traditional refrigerant (e.g., R-134a) to ammonia will require a significant increase in leak monitoring, fire protection accommodations and other safety requirements.
“Additionally, switching a space from cooling to freezing would also necessitate an evaluation of the fire protection measures employed in the area. There are fire protection heads inside freezer rooms to protect the space and those would need to be evaluated to ensure they still meet code requirements for frozen applications.”
Room heating and cooling
What considerations for room heating and cooling are required? For example, could a processor convert a cooler to a freezer easily? How can ice build-up be avoided? Do walls and floors require different insulation? How is work in process (WIP) stored differently?
Dennis Collins, AIA
“Converting an existing freezer to a cooler is generally as simple as changing the temperature of the room. The reverse operation of converting a cooler to a freezer is much more difficult. The primary concerns include:
- increasing the insulation value of walls and ceilings
- modifying the floor to provide higher insulation value
- insulating the floor slab and providing heating below the slab, as Aaron mentioned above
- providing proper thermal breaks at the perimeter enclosures of the room (floor to wall, wall to wall and wall to ceiling or roof)
- modifying and improving doors into the freezer.
“Typically, it is more practical to construct a new freezer or purchase a modular freezer unit rather than attempt to convert a cooler.”
“The only way to attack ice buildup is to address the root cause: humidity. For the more arduous cooler-to-freezer conversion process, room dehumidification is important. Assuming the room’s joints/seals and wall insulation R-values are adequate, dehumidification inside freezer space is typically controlled through the evaporator frost buildup/defrost cycle. However, humidity in the space outside the freezer can also cause frost buildup at freezer wall penetrations (i.e., where the conveyors go in/out) or insulation weak points near wall joints. A method for mitigating this is looking at the existing ventilation/RTU units in the facility and evaluating whether they have capacity to control to a lower humidity setpoint or whether there is sufficient cause to invest in a new dehumidification unit. Again, the root cause of frost is humidity.
“Another critical, yet subtle, item when undergoing a cooler-to-freezer conversion is using heat tracing throughout the freezer space interior. Heat tracing is needed wherever liquid water needs to flow (within the freezer room). Don’t overlook the lines that carry water from the drip pan of the evaporators to a nearby drain line outside of the freezer enclosure. These evaporator drip pans accumulate liquid water when the evaporator is going through its defrost cycle. Without heat tracing, these lines would quickly freeze, leading to evaporator failure and loss of freezing in the space.”
“Conversion of an existing cooler to a freezer and vice versa presents some challenges to the cooling utility. If a space is being served by a packaged refrigeration system or remote condensing unit, it likely will require replacement to operate at the new temperatures and heat loads for the space. If the space is being served by a central refrigeration utility, the utility will have to be designed to support either temperature. If, for example, a central ammonia refrigeration system is available on site operating with a saturated suction temperature of +20°F serving medium temperature applications, that would not be suitable to support a frozen storage warehouse. The system could either be expanded with an additional suction to support the frozen storage warehouse or a packaged system could be added to support the frozen storage warehouse.”
Frozen plant-based meat storage requirements
How do storage requirements change for frozen products versus refrigerated products?
Pablo Coronel, PhD
“Besides the lower temperature, the supply chain must be tighter as products need to go from deep freeze to deep freeze during transportation; they cannot be left in loading docks. Temperature monitoring is critical and a study of the thaw/refreeze needs to be conducted.”
How do the storage requirements change for warehousing frozen vs refrigerated products? Can I just run my same systems but at a lower temperature? Is it harder to eliminate “hot spots,” so do I need to run my fans faster? Do I need to upgrade my electricity?
Dennis Collins, AIA
“As discussed regarding the conversion of a cooler to a freezer, the correct construction of a freezer is more complex than that of a cooler. The overall freezer enclosure must consider the proper level of insulation and thermal breaks with air and vapor seals at the freezer’s perimeter. Hot spots at door openings can be addressed with underslab heating systems and air curtains to avoid ice build-up at openings into the freezer.”
“Facilities would need to evaluate if their current fire protection scheme for their cooled facility storage area(s) would be appropriate for a frozen application. When evaluating the fire protection system impacts, note that not only does the temperature of the room matter to the fire protection system evaluation, but the packaging material also has a significant impact on the fire protection system design considerations. For example, a refrigerated space for broccoli florets packed in Styrofoam covered in clear-wrap will have a significantly different fire protection scheme compared to the same space holding plastic (steam-able) bags of frozen broccoli in cardboard boxes.
“Another area to consider when switching from cooling to freezing is temperature stratification. This is a fancy way of saying the ceiling of a room is almost always marginally warmer than the area near the floor. This is the reason why freezer evaporators (i.e., where the coldest air is delivered) are placed near the ceiling. However, this a consideration to evaluate with either the OEM of the space or an independent CFD model to see if homogenous thermal characteristics are achievable for the storage space. Put simply: You need to keep the product pallet on the highest rack at the same temperature as the product pallet on the lowest rack.”
“The utility design needs to factor in the lower temperature requirements. A refrigerated warehouse of the same size and product mass as a frozen storage warehouse will generally have lower load requirement and will operate at a higher temperature. You will need to evaluate the evaporators, operating temperatures and defrost strategy to operate in a freezer.”
Do processors need to make changes to loading docks?”
Dennis Collins, AIA
“Receiving frozen goods into a plant requires thoughtful consideration of the sequence of unloading the product from the truck and transporting it to the freezer. I highly recommend isolating the freezer doors from the building’s exterior so the freezer doors don’t open to an environment with much higher temperature and humidity. A dedicated loading dock vestibule can be used to moderate these differences and provide a buffer between a freezer and the building’s exterior.”
Processing considerations for frozen plant-based meat
What processing equipment changes should be anticipated going from a refrigerated product to frozen? How can the scale of investment be minimized? For example, if keeping the same format, such as a beef patty, could the same equipment be used? If changing format, what process equipment would need to be added?
“Processors should anticipate increased costs in equipment, building, and utilities. Initial processing equipment would be similar, but final processing, including heat treatment and final cook, will need to be added along with freezing and freezer storage. You may also need to adjust building spaces around this equipment to handle the operating conditions and protect the product.
“These types of processes are expensive, and they do not easily adjust in size. The process should be right-sized, considering initial installation and potential future needs to ensure the most efficient installation is made.”
“Changing from cooling to freezing in the process equipment will depend on what type of cooling method you employ. Blast cells can be configured to support both rapid product cooling to a refrigerated or frozen state. Tunnel or spiral chillers that are designed for refrigerated cooling only often cannot be reconfigured to operate to freezing temperatures effectively. This equipment should be right sized for the application.
“Impact to the process is minimal if product is bulk packed direct from processing before freezing and taken directly into frozen storage for final freezing. However, this is not common with many products for a variety of reasons ranging from product integrity, time to freeze, appearance, frost in packaging, etc.”
Pablo Coronel, PhD
“Frozen foods must be fully cooked, which requires different equipment, be it fryers, ovens, discs for burn marks, etc. These processes must be documented and validated. Flash freezing and cooling will also have to account for the added heat load from the kill steps.”
Frozen plant-based meat packaging
How is the pack structure for refrigerated meats different from frozen meats? Can existing packaging lines be used?
“Yes, a processor can use most existing equipment. Although the primary packaging for refrigerated vs frozen tends to be different, necessitating either interim manual packing or purchasing new/used equipment, most of the existing packaging equipment can be retained.
“There is limited risk in needing to replace case packing equipment, as most case changes can be addressed with either change parts or, if fortunate, new center lining of existing equipment. Palletizing and stretch wrapping most likely will not be impacted except for new recipes or equipment set ups for the new case sizes, which would be expected for any new product offering.
“It is important to work with your packaging material suppliers when moving between refrigerated and frozen formats to identify the correct corrugated material, tape, and adhesives that will perform in either cold or frozen environments. There are different material specifications and costs associated for each storage environment, so this is another area of scope that needs to be managed.”
Tony Moses, PhD
“Some vendors partner with distributors to lease equipment. This allows a frozen plant-based meat manufacturer to demonstrate the success of a new product line before making a capital investment. It can also be much quicker to lease an already-built line, compared to having one built.”
A shift from refrigerated product to frozen product will have a significant impact on your facility – from receiving, processing and storage to design, utilities and operations. Making the decision to incorporate frozen product into your brand line-up should balance the opportunity in frozen plant-based meat sales with your facility’s needs and capabilities. Tap into the insights and expertise of an experienced design, construction and consulting partner to carefully weigh your options and chart a long-term plan for success.
Considering frozen plant-based meat products in your facility? Let’s discuss your options!