plant-based meat nuggets

Shifting demand in frozen plant-based meat: sound bites on growth in the freezer aisle

While sales slow in the refrigerated case, a growing number of consumers stroll the frozen aisle in search of value-added plant-based meat options. How can manufacturers prepare for frozen food production?

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.

A closer look at sales uncovers a shift as consumers opt for frozen plant-based meat over refrigerated.

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.”

 

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Food safety and regulatory requirements in frozen plant-based meat

Ready-to-eat considerations

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?

Q+A Pablo Coronel
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.”

 

Q+A Dennis Collins
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.”

 

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Utility demands for frozen plant-based meat

Impact on utility size and type

Transitioning a refrigeration-only utility to include process freezing or frozen storage introduces numerous considerations. The freezing method and desired temperatures play a crucial role in determining the utility’s design. For instance, integrating a spiral freezer and a frozen storage warehouse may necessitate operating temperatures of around -40°F and -12°F, respectively. Accommodating these requirements within an existing ammonia, CO2 or HCFC refrigeration system originally designed solely for process cooling and refrigerated storage often demands significant modifications.

Beyond the additional capital equipment, there’s a notable uptick in electrical requirements when transitioning to freezing applications from refrigerated cooling only. However, through strategic engineering, both system modifications and new construction projects can effectively cater to these heightened demands while prioritizing energy efficiency, system performance, and the utilization of environmentally friendly refrigerants.

What hidden impact could cooling from a refrigerated state to a frozen state have on utility size and type?

Q+A Aaron Kilstofte
Aaron Kilstofte

Mechanical Engineer

“The transition of a cooling/refrigerated application to a frozen application can 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

Converting existing spaces

Converting an existing cooler to a freezer, or vice versa, poses several challenges for the cooling utility. When a space is currently served by a packaged refrigeration system or remote condensing unit, it often necessitates replacement to accommodate the new temperatures and heat loads required for the space. Conversely, if the space is linked to a central refrigeration utility, the utility must be adaptable to support either temperature range.

For instance, if there’s a central ammonia refrigeration system on-site designed for medium-temperature applications with a saturated suction temperature of +20°F, it wouldn’t be suitable for a frozen storage warehouse. In such cases, the system may need expansion with an additional suction to cater to the frozen storage warehouse, or alternatively, a packaged system could be introduced specifically to support the frozen storage needs.

What considerations for room heating and cooling are required? 

Q+A Dennis Collins
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.”

How can ice build-up be avoided? Do walls and floors require different insulation? 

Q+A Aaron Kilstofte
Aaron Kilstofte

“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.”

 

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Frozen plant-based meat storage requirements

How do storage requirements change for frozen products versus refrigerated products?

Q+A Pablo Coronel
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?

The utility design must account for the lower temperature demands. Comparing a refrigerated warehouse of equal size and product mass to a frozen storage warehouse, the former typically has a lower load requirement and operates at higher temperatures. Consequently, it’s essential to assess the evaporators, operating temperatures, and defrost strategy to ensure effective operation within a freezer environment.

Q+A Dennis Collins
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.”

 

Q+A Aaron Kilstofte
Aaron Kilstofte

“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.”

 

Do processors need to make changes to loading docks?”

Q+A Dennis Collins
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.”

 

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Processing considerations for frozen plant-based meat

Processing equipment changes

When changing from a refrigerated product to frozen, processors should be prepared for higher expenditures across equipment, infrastructure, and utilities. While initial processing equipment may remain similar, additional investments will be required for final processing, including heat treatment and final cook, as well as the integration of freezing and freezer storage capabilities. Moreover, adjustments to building spaces may be necessary to accommodate the specific operating conditions and safeguard the product’s integrity.

Cooling method impact on transition

The transition from cooling to freezing in process equipment hinges on the chosen cooling method. Blast cells offer versatility, capable of supporting rapid product cooling to either refrigerated or frozen states. Conversely, tunnel or spiral chillers primarily designed for refrigerated cooling often struggle to effectively reach freezing temperatures upon reconfiguration. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure that the equipment is appropriately sized for the intended application.

If products are bulk packed directly from processing before freezing and immediately transferred to frozen storage for final freezing, the impact on the process is minimal. However, this practice is uncommon for various reasons, including concerns about product integrity, freezing time, appearance, and potential frost formation in packaging.

Implementing frozen processes can incur substantial costs, and their scalability is often limited. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure that the process is appropriately sized, taking into account both immediate installation requirements and potential future needs, to optimize efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

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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.”

 

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!

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