Since the 1950s and the availability of commercial refrigerators, chilled food has grown from a niche market to being a significant portion of modern diets. Although there has been a more recent movement towards fresh fruit and vegetables, this 'health drive' is often beyond the budget of the average consumer. Chilled food, including ready meals, still makes up an impressive 10% of all food consumed in the UK. When you consider that many foods we buy are dry or tinned, this percentage is all the more significant.
The Chilled Food Association (CFA) was founded in 1989, meaning it's been in action for more than a quarter of a century. It was formed in response to the burgeoning chilled food market—then worth £550 million. The industry required the CFA, which went on to produce detailed guidelines for chilled food, to create an accreditation scheme to demonstrate adherence to the guidelines. The CFA was also heavily involved in the 1990 Food Safety Act and the introduction of the now-ubiquitous use-by dates. It was vital to have an expert voice representing chilled foods, since they are short shelf life unpreserved fresh foods relying on high raw material quality, scrupulous manufacturing hygiene standards and chilled storage.
The CFA has worked tirelessly to establish and continuously develop food safety management systems. One major problem has been to reduce the punitive energy requirements to not only keep the food cold but also to heat it with maximum efficiency. The organisation has committed itself to making chilled food as widely available as possible but also reducing its carbon footprint.
Today, the chilled foods market is worth more than £10,000 million, a figure that is a testament to the quality and efficiency of the product and CFA's work. People's day-to-day lives have changed dramatically since the introduction of the refrigerator, with many working men and women simply too busy to source fresh ingredients and prepare meals themselves. “Ready” meals are an important part of the consumer picture. Because different chilled foods are made every day they can be formulated and reformulated continuously—and mass-produced. It is part of the CFA's duties to create safe practice guidelines for the industry to follow, a task they have worked on successfully since its inception.
The chilled food industry has been at the forefront of consumer protection ever since its founding. The CFA is working with FSA and supermarkets to ensure that food is produced to the highest standards. With the industry worth so much, it's vital to maintain growth by making consumers feel confident in the products they're purchasing.
The chilled food industry was not implicated in the horse-meat scandal since it uses specified suppliers and Supplier Quality Assurance and audits. Despite this, consumer trust had been damaged, but through the work of the CFA this has been regained in large part. The sheer convenience of chilled foods has meant that despite these difficulties the industry has emerged stronger than ever.
Food science has always been a big part of the chilled foods industry, and that is certainly the case today. Without the CFA it would be more difficult to quantify the good work food scientists perform.
The CFA also works to recruit new food science graduates, a response to the industry’s skills shortage which currently sees vacancies for an estimated 200 science graduate level jobs. It is doing this by enthusing and inspiring more young people to choose the industry through its innovative Chilled Education programme. This includes Chilled STEM Ambassadors engaging with students and teachers as well as the provision of classroom resources and support for science and food science teachers.
The CFA, as mentioned, is also involved with reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the chilled foods industry. This has included, in the past, altering the type of chemical used in refrigerators from the harmful Freon-12 to other, less damaging substances. Not only does this help the environment, but it also lets consumers feel “green” when making their food choices—something no industry can do without nowadays. The CFA has also worked hard to establish to the degree the lowest temperature that will cook the food but will still control key bacteria. In this way the overall energy consumption in the industry can be reduced. Microwave manufacturers in particular have benefited from chilled food - about 1 billion chilled ready meals, many of them microwaveable, are sold in the UK each year.