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Calls for regulation as ready-to-eat market continues to grow

Article-Calls for regulation as ready-to-eat market continues to grow

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As Europeans continue to eat more ready-meals amid a global surge in prepared food, a coalition of EU-based health, consumer, and environmental organisations jointly make the case for stronger regulation and stricter oversight on the nutritional and environmental impact of the category.

Ready-made meals already account for 17% of all calories consumed in the EU – and this proportion is rising rapidly, according to the report, Making Prepared Foods Healthier & More Sustainable, which was conducted by Systemiq, a B Corp-certified consultancy that seeks to foster sustainable systemic change through policy development, coalition building, and early-stage investment, among other actions. Systemiq compiled the report on behalf of ten European health, consumer and environmental organisations, including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

It found that Spanish, German, and Italian consumers bought between 40 and 60% more prepared meals in 2023 than in 2008. This means Europeans are now buying as many ready-meals as their UK and US counterparts – the markets with the most consumption of the product – did 15 years ago.

Growth across the board

In Europe, Spain saw the highest increase in ready-meal consumption, rising 63% in 15 years. Consumption almost doubled in the US, with consumption far exceeding all countries in Europe, with only the UK close behind. Nearly nine in 10 British consumers eat ready-meals, with 40% eating at least one every week.

The global ready-to-eat market is showing no signs of slowing down, with an expected 10-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.2% projected to double the market size from $196 billion in 2024 to $391 by 2034. A not-insignificant portion of this growth is coming from China, where there are an estimated 60,000 pre-made food companies in a market that is projected to be valued at $136 billion by 2026 and which grew by 23% between 2022 and 2023.

Poor nutritional value

The Systemiq study finds that ready-meals contribute to overall poor dietary patterns, as they contain amounts of fats, salt, sugars, and calories that exceed nutritional guidelines. At the same time, these products tend to have fewer fruits, legumes, vegetables or wholegrains, which are already underconsumed. In terms of macronutrients, pre-packed meals sold in the EU contain, on average, more than twice as much red meat as the average consumption – far exceeding the recommendations for daily intake from the World Health Organization (WHO) and EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Diet.

These findings echo previous studies, including a 2023 Public Health Nutrition publication which found that UK ready-meals were more expensive, lower in nutritional quality, and worse for the environment than home-cooked meals.

Changing consumer habits could have an impact on the meat content. A 2022 UK survey from market insights company Mintel revealed that 23% of British ready-meal consumers would like products to offer high-protein plant ingredients as an alternative to animal protein. A trend analysis by Mintel from 2023 showed that consumer interests in a less meat-heavy diet have also driven claims of vegan and plant-based content in prepared meals and meal kit launches. Only 12% of new launches had the label vegan or no animal ingredients in 2018, but this figure rose to 16% by 2023. The amount of plant-based claims more than doubled from 3% to 7%. However, vegetarian claims have declined during the same period, from 17% to 12%.

Regulatory movement

While consumer interest in more sustainable and healthier products could slowly drive change, the Systemiq report urges the EU to implement legislation that requires large companies that sell ready-meals in retail and food service to align the contents of their products with dietary guidelines while exempting small and medium enterprises (SMEs). According to the authors, this type of regulation would have a major beneficial effect on human and planetary health, and a regulatory approach that shifts the responsibility from consumers to producers is expected to be more effective than the current reliance on regulatory nudges such as nutritional and environmental labels and the taxation of certain ingredients like meat and sugars.

One other major ready-meal market has already seen serious regulatory tightening this year. In March 2024, the Chinese government rolled out wide-ranging standards to enhance food safety regulation on the fast-growing but still nascent category. However, nutritional guidance is not part of the new set of standards, which were issued following a scandal involving the use of inferior meat in certain pork ready meals produced in Anhui province.