In the world of business, misfortunes sometimes become blessings.
Since being involved in a scandal over tainted spinach last year, Nichirei Corp., the nation’s largest maker of frozen packaged foods, has been working toward recovery by selling products that contain fewer additives than those of its rivals.
In fiscal 2002, Nichirei’s annual sales of frozen packaged foods slipped 3.6 percent from a year earlier to 165.6 billion yen.
The dent in sales was caused by the discovery of an abnormally high level of residual agricultural chemicals in spinach imported from China. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry ordered several importers and food processing firms, including Nichirei, to recall all products containing the contaminated vegetables.
To revitalize sales, Nichirei in the spring reorganized its three brands of frozen meals, which have accounted for 40 percent of its home-use frozen food in terms of sales. On March 1, the company started selling a new brand of frozen meal called Good for Bento! A “bento” is a boxed lunch.
“To differentiate the new brand from its predecessors, we have stopped using artificial coloring agents, artificial preservatives and synthetic flavoring ingredients in our frozen meals,” Nichirei spokesman Yoshinori Okada said.
A label on its frozen food packages indicates the elimination of three food additives. Telling consumers what it does not contain is an attempt to differentiate its products from those of other companies, Okada said.
To the relief of Nichirei executives, the new frozen meals are hot. Sales are up by some 20 percent over those seen under the former brands, he said.
While rivals have also eliminated food additives, Nichirei strictly checks all food materials, even its soy sauce, Okada said.
“We have actually reviewed a total of 4,700 food materials for frozen products,” he said.
In the process of product development, Nichirei had a hard time upgrading the taste and appearance of its frozen meals without resorting to artificial colors and flavors, he said.
Asked how the firm solved this problem, Okada declined to answer.
“However, we have overcome the difficulties on account of our accumulated cooking knowhow for frozen food,” was all he would reveal.
Nichirei has strong development ability, Okada said, citing a series of Jyoto Chuka, or upper-class Chinese food, frozen meals that went on sale in April. In spring 2002, the firm began marketing Jyoto Yoshoku, or upper-class Western food.
“Home-use frozen food is widely used for boxed lunches,” he said. “We developed the high-quality products to cultivate the dinner market.”
The so-called upper-class meals cost upward of 500 yen, compared to ordinary frozen meals that sell in a range between 200 yen and 400 yen, Okada said.
The upper-class products are sold in about 1,000 stores nationwide, well up from the roughly 300 stores that initially sold the firm’s products, he said.
To develop the range, Nichirei asked the advice of chefs, Okada said. For example, it took about six months for the chefs to approve the taste of a frozen cream croquette.
“To produce something of the chefs’ level of quality, we initially produced a 1,000 yen frozen cream croquette, surpassing the price target of about 500 yen a unit,” Okada said.
Nichirei slashed the cost of the cream croquette by resorting to cheaper materials. The company has managed to produce a cream croquette that tastes similar to the chefs’ original, he said.
Nichirei handles foods ranging from seafood to beef, and takes advantage of its connections to obtain various ingredients, he said.
“We are continuously reviewing food materials, product concepts and cooking methods to produce better products,” Okada said.