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Canned vegetables continue to lose ground.

Canned vegetables, a former mainstay of the American pantry, continue to slip in importance as consumers strengthen their allegiance for fresh and frozen vegetables.

Total canned vegetable movement was of more than 5% in 1983, dropping to $2.4 billion. Underlying the category's precipitous decline is the fact that during the past 10 years its contribution to store sales has been cut in half to 1.26% of supermarket sales in 1983.

Canned vegetables have suffered from the increasing availability of fresh vegetables, which are highly regarded by consumers for both taste and nutrition. To after that perception, Del Monte is embarking on an advertising campaign designed to improve the image of canned vegetables in general and the Del Monte products in particular. The $10 million advertising campaign launched this past January is re-educating consumers about the wonders of canning.

Backed by more than 100 scientific studies on the nutritional value of canned goods, the ads stress that canned vegetables are as nutritious as fresh-cooked. Featuring "Mr. Phelps," an independent grocer, the commercials point out that processed vegetables are packed within 24 hours of picking, when nutrients are at their peak value. The spots say fresh, frozen and canned vegetables all retain the same nutritional value after cooking.

Del Monte, which accounts for a reported 22% of canned vegetable sales, has long been an industry leader in adapting to changing consumer demands and tastes. The company was the first major manufacturer to bring out a line of low-sodium vegetables, and to list nutritional information and sodium content on its cans. Karen Bachmann, manager of product publicity for Del Monte, says the low-sodium line accounts for 10% of Del Montehs canned vegetable sales. In comparison, low-sodium canned vegetables account for 8% of sales for the category as a whole.

Since Del Monte led the way in 1982, most of the brand name canners and many private label packers have introduced low- and even no-salt vegetables. One of the companies to commit most strongly to the reduced salt and sugar contents is the Libby brand of Seneca Foods, a subsidiary of S.S. Pierce & Co.

"We did a lot of research to determine what people desired in canned vegetables," says Marcel Tas, who was director of marketing for the Libby brand when the no-salt and no-sugar packs were introduced, and is now vice president of sales. "The research showed that low-sodium products would be coming into their own during the '80s. More families would become concerned with maintaining their health and protecting against hypertension. We determined that the market for low-salt products was not just people with health problems. Rather it was everybody concerned with how food affected their well-being."

So Libby's brought out Natural Packs--canned vegetables with no added salt of sugar--in autumn 1982. The firm packs 12 vegetables in its Natural Pack; only beets, sauerkraut, pork & beans and cream-style corn are not sold in the Natural Pack. (There is no way that these products can be produced without the addition of salt or sugar, Tas says.)

Tas says Natural Pack sales are meeting expectations, but that movement varies significantly from market to market. The products do better in urban than in rural stores, and seem to be stronger along the East and West coasts than in the Midwest and other inland areas. Industry sources say sales of Natural Pack have been disappointing, and that the Libby's label will soon be available in a regular, salt-added pack. A Stop & Shop spokeperson says the chain sees strong sales on both brand-name and private-label low-sodium vegetables, but adds that the New England marketing area is atypical.

Other manufacturers have jumped on the low-sodium bandwagon more slowly. For example, Green Giant has only recently introduced its first low-sodium canned vegetable--niblets of corn. Kenneth Reis, general manager for Green Giant canned vegetables, says, "We don't think there is that great of a market for the low-sodium products and have been conservative in introducing them. Our competitors have a line of low-sodium vegetables that do well. There is a market for the low-sodium, but I don't think there is room in supermarkets for more than one or possibly two low-sodium lines."

S&W Fine Foods sells seven products--kidney and garbanzo beans, stewed and whole peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato juice and spring vegetable juice cocktail--featuring 50% less salt.

"Our low-salt products have been on the market for two years, and they sell well," says Janet Pfeiffer, manager of communications for S&W, which is based in San Mateo, Calif. "We are taking a look at some other items to add to the line. We do a lot of testing before introducing a product to make sure that the item with less salt still tastes good. People demand good flavor in the products. They will not buy a bland tasting vegetable."

Regardless of taste preference, the consumers' disillusionment with the overall category has caused canned vegetable consumption to slide dramatically over the years. According to the Department of Agriculture, canned pea consumption tumbled from 4.3 pounds per person in 1973 to 3.0 pounds a person in 1982. During from 6.4 to 5.4 pounds, snap beans fell from 5.9 to 5.3 pounds and beets slipped from 1.3 to 1.1 pounds. The only major canned vegetable to increase in per capita consumption has been tomatoes, which have risen from 5.0 pounds per person in 1974 to 6.1 pounds for every American during 1982.

To help stop the canned vegetable downslide, canners and packers have been working jointly to reformulate the product to appeal to today's consumers. Hopes are high for a process developed by Continental Can that preserves the chlorophyll content of green vegetables by lining the can with an organic material. The Veri-Green process is being used by S&W in the canning of peas. Go for the green

"Consumers have told us through tests that the color of green canned vegetables is a major problem that causes them not to buy the product," says Dick Fink, S&W's director of marketing. "When the product is greener, consumers judge the taste as better." S&W's Veri-Green Sweet Peas were introduced this January and are selling well. The company plans to introduce another vegetable canned under the Veri-Green process by the fall.

While the canning process is being improved to maintain more fresh-like vegetable characteristics, companies are also experimenting with new items in an effort to lure additional shoppers into the canned vegetable aisle. S&W introduced Italian-style and Mexican-style tomatoes in the last year, and has been pleased with sales from the non-traditional products.

"Consumers are eating and cooking in new was, "Pfeiffer says. "To grow, we must offer products that fit in with these new types of cooking." The popularity of Mexican, Italian and other warm weather styles of cooking are helping canned tomatoes gain share in the canned vegetable category.

The Recamier company is bold enough to believe that an entirely different concept of canned vegetables could become popular in the U.S. In November 1983, the French firm introduced a line of "petite vegetables" imported from France. The products are currently being tested in the Baltimore/Washington area and will be gradually rolled out along the East coast if sales build as expected.

"We sell the samllest, tiniest product possible," says Robert McDonnell, marketing manager of Fredericksburg, Va.-based Recamier. "The smaller the vegetable, the more tender and tasty it is. American tastes have changed, and we think they'll like the smaller, better tasting vegetables that are preferred in Europe."

The 14-item Recamier line includes standards such as early June peas and carrots and mixed vegetables, while hearts of celery, cut salsify and white beans in tomato sauce are some of the more exotic products.
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Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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