The parent of frozen seafood brands Iglo, Birds Eye and Findus has released new data showing that while some of its most popular products have lower carbon footprints than fresh or chilled equivalents, calculating the emissions of frozen foods is an extremely subjective endeavor.
Nomad Foods, the largest frozen food company in Europe, released a life cycle assessment (LCA) study showing that some of the group's most popular products -- such as pollock fish sticks -- have a lower carbon footprint than fresh or chilled equivalents.
The report, from environmental consultancy PRé Sustainability, draws upon 15,000 data points sourced from Nomad, its suppliers and retailers to asses the carbon footprint of 22 of the group's most popular frozen products, including cod, pollock and hake fish sticks as well as salmon fillets and cod loins.
The largest difference between chilled and frozen equivalents products was the high percentage of wastage of fresh food, averaging around five percent for chilled fish analyzed by Nomad, compared to less than one percent of frozen in retail.
At the consumer level, the same products averaged a five percent wastage level, compared to seven percent for fresh.
The study found that frozen Alaska pollock fish fingers generated 1.95 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per three portions, compared to 2.05 kilograms for the same product chilled.
Battered frozen Alaska pollock fish sticks, on the other hand, generated 1.4 percent more CO2 than their chilled equivalent.
These close results were replicated across the products sampled by Birds Eye.
But as the study itself concedes, the focus on the carbon footprint is not necessarily a good representation of the true environmental impact of these products.
"When it comes to carbon footprint, there is no general advantage or disadvantage to using frozen food products compared to products using alternative preservation methods," said the report.
LCA is a technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service, by:
Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases
Evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with identified inputs and releases
Interpreting the results to help you make a more informed decision
Warning of the distortion caused by a focus purely on carbon footprint, the report said that conclusions about environmental impact will require a prioritization between impact categories.
"Trade-offs occur in all products under study, where in one impact category the frozen product has a lower impact than the alternative, and in another it is the other way around," said the report.
The main impact categories that often show a contradictory trend include ozone depletion, freshwater eutrophication, land use and water use.
"Whilst every LCA study must cover all eco-impact categories, they are covered with a lighter touch than CO2 equivalent as there’s currently no agreed methodology on how to combine things like ecotoxicity or land-use change with CO2 equivalent," a Nomad spokesperson told IntraFish.
"Therefore, our conclusion is that a technical report like this has to specify greenhouse gas emissions rather than something more general like ‘environmental footprint.'"
The study raises a number of questions about the utility of carbon footprint as a measurement for the environmental impact of a product.
While frozen products reduce food waste, which can have a major impact on the sustainability of a product, factors such as the amount of time the consumer keeps the frozen product in their freezer, and how the electricity is generated in the country the product is produced and consumed can all radically alter that footprint.
If the same frozen product is stored by the consumer for a longer period, such as six months to a year, the frozen product can have a higher carbon footprint as a result.
The country of consumption is also an important factor in determining if a frozen product has a lower carbon footprint than the alternative or not.
In countries with a great percentage of renewable energy on the electricity grid, that will favor frozen foods.
Frozen vs. chilled
Comparing frozen and chilled seafood's environmental impact is equally complex, the report found.
While much of the chilled fish available on European shelves has been frozen upstream to allow for efficient transport, once in Europe, the fish is defrosted and sold as a chilled product.
There are also cases where chilled fish has never been frozen and therefore needs to be flown in from remote catching and manufacturing locations.
Air transport, of course, significantly increases the carbon footprint.
Nomad has made sustainability central to its strategy, and emissions is the latest area the group is intent on tackling. The company is already the world’s largest branded purchaser of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish and seafood products.