Will military tech give Amazon an edge delivering packaged meals?

Discussion
Photo: Washington State University
Aug 16, 2017
Matthew Stern

One of the hurdles to effective, profitable fresh grocery delivery is that some products require refrigeration in storage and while being delivered — for safety’s sake, not to mention the regulations. But Amazon.com is now partnering with a startup that purports to make shelf-stable, easily shippable, pre-packaged meals that don’t lose their quality in the preservation process.

The technology, called MATS (microwave-assisted thermal sterilization) uses a combination of pressure and heat to preserve food products while allowing them to maintain their nutrients and palatability, according to Reuters. MATS was pioneered for use by the U.S. military in an attempt to come up with a higher-quality replacement for the often-derided MREs (meals ready to eat) provided to deployed soldiers. Amazon is planning on making the products available as soon as next year.

While a “fresh” TV dinner might be safer and easier to ship than certain other fresh products, it may not be what most AmazonFresh customers are looking for. However, Amazon could be pursuing a different demographic with the products, rather than using the next-gen pre-packaged meals to redefine “fresh” to AmazonFresh customers. Increased durability could allow them to more easily set up services to ship food globally.

Another thought is that the company could have plans to integrate the new meals into in-store offerings at Whole Foods, after the acquisition. Whole Foods had a run of bad publicity towards the end of 2016 due to food safety concerns over its fresh meals which led to the temporary closure of one of its kitchens.

Just as is the case with its moves into the brick-and-mortar grocery space, Amazon appears to be taking multiple approaches to the grocery delivery world at once. In addition to pioneering new forms of deliverable groceries, Amazon is also making moves into the pre-prepped meal kit space.

News recently broke that Amazon may be quietly beta testing delivery of its own cook-it-yourself meal kits as part of AmazonFresh, according to GeekWire. A user in Seattle reported the meal kits beginning to appear in his search results a week or two ago.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Could MATS technology offer a solution to the costly delivery of fresh food? To whom do you see such offerings appealing? Do you see other applications for ready-to-eat MATS items, as in-store offerings for example?

Braintrust
"The key question will be how appealing these meals are to consumers, particularly versus comparably convenient options."
"This solution seems geared toward people in distress — like refugees and victims of natural disasters. Anyone with a real choice wouldn’t eat this..."
"Once I hear the word microwaved, I think it cannot possibly preserve the natural benefits of products."

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15 Comments on "Will military tech give Amazon an edge delivering packaged meals?"

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Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Uhm, just a one word answer: No. Why should consumers solve a retailer problem?

Keith Anderson
BrainTrust

MATS technology might help overcome some of the supply chain issues related to problems noted in the article, including the expense of maintaining a cold chain and losses due to shrink. The key question will be how appealing these meals are to consumers, particularly versus comparably convenient options.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

The problem is that this isn’t driven by consumer demand, it’s driven by Amazon wanting to find a cheaper way of doing business, so consumers will need to be convinced. That’s going to be tough: my first reaction is “yuck.” I expect many consumers will think the same. That might be unfair as I have never tried one of these products, but that’s the initial hurdle that needs to be overcome.

Celeste C. Giampetro
BrainTrust

Couldn’t agree more. Amazon is solving an Amazon pain point, not a consumer’s. And, yes, it sounds totally gross. The whole idea of “fresh food” is that it’s “fresh” and “food.” None of this is appealing. They might get some early adopters out of curiosity, but I don’t see how this scales.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

If there is a better, as in safer, way to deliver fresh food, go for it. All companies who do fresh delivery, not just Amazon, should be looking for the safest and healthiest way to deliver fresh food.

The first thing I thought about is the difference between fresh squeezed juice that goes from the orange to the carton to the customer and a fresh squeezed pasteurized juice. There is a difference — in freshness and in taste. If technology in the fresh food delivery world is truly just a better way to deliver the goods and doesn’t compromise quality, taste, texture, etc., then it must be considered.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This doesn’t sound very appealing to me and a bit counter to the fresh and natural trend. But I have learned not to bet against Amazon.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

This solution seems geared toward people in distress — like refugees and victims of natural disasters. Anyone with a real choice wouldn’t eat this, would you?

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

This may work in developing countries that don’t have the myriad of options that consumers do in the U.S. for quality fresh foods. Competitors would love to see Whole Foods carry these products. Just think of the impact on its image.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

While one can question the appeal of these meals, Amazon is attempting to capture the changing nature of meal solutions in the U.S. According to the NPD Group 61 percent of all restaurant visits consisted of to-go orders in 2016. Further, Mintel survey results indicated that half of U.S. adults ordered food delivery in a three-month period with nearly 60 percent stating that they did so simply to avoid the inconvenience of having to venture out.

While we may turn up our nose at the Amazon test option, keep in mind as more Americans pursue take out and delivery that there are significant challenges in terms of food engineering (ever eat take out french fries?) and food packaging which need to be addressed. Amazon, as usual, is at the forefront of experimentation and testing.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Remember Tang? It was a powdered, fruit-flavored drink that consumers could simply add water to, mix and enjoy. It was developed by General Foods in 1957 (60 years ago!) and sales were sluggish until it was used by NASA during John Glenn’s Mercury space flight in 1962. Sales took off and it was a grocery store staple until it was discontinued by Kraft in 2009.

While this is a technology that today’s consumer would not “like” when asked in a focus group, the value will be measured by how consumers react and vote with their purchases. If flavor, quality, taste, nutrition and price meet or exceed consumer expectations there is no reason to believe that this will not be successful.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Any time consumers hear about “pre-packaged” or “preserved” food being “as good as” fresh, most become immediately skeptical. The fact that the MATS technology was pioneered for the military is not going to change that perception given the instinctive way most consumers feel about something equivalent to meal rations. This is an uphill battle to convince consumers the food will taste as good as and be as healthy as other fresh options. I’m just not sure this is solving a real problem for most consumers — it feels more like a solution looking for a problem.

Paul Donovan
BrainTrust

Once I hear the word microwaved, I think it cannot possibly preserve the natural benefits of products. One of the more recent topics I was engaged in is the re-invention of the center store grocery offering. A lot of grocers are planning what the future may look like. The notion of a more healthy nutritional set of products is one area of discussion using smaller manufacturers that have more flexibility to develop innovations. It seems this offering is moving away from healthy, at least in the process description (MATS)!

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

MATS … possibly the same experience and nutritional value of fast food? There is an audience for fast food, possibly that audience will embrace MATS for in-home meals?

Jeff Miller
BrainTrust

I am not sure where the consumer demand for this is. They would need a pretty ridiculous marketing campaign to convince the standard Whole Foods shopper of the value and quality of a MATS over real “whole foods.” I guess I can see a place for this replacing other similar pre-packaged offerings if quality is better but not sure I see this as the future. I would rather them put efforts into removing the insane amount of food waste that the current food supply chain creates.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Sounds like a new version of TV dinner, and maybe appealing for certain price sensitive or convenience segment. Given the emphasis of natural and fresh these days, especially with their acquisition of Whole Foods, it would be a bit counter to their brand image in grocery.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The key question will be how appealing these meals are to consumers, particularly versus comparably convenient options."
"This solution seems geared toward people in distress — like refugees and victims of natural disasters. Anyone with a real choice wouldn’t eat this..."
"Once I hear the word microwaved, I think it cannot possibly preserve the natural benefits of products."

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