“The headquarters of the frozen food manufacturer Frosta is located in an unadorned industrial area in Hamburg-Bahrenfeld. The co-owner and CEO Felix Ahlers has time for an interview over noon. In the small canteen there are still plates with fish sticks.
An employee in the room points out to him that these are competing products. Previously, there had been a comparison with our own fish products – and of course they all ate.
The 53-year-old manager has clear ideas about how Frosta wants to set himself off from the place deer Iglo and what the company’s ceo believes that politicians absolutely have to do for food transparency.
WORLD: Mr. Ahlers, in addition to toilet paper and pasta, fish products have also been sold out at times in recent weeks. Is frozen food manufacturer Frosta one of the winners of the Corona era?
Felix Ahlers: People just have more time to cook, and they are more concerned with food. We benefit greatly from this. Our retail sales increased by 30 percent. For example, we notice the increased sale of our fish sticks when children are not at school and eating at home. For this, our business with gastronomy or even with school canteens has completely broken away. Taken together, we expect a plus minus zero for the full year.
WORLD: Are there any negative effects for you?
Ahlers: The work has already changed. In production, we have to pay attention to distances, the employees are further apart than before. This will have cost effects, the amount of which I cannot yet estimate. Above all, however, our purchasing is affected. We need to respond much more flexibly and quickly. A large fishing vessel for saithe has just failed off Alaska. Due to some Corona cases, several sailors had to be quarantined. This means that we have to stock up on more stock. I do not yet know what impact this will have on our outcome.
WORLD: The example of the Tönnies slaughterhouse shows how quickly the coronavirus can spread. Workplaces with low temperatures are particularly at risk. How does Frosta take care of it?
Ahlers: In our factories, the employees work at room temperature. This is possible because the frozen raw materials are processed very quickly. Otherwise, we strictly adhere to all precautions and have closed the canteen, for example. Fortunately, we haven’t had a Corona case in our production.
WORLD: Have you registered for short-time work?
Ahlers: We are the ones who are by far the least affected by the economic consequences of the Corona pandemic. Our field service has worked less for a while. But I would not think it would be fair if we were to apply for short-time working allowances. So we didn’t do it.
WORLD: They say people are now looking more closely at what they eat. Frosta himself is now pushing it to the top and wants to give the name of the captain of the fishing boat on the pack for fish products. Do I really need that?
Ahlers: For me, it is not a question of whether you need this, but why I should withhold it from you when I know it. Information is particularly important in the case of fish. For example, we now also take the North Sea salmon for our fish sticks in addition to the Alaskan salmon. It is darker in colour and tastes a little stronger. The origin is specified on the package.
WORLD: Their competitors in the food industry claim that it is far too expensive to name the country of origin. For this, the country name changes too often.
Ahlers: That’s a joke and pure lobbying. In production, the award with changing countries of origin is not a problem at all, and we print it directly on the package. In the future, for example, we also want to provide individual catches with a QR code for saithe and provide information on the location and time of fishing and the captain’s name. In the time for a food scandal, such complete traceability can become extremely important.
WORLD: So why do so few manufacturers do it?
Ahlers: Some manufacturers want to suggest to buyers something that is not true. 98 percent of apple juice concentrate, for example, comes from China. This also applies to strawberries. Vi People shouldn’t recognize this right away. Our chicken meat, for example, comes from Thailand, and that’s also on the pan dishes. We know the Thai company. The space per animal is one third larger than is usual in Germany. In addition, the energy consumption there is lower because the stables do not need to be heated. It makes much more ecological sense to transport animals yourself than to ship the food halfway around the world. Soya as animal feed, for example, often comes to Germany from Brazil. Finally, six times the amount of feed is used for one kilogram of meat.
WORLD: Are the laws in Germany sufficient to ensure that buyers are informed transparently about food?
Ahlers: No, they are not enough at all. The legislator urgently needs to change food law so that the customer can keep the quality of a food apart. Only then will we have real competition between manufacturers. Many additives are no longer called this, but are given, for example, as dairy products. An extract of cedar wood that aromatizes a raspberry yoghurt may be declared as a natural flavour and is much cheaper to produce. On the ingredients list, this is difficult to distinguish from a yoghurt product that only gets its aroma through raspberries. That is why we are calling for all flavoured foods to show this at the front of the pack.
WORLD: What does politics do – for example, the portfolio of Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner?
Ahlers: Politics has stopped completely in recent years. And the industry is becoming increasingly smart about handling additives with other names. Today, everyone can say whatever they want. In the case of indications such as ‘without flavour enhancer’ or ‘natural flavour’, it is not at all clear which additive is contained or meant in it. Current food law prevents consumers from distinguishing products from each other. I wrote to Mrs Klöckner, but not much has happened.
WORLD: Foods that are “free of” something are a trendy trend for some customers. Is the growing number of people with allergies or intolerances when eating comprehensible to you?
Ahlers: Over the past 50 years, we have changed our diet so radically that human evolution is no longer withus. That is one reason for the amount of intolerances. I am convinced that additives in food make all the difference. With traditional cooking methods without artificial additives, there are hardly any problems with intolerances.
WORLD: Another trend ingesity is a substitute for meat and fish products. Frosta has recently been offering vegan fish with vegetables as a fisherman’s set. Is the future of our diet coming out of the lab?
Ahlers: For me, trying to make fish or meat differently from natural ingredients misses the topic. This is not a healthy meal. Then we should all prefer to eat less meat products. The substitutes for meat that are currently available are full of additives. For me, a meat substitute from Beyond Meat, for example, is completely opaque and a total artifact. In the fourth place of the ingredients listed, the word flavours already appears. Our vegan fish sticks contain black roots and other vegetables as well as linseed oil. We don’t need a detour through chemistry for taste.
WORLD: We Germans pay as little for food as hardly any other European. Does that bother you?
Ahlers: The price is the only benchmark for many people in the supermarket. I think if people understand the reason why something is more expensive, they pay for it. In the case of food, competition is far too opaque. I am basically a politically liberal person. But here the legislator has a task and must ensure that the customer can recognize the differences.
WORLD: Your Frosta products are more expensive than the competing offerings. Are you not afraid to fly out of the freezers at the big food chains?
Ahlers: No, I’m not afraid of that. We do not overdo it with our claim. That might be the case if we were to take only organic ingredients. Then we might soon be a niche product. But you have to h have a clear position. We only take natural foods. And if there are no black olives without dyes, as is the case, then we simply do without black olives. We have had our guide since 2003. Unlike corporations, we do not have to grow every year. I see that as an advantage.
WORLD: You are talking about an attitude: Frosta does not take farmed salmon for the dishes. Worldwide, however, more than half of the fish is already taken from breeding and no longer from the sea. Can you do without it in the long run?
Ahlers: We are not against fish farming, but we do not find the current work of the breeding farms acceptable. First and foremost, I am disturbed by the fact that animal welfare is not being respected. A free salmon lives much healthier than a farmed salmon. We take wild salmon for our dishes from the fishing grounds off Alaska.
WORLD: In the middle of this special time, you actually wanted to replace your plastic bags with paper bags. However, these brown bags are not yet visible.
Ahlers: It takes a little longer than we thought. However, the first products have already been delivered to the retail market. We will not achieve our goal of converting all pan dishes as early as this year. However, we are convinced of our solution. The life cycle assessment of paper is much better than plastic.
WORLD: The customer has to pay 20 cents more for this, you have announced. Isn’t there also a hidden price increase?
Ahlers: These are real costs that come from the paper changeover. We will also have to raise prices. Raw materials have become more expensive to buy, both vegetables and fish. In addition, the effort for logistics and freezer storage has increased. I expect price increases of around four per cent.
WORLD: You are not only the entrepreneur Felix Ahlers, but also a development aid worker in your free time. A few months ago, during a sabbatical year, you supported coffee growing in Ethiopia. Does coffee from this small business have any chance at all compared to corporate giants such as Nestlé or JDE Peet’s of the Reimann family?
Ahlers: There are really possibilities with coffee. We have turned the espresso called Solino into a brand that can be found at Edeka or Karstadt, for example. In Ethiopia, this has resulted in a company with 150 employees. The coffee is roasted and packaged by them and comes to Germany as a finished product by container. This has created qualified jobs in the processing of coffee. I lived on the farms with the coffee pickers. I cannot imagine that this slavish work for a mini-wage will continue for many years to come.