Let’s be very clear from the outset that pouches for baby food are increasingly becoming the only form of packaging worth considering. From high end, organic, tailored-to-your-infant and delivered- to-the-door operations, to regular off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all meals, pouches have proved to be the only way to go.

GlobalData records that in the US market pouches accounted for some 32% of sales of baby meals in 2016. Sales of pouches have grown because parents perceive them as safe, clean, and parent-friendly (no spoon is required). For manufacturers, they have the added advantage of helping to extend the months and years babies and toddlers consume non-adult food.

Initially, pouches were offered by specialist companies, including Sprout, Peter Rabbit Organics, Ella’s Kitchen, and Plum Organics. More recently, however, the market leaders – Gerber and Earth’s Best – have also launched pouches. The greater availability of pouches has significantly boosted average unit prices (+50% in real terms between 2010 and 2016), and led to increases in the total value of the sector. Over the 2010–2016 period as a whole, sales in value increased by 41% whilst volumes actually fell.

This trend is not confined to the US but has been repeated over and over again in all key baby food markets, which is why the recent announcement that Happy Family Organics is moving away from pouches, introducing its range of premium, organic baby food into jar format, initially came as something of a shock.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program

However, a key point of difference in the US is the influence of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). From October 2009 meals in glass jars became eligible for WIC programme support, although many states will not consider either pouches or organic foods as they are regarded as premium options and hence too expensive.

Happy Family has taken the stand that organic premium baby food should be available to all, particularly those infants most nutritionally at risk, noting that whether they are in the WIC programme or not, millennial mothers still want variety and the best quality meals possible to feed their babies. The move to glass jars has enabled the company to sell its products at a lower price point, and made it easier for it to present its case to be included in the programme.

There are assuredly benefits for the company in that it is expanding its reach to the two million or so babies born into the WIC programme each year who would otherwise have never come across its products. Moreover, aside from the exposure to a larger potential consumer base, there are other less tangible but nonetheless significant gains to be made.

Firstly there is much to be said for a baby food manufacturer being associated with a nutritional outreach programme. As Nestle is in a position to state unequivocally, the reverse can cause a serious amount of damage to the corporate image. And secondly – and this is applicable to the global market, not just the US – pouches have come in for a great deal of criticism recently, with experts warning that feeding infants with pouches can interfere with their development as the food is squeezed directly into the mouth rather than using tools to feed themselves. Maybe more pouch-based manufacturers will follow Happy Family’s lead.

But despite all the potential gains for the company, it is also clear that its decision is at least partly fuelled by ethical considerations. The cost of changing from pouches to jars is not insignificant, whilst approval for the WIC programme has to be achieved state by state, a slow and cumbersome process, and not one to be undertaken lightly. The company’s mission statement is to change the trajectory of children’s health through nutrition, and it seems that they are prepared to walk the walk.

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