McCain Foods SA

Frozen assets

McCain accounts for one in three frozen French fries produced in the world but in South Africa the domination is even greater, as Jeff Daniels discovers.

We’re so used to thinking that the great consumer brand names of this world emanate from the United States, that it surprises many people to learn that McCain is in reality a Canadian business. In fact, its links with potatoes—the most important McCain ingredient—go back over one hundred years, when Andrew McCain saw an opportunity to expand his interests beyond farming and selling locally the potatoes he grew, by establishing a seed potato export company. But it was another half century before his sons wanted their own business and one of the brothers suggested the relatively newly formed industry of frozen foods.

It was Clarence Birdseye, an American inventor, who in the late 1920s had developed the quick-freezing system. He’d noticed that anything put in the way of cold winds, ice and low temperatures—as found in the Arctic—would freeze almost instantly. Not only that, but by cooling the food rapidly it stopped the formation of large ice crystals which, until then, had been an insurmountable stumbling block which destroyed the cellular structure of the food, rendering it unusable. With just a few rudimentary bits of equipment—an electric fan, brine and blocks of ice—Birdseye perfected the process of flash freezing and the first frozen meat and vegetables went on sale to the public in 1930.

Twenty-odd years later and McCain Foods joined the frozen food industry, since which time it has spread around the world just as effectively as its US counterparts. In 1957, the first full year, figures were modest enough: 30 employees and sales of $152,000. Since then it has grown into a multi-billion dollar business with over 20,000 employees worldwide. 

Much of McCain’s global growth has occurred through acquisitions and South Africa is no exception. In the late 1990s, the Government was well into its post-apartheid period and the dominant black population was taking a greater share of the country’s wealth. In exactly the same way that greater personal wealth has opened up the markets in China and India, so too did greater disposable income open up the potential of South Africa. After a couple of years of serious analysis of the market and an evaluation of current suppliers, McCain Foods SA was created when in 2000, it purchased the processed foods division of Irvin & Johnson, one of South Africa’s principal food processing operations.

McCain is now South Africa’s largest frozen food company and the market leader, having 75 per cent of the fries market and 65 per cent of all frozen foods. From its Johannesburg headquarters, its regional offices and various processing plants, 1,500 employees generate a multi-billion rand turnover.

Along the way, R700 million has been invested in a new fries plant and although the process is largely automatic, with very little human involvement in the making of the frozen fries, it has still led to 300 new positions. Unlike the process for freezing raw vegetables, which are flash frozen within as short a period of time as possible after they have been harvested, the concept behind frozen fries is more akin to that of turning brewed coffee into instant coffee granules. 

Once incoming potatoes have gone through rock and soil removing shakers, they are washed and made ready to be steam peeled. The outer skin is loosened by injecting high pressure steam into a peeler tank and held at that temperature for approximately 20 seconds. The potatoes then go through a brush equipped with many long, round strands which gently brush away the peel from the potato. Nothing goes to waste and the peel is collected to be used as cattle feed.

The next stage contains the only human involvement when all spots, bruises, unpeeled or otherwise defective parts of the potatoes are trimmed and discarded. To even out the flow of raw material, the potatoes are then held in large holding tanks filled with water before going to a strip cutter. Making straight fries involves a single process of pumping the potatoes through a cross hatch of blades to give the square shape. Crinkle cut requires the potatoes to go through blades to prove the straight slices before being stamped out under wavy blades to arrive at the distinctive crinkle cut shape.

Any size of fry can be made but the most popular is the quarter-inch in cross section. After being cut, the potato strips are blanched at 82°C for several minutes to destroy enzyme activity and remove some of the sugar which could result in inconsistent texture and colour.

After blanching and drying, the fries go into oil at a temperature of 200°C, where they stay for anything from 30 seconds to five minutes, depending on the potato variety. Excess surface oil is shaken off on a vibrating conveyor which takes the fries to the freezer, where they are kept at a temperature of -39°C for 20 minutes before ultimately being packed in various sizes. When stored in bags in cardboard outers at minus 23°C, the fries can be stored almost indefinitely. 

McCain’s concentration on potatoes has some heavyweight support from the United Nations which, in 2008, declared that “the potato should be a major component in strategies aimed at providing nutritious food for the poor and hungry". Rich in carbohydrates and vitamin C and with the highest protein content of any root or tuber, the potato is said to yield more nutritious food more quickly on less land and in harsher climates than any other major crop. A single potato has twice as much potassium as a banana and as much protein as found in half a cup of milk. Counter intuitively, a medium potato also contains about half the recommended daily intake of vitamin C!

In fact McCain is on something of a crusade when it comes to healthy food. It claims to be one of the first companies to start making products without trans-fats and it has a target that at least 60 per cent of all new products launched will meet the company’s Better For You criteria of a low fat and salt content. Within the limitations of a processed food regime, it is also developing recipes that use the same simple, wholesome ingredients used by domestic cooks. It also promises that should inclusion of an unfamiliar ingredient be necessary, the packaging will explain what it is and why it is being used.

But McCain isn’t just dominant in the domestic market. It is also a major supplier to the food service industry, with some of the best known names in fast food catering on its client list. In fact, wherever food is served, McCain frozen foods could be present—in schools, where the emphasis is to develop healthier foods that children will choose; in hotels and restaurants; and in eating establishments serving anything from hamburgers to haute cuisine.

With the World Cup now less than five months away, McCain is gearing up for what could be a record year in South Africa. The state-of-the-art factory is in full production and to satisfy the multitude of visitors, McCain is launching its products in more outlets than ever before.

McCain is now shipping its products to customers in at least eight African countries, from Angola to Zambia, where tastes of the emerging market are emulating western eating habits. To celebrate its 10th anniversary in South Africa, McCain is forecasting as much as a 20 per cent increase in sales for the year.