However, UK mince production as we know it is under threat from EU hygiene regulations, with the next few months critical as industry together with the British Meat Processors' Association (BMPA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) assembles its case against a six-day limit for manufacturing mince.
Prescribed time limits for meat production are laid out under the European Commission's hygiene regulations, including three days for poultry and 15 days for vacuum-packed beef and veal. While EU member states are required to transpose the tenets into national legislation, the UK meat industry is currently putting together an application for derogation from the six-day mince requirement and drawing up a body of microbiological evidence opposing its mandatory imposition in Britain.
"The six-day rule for mince has really just been carried over from old regulations," says BMPA technical manager Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson. "We believe meat can be kept longer, safely and hygienically, for mincing."
six-day rule opposition
The UK stands alone in opposition to the six-day rule, largely due to different production methods and eating trends in other EU member states. "In other countries, there is more of a tradition of mincing on-site," says Andoh-Kesson, "and dishes such as steak tartare, using raw mince, make the six-day rule more relevant in other member states."
Further, the EU hygiene regulations only stipulate a holding temperature of 5C, whereas most UK operators store meat at 3C, significantly reducing microbe growth. "It's about a variety of factors, such as the quality of the carcase and holding temperatures," she says. "For fully cooked mince, there should be some scope."
BMPA members have been gathering microbe data for the derogation application, with a timeline of late March/early April anticipated for the FSA's formal application. "The ideal way forward would have been an EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) opinion, but it is a long time coming, and something needs to be done in the meantime," says Andoh-Kesson. "The Commission does appear to be sympathetic with the situation, and we are looking for a risk-based method of control, in line with what industry is currently doing."
The National Federation of Meat & Food Traders (NFMFT) is also opposing the six-day rule for mince. "Although it doesn't apply to loose sales, our members with small cutting plants will be affected and it could still be a problem for butchers," says NFMFT chief executive Graham Bidston. "Historically, mince has been a by-product of, for example, hung beef, and creating extra waste would be ridiculous. Even Professor Hugh Pennington has said there is no necessity for having a time limit on mince. The bottom line is it will create totally unnecessary waste and extra paperwork.
"That's the trouble with the one-size-fits-all approach; mince for cooking should be recognised as a separate category."
Aside from such legislative issues, the past year has been a good one for manufacturers of mince, with strong value returns despite a small decrease in volume sales.
"Value growth in the market is coming through from price increases," says Richard Cullen, AHDB Meat Services research and insight manager. "Volume is not as positive as it has been for the past six to seven years with a flattening out but the price performance is quite pleasing. Mince had such good growth in 2008, it couldn't really be expected to continue."
In Scotland, value climbed by 5.8% against a volume drop of 5.4% over the 52-week period, while the value of Scottish-origin mince rose by 3.6% on volume declining by 8%, reflecting a downturn in the Scottish beef herd and greater demand for (non-Scottish) value mince.
"Mince is still a huge staple in Scotland, with more than 81.5% of Scottish households purchasing mince in general and 68.7% purchasing specifically Scottish-origin mince," says Stephen Doran, QMS communications and events manager.
Lamb mince sales down
Mince accounts for 52% of all beef sales and, over the 52 weeks to 29 November, the dominant mince category of beef mirrored the overall trend, with volume dropping by 1.3% to 145,978t while value grew by 10% to £640.6m. However, looking at the 12 weeks up to the end of November, volume performance was flat year-on-year, with the overall mince volume drop over the period largely attributable to falling trade in lamb mince.
While lamb volumes over the 52-week period dropped 14.5% to 8,975t, the 12-week period saw a fall of 23.9%. Value sales of lamb over the 52 weeks grew by 0.5% to £41.5m, while dropping by 7% in the 12 weeks leading up to 29 November.
"There is no supply pressure in the domestic market," says Cullen. "More lambs are being exported as whole or half carcases, due to the lowered value of the pound, so there is nothing there to mince and no pressure on retailers to take volume."
For pork mince, volume sales rose by 5.1% to 4,639t over the 52-week period, while value jumped by 23.7% to £20.2m. Value growth was less dramatic, but nonetheless significant over the 12 weeks leading up to 29 November, with an 11.4% climb on 4.5% volume growth.
While pork mince is a relatively small market, "pork in general has been doing pretty well over the last year," says Cullen. "It's the star of red meat. Price increases on pork haven't been as steep as beef."
Turkey mince, which is not included in the quoted TNS data, represents an even smaller market than pork mince, although one that turkey producers are hoping will grow. In late 2009, Bernard Matthews announced it was conducting consumer tests on promoting turkey mince as a more affordable alternative to beef mince.
"There has been a distinct shift in the way people buy mince, with polarisation of the healthy/premium and value sides," says Phil Davies, Eblex trade sector manager.
Standard represents by far the biggest sub-category of mince, with value climbing 9.6% to £484m, on volumes down 3.8% to 106,858t over the 52 weeks to 29 November. Over the final 12 weeks of the period, year-on-year, some of the added value went out of the market, with a rise of only 2.3% on volumes down by 1.8%.
Premium mince sales over the 52-week period climbed by 10.8% to £32.3m on 5,812 tonnes, representing a volume drop of 4.2%. Trading-down was more evident in autumn 2009, year-on-year, however, with value down 20.8% and volume down 21% over the 12 weeks to 29 November.
The impact of the recession was also notable in value sales, which, for the year to the end of November, rose by 34.6% to £59.6m, on volumes up 19.1% to 25,000t. Over the final 12 weeks, value and volume performance was static. "Growth in the value sector seems to have flattened completely over the last 12 weeks," says Cullen. "Those people who were prepared to trade down into value have done so and there is no further growth in the market."
Sales of healthy mince rose by 9.3% to £40.2m, meanwhile, while volumes declined by 4.6% to 7,153t in the 52-week period while in the final 12 weeks, value rose by 78.1% and volume by 86.3%. "Basically we've got a movement into what is defined here as healthy, including lean mince," he says. "Premium customers may well have been trading down into extra lean."
Organic mince has been the hardest-hit sector, with a fall of 11.1% to £13.6m, and 18% to 2,022t over the year, followed by respective value and volume drops of 2% 3.4% over the 12 weeks.
Supermarkets gain share
Multiple retailers have gained in market share over the 52 weeks to 29 November. Despite a drop of 1.8% in volume sales, mirroring the market, supermarkets' value sales grew by 11.1% to a retail value market share of 89.8% and 91.5% volume share.
Butchers, meanwhile, had a flat value performance from mince sales over the year, maintaining a 6.5% share, but lost 10% in volume sales to a share of 5.3%. Over the 12 weeks to 29 November, butchers' value sales declined by 17.8% and volume sales by 19.5%. "Butchers have been increasing prices ahead of the market on mince," says Cullen.
Lost market share in mince sales may well continue, with the NFMFT reporting weakened trade over the last month as the poor weather conditions keep shoppers away from the high street. However, overall, trade was good in the run-up to Christmas, says Bidston.
Other retailers hold value share of 3.7% and volume share of 3.2%.
Growing the market
A report, Growing the Beef Mince Market, published in late 2009 in a collaborative effort between the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), the National Farmers' Union, Eblex and Kent Business School, outlines additional information on consumer trends, including a switch from large and small to medium-sized (501-800g) packs of mince.
Mid-sized packs are more likely to appeal to upmarket consumers, according to the research, with less affluent shoppers opting instead for either smaller or larger pack sizes. Smaller pack sizes are more likely to be bought by older shoppers, including pensioners, while, unsurprisingly, larger packs extend family appeal.
Further, the IGD research focusing on the year to 4 October, identified a high level of promotional activity in the beef mince sector, with almost half of sales subject to discounts and a shift from buy-one-get-one free offers to temporary price reductions and '2 for £4' type promotions.
Most recently almost half of all beef mince has been sold on promotion or temporary price reductions as canny shoppers tighten their purse strings during the economic crisis.
The 500g pack market has seen an increase in economy, healthy and premium mince, while standard ranges have lost out, exhibiting a drop in both volume and value. The strongest source of sales last year came from the economy mince tier.
Sales were up by an astonishing 100% in both value and volume, reflecting the recession, but the study also found shoppers who bought 500g packs were not all plumping for the cheapest option. In total 15% of sales by value were healthy or premium mince brands.
Although standard mince had the highest sales amount, it lost market share 500g packs declined by 19% in value and 35% in volume.
Digging a little deeper there were also regional variations. Healthy mince had a strong appeal for shoppers in the south and south east, while consumers in the north east were more interested in economy lines. But premium mince was popular in Scotland as were smaller packs, while larger packs appealed more to Londoners.
NFU food chain advisor Clare Smith said: "In order to get the best opportunity to maximise returns, it is important that farmers understand market requirements by speaking to their processor and ensuring specifications are met. This report highlights how complex shopper behaviour is over just one product and this adds to the challenge of whole carcase utilisation."
Recent consumer research by the IGD revealed the four in 10 shoppers believe that they can positively influence British farmers, the local economy and the way animals are treated through the shopping decisions they make and this may have an impact on future mince labelling.
"Shoppers have a high regard for British farmers with 89% believing they deserve the full support of the public," said the report.
"A number of retailers have introduced pictures of their farmers on packs and we may expect to see this become more widespread on mince products." l
l Additional reporting on IGD report by Samantha Clark