Parma ham, perhaps the best-known Italian cured ham, was first brought to fame in 100BC by Roman politician, general and writer Cato the ‘Censor’, who commented on the extraordinary flavour of hams produced in the Parma region. Since then, Parma ham has gone global and the product has been awarded Protected Designation Origin (PDO) status, meaning that all Parma ham producers must be located within the geographical boundaries of the Parma production area. Producers claim that the air in their region is unique, with the dry and sweet-smelling breezes from the Apennine mountains creating perfect environmental conditions for the natural ‘drying’ of the hams.
Parma ham is big business for Italy, with €1.76bn (£1.46bn) sold at retail domestically and a further €360m (£298m) exported every year. Around 90% of the Italian pig population now located in the PDO region for Parma ham, due to the €30 (£24.88) extra premium paid for pigs produced for the delicacy. In the UK, Parma ham was one of the original cured meats to hit supermarket shelves and has paved the way for Britain’s new love for Continental flavours.
However, a new European agreement is threatening the future viability of the Parma ham industry. In December 2010, after significant pressure from animal welfare groups, a group of key stakeholders from the European pig industry signed an agreement to voluntarily end surgical castration of pigs in Europe by January 2018. Ending castration means there is an increased risk of ‘boar taint’, a penetrating odour in pork, which occurs when the meat is heated, and which some consumers find unpleasant. It is believed that there are three compounds responsible for boar taint: androstenone, skatole and indole. Androstenone is a testicular steroid, which is important for creating semen of the boar. This process begins at approximately 18 weeks and at a weight of 60kg. Heavy, older pigs are far more likely to be tainted and higher levels of testosterone have been found in boars with higher back fat levels.
Marcello Marchesi, of Parma ham producer ASSOCARNI Italy, warns that this poses a particular problem for the Parma ham industry. In order to meet the strict PDO specifications, pigs reared for Parma ham are heavier and must have a certain level of back fat. So far, the only viable way to avoid boar taint is immunocastration, but Italian trials with this method revealed that the resulting carcases have to be trimmed higher to remove the testes, and would no longer meet the PDO requirements for Parma ham.
“Italy produces the heaviest pigs in the world. Sexual maturity occurs at least three months before the typical Italian slaughter weight. Immunocastration will improve productivity, but has undesirable negative side-effects for Parma ham production,” Marchesi says.
The current agreement includes a derogation for traditional breeds and regional specialties such as Parma ham, but animal welfare groups are pushing for this to be removed. Marchesi says that if the derogation is removed, Italy will not sign the agreement. This, in turn, poses the threat that European regulators will step in and introduce legislation banning castration, which could have disastrous effects on the Parma ham industry.
For now, however, Parma ham remains on our shelves and, last year, helped drive up sales of Continental meats by 13.9% (52 w/e 19 February 2012, according to Kantar Worldpanel), with volumes up by 11.5%. Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) research and insight executive Matthew Southam puts this impressive growth of Continental meats down to a widening of tastes, as cheap flights tempt more Brits abroad.
“Continental-style meats have been on an upward trend for several years as consumers broaden their range of cuisines and acquire a taste for new products,” he says. “As a result, the range of these types of meats available in-store has grown, which drives further sales.”
Overall, the cooked meats market in Britain was worth £2.1bn (52 w/e 19 February 2012), with value sales up 6.6%, although volume sales fell by 0.1%, reflecting increased prices on cooked meat products. “The average price paid is now £9.12/kg. As prices have escalated, shoppers have started to buy in smaller quantities, which has restricted volume sales within the category,” says Kantar Worldpanel analyst Sharon Nyandoro. “This trend has continued despite an increase in volume-based promotions.”
Ham continues to dominate, accounting for half of household expenditure in the category. “Importantly for the category, ham sales are in good growth, with value sales up 7.8% and volume sales up 5.3%,” adds Nyandoro.
Southam puts this down to the popularity of ham in sandwiches, with ham second only to cheese in the sandwich stakes. “At retail level, ham has had a very strong year and this has been largely driven by people preparing their lunches at home; the lunchtime occasion drives two-thirds of all ham consumption,” he says.
Latest figures have revealed that an average packed lunch costs £1.40, while an average bought lunch costs £3.50. “People have realised that it is quite an easy way to save without sacrificing a lot. By making your own lunches, you can save £10 or £20 a week,” says Southam.
This trend has been compounded by an increase in school dinner prices, which means workers are increasingly making packed lunches for their children as well as themselves. Recent figures from Which? showed that school dinner prices last autumn increased by 2.5% on average, with some councils raising prices by as much as 17%. This has resulted in a decrease of students taking school meals, with just 45% of school pupils in England currently eating them.
Southam points out that both ham and Continental-style meats have also benefited from the increased price points of sliced cooked chicken and corned beef over the past 12 months. “Ham is comparably cheaper than other sliced cooked meats,” he says.
Corned beef prices on the global market rose by around 60% in the six months to March 2011 as a result of rising grain prices and a tightening in the worldwide supply of beef. Changing dynamics in South America, which has dominated corned beef production since 1866, contributed to supply problems, and although retailers were reluctant to pass on prices to the consumer, there was an inevitable price increase on the shelves.
“Corned beef has rocketed in price, it is about 30% more expensive than last year because they have had supply issues from South America,” explains Southam. “Any product that has a 30% price difference is going to struggle, because when there are so many alternative sandwich fillings, people are just going to switch to something else.”
Data from Kantar Worldpanel reveals that corned beef volume sales fell 23.2% (52 w/e 19 Feb 2012), although the huge price rises meant value increased by 1.8%. In a bid to reignite the corned beef market, Waitrose introduced British-sourced corned beef earlier this year, with both canned and sliced product now available. The corned beef uses the less popular shin and flank cuts from existing Waitrose beef farmers, which the supermarket said helped reinforce its “whole carcase approach”.
Cooked chicken has also suffered as a result of rising grain prices. “The cost of feed went up this time last year and the chicken supply chain campaigned for price rises, which they got across everything from whole birds to chicken breasts and sliced cooked chicken,” Southam says. “Comparatively, on the shelves, chicken looks a more expensive option.”
Data from Kantar Worldpanel reveals that sales of both chicken and turkey decreased last year. “Poultry cooked meats are under-performing in comparison to other proteins. Chicken is only growing by 2.4% in value terms and there has been significant volume decline. Turkey is under-performing, seeing a year-on-year decline, with evidence of shoppers switching to other proteins within the category,” explains Nyandoro.
Despite this, premium processors report that sales of turkey and chicken have been boosted slightly by consumers looking for healthier choices. “We launched our turkey range about six months ago and it is going really well. We also have a new line of sliced chicken and it seems to have taken off,” says James Hunt, production manager at Hunts Quality Cooked Meats. “Perhaps it is because people are more aware of the differences between red meat and white meat and are going for the healthy option.”
However, he reports that ham remains a best-seller. “Our ham always sells really well. We do a honey and cherry glaze ham, which is popular at Christmas, but during the summer, people like a basic boiled ham.”
Processed red meats have been hit by numerous health scandals over recent years, including the recent highly contested report from Harvard University, which claimed that daily consumption of processed meats increased the risk of early death by 20%. However, Southam says there is little evidence that consumers are turning away from meats like ham as a result.
“Every year, for the past 10 years at least, there have been two or three stories in the national news, but if you look at the processed meat market — particularly ham and sausages — they have been some of the fastest-growing products,” he says. “More people are aware of those health stories than they were previously, but there are no visible signs that it is affecting consumption.”
The supermarkets have certainly continued to embrace cooked and processed meats, with many expanding their ranges, particularly of Continental meats. Nyandoro says Tesco continues to hold the largest market share, accounting for 27.7%, but the retailer is growing behind the overall market. “Of the big retailers, Asda and Sainsbury’s have extended their market share by performing ahead of the market, growing by 7.5% and 8% respectively,” she adds.
The discounters also delivered a strong performance, attracting new customers with their extensive Continental meat ranges. “Consumers are adding Aldi and Lidl to their repertoire of stores for cooked meats and increasing their spend in store. Aldi also enjoys success from spend stolen from other retailers, particularly the Big Four,” Nyandoro says.
Southam predicts that the year ahead is looking good for cooked meats. “Things like unemployment are still rising and the situation isn’t really going to change for many household budgets this year, so I would expect a continuation of what we have seen over the past couple of years, with people still making their lunches at home,” he says. “That should give a healthy outlook to sliced cooked meats in the year ahead.” As for Parma ham, it seems that only time will tell if animal welfare concerns will win out over demand for an age-old delicacy.
Best of British
Britain has never been famed for its charcuterie, leaving the glory to its European cousins, such as Italy, Spain and Germany. All that might be about to change, however, as interest in locally produced food has given rise to a new enthusiasm for producing British cured meats.
A number of companies are now offering charcuterie produced in Britain from British animals, including: Bath Pig, which makes British chorizo; Serious Pig, which makes a range of salamis from British pork; The Real Boar Company, which offers salami, air-dried ham and chorizo from British game and wild boar; and Great Glen Game, which uses sustainably sourced Scottish wild venison to make a range of cured and smoked products, including salami, chorizo, bresaola and grouse breast.
Great Glen Game owner Jan Jacob Baak says that he believes Britain could become a major player in the charcuterie market, with British charcuterie taking over in the domestic market. He warns, however, that producers will have to watch their prices to compete with countries such as Italy and Germany, which produce charcuterie at a very competitive price point.
“Farmers now use their rare-breed or special-breed pork and add value to it and make an exclusive salami. I think it will turn around again and competition will force the price to come down, like it does anywhere else in the world,” he says.
“I cannot see a problem with producing ordinary pork to make competitive salami in the UK. If you team up with normal producers, not rare-breed producers, you could make a very competitive salami.”
Producers also need to ensure that the market does not become too saturated, he adds. “British salami is still quite a high-end product, but if supply starts outpacing demand, then again we will end up in a vicious circle where there are too many producers looking at it.”
Most important, he says, is that the quality of charcuterie coming out of Britain remains high. “We have to prove that the quality from Britain has to be outstanding, so that we don’t tarnish ourselves with a bad name,” he says. “If products come out that get bad reviews, that could have a disastrous impact on the industry.”
He recommends that producers focus on providing several outstanding products, rather than a wider range of mediocre products. “From talking to several producers who do not currently produce charcuterie, but sell goods at farmers’ markets, the trend I am seeing is that everyone is diversifying into too many products. They think that by widening their product range, they can make a business, but I think they are completely wrong,” he says. “They should focus on a good product, put all their effort into it and make sure that product is being distributed across the UK.”
Richard Parnell, sales and marketing director at BHJ UK Protein Foods, says that cooked meat processors are facing the same pressures as the rest of the meat industry, with rising costs making it difficult to make a margin. “The biggest demand from our customers is to help them improve their quality at no extra cost or reduce cost with no effect on quality. Sometimes it is a bit tricky, but we do our best,” he says.
This has been made more difficult by increasing consumer demand for natural products. “Natural is a trend across any market at the moment. Consumers are more aware of what is in a product now and there is a desire to have labelling with ingredients that consumers are more familiar with,” says Parnell.
With this in mind, BHJ UK has recently developed Leg DRINDE, which Parnell claims is the first functional natural pork protein specifically for use in reformed hams, and can be used to improve yield. “Utilising our specialist expertise, we have been able to introduce an innovative, cost-effective natural replacement that offers both great taste and functionality,” he says.
Parnell adds that the company is now developing a similar product for whole muscle ham. “It can be labelled as a natural pork protein or natural pork collagen, because we have put in some work on the anti-oxidant it contains,” he explains. “It can increase cooked yield over and above existing recipe formulations and it can help reduce or remove phosphates from products. There is value to be had for the manufacturers.”