Cheap Eats

The world might be facing a global recession, but if there is one product that is bucking the downward trend, it is mince. Fred A’Court takes a look at the latest developments in the mince market

It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. The meat industry’s cloud, at present, is falling sales of premium cuts of meat as shoppers tighten their belts for the recession, as well as a shortage of some types of beef and poor trade in parts of the foodservice sector. The silver lining is the huge increase there is in sales of mince and other value meat products.


The change of focus has been rapid and complete. Just a year ago, the whole supply chain was geared to the production of quality cuts, organic meat and speciality items. Selling hindquarter cuts was easy. Finding a market for the remaining forequarter – the so-called challenge of balancing the carcase – was not so easy.

Twelve months on and it is as if the whole market has been turned on its head. Suddenly, it is the cheaper cuts of meat that everyone wants. In some parts of the country, demand for premium cuts, such as fillet steak, have fallen through the floor. Demand for chilled ready-meals, the seemingly ever-present staple of the take-it-home-and-cook-it brigade, is now falling for the first time in well over a decade.

With shoppers counting the pennies, mince is proving to be the winner in recession-hit Britain – and not just beef mince. All types of mince – beef, lamb, pork and turkey – are flying off supermarket shelves, while some independent butchers can hardly keep pace with filling trays in their counters.



The reason, of course, is that mince in all its forms is an easy and versatile product to use as part of a value meal at home. As well as finding its way into firm favourites like cottage pie, shepherd’s pie and chilli con carne, it is also being used in pasta and rice dishes. Meanwhile, product development teams are taking a fresh look at it as an ingredient.

Processors are adjusting to this brave new world too. Re-programming production to produce more and yet more mince is proving to be not so much a problem as sourcing the right type of meat to mince. With demand rising, supplies are becoming tighter and, inevitably, prices are also rising.

It is not just the retail trade and their suppliers that are grappling with this new situation; the foodservice sector is facing the same issues. A year ago, people would pop out for an evening meal at the local pub or a mid-range restaurant. Now, those same people are preparing their own meals and eating at home. Mid-range restaurants are feeling the strain, with some closing, and so are their suppliers.

Hotel and pub chains are rethinking their menus, downshifting to cheaper cuts of meat. And food buyers for hospitals, care homes, schools, prisons and defence establishments are changing tack as tenders come up for renewal. They are upping the number of times mince is used in meals, and are expected to do so for the foreseeable future. In fact, the whole supply chain is adjusting to a market where mince is king, accounting for as much as half the beef market.

Demand for over-30-month (OTM) cattle and dairy calves is growing. Even machinery suppliers are seeing an increase in demand for new mincers and for maintenance of existing equipment.



Industry statistics confirm the trends. The amount of beef mince sold by British retailers in 2008 increased by 7,000 tonnes, a 4.8% increase on 2007, while sales of lamb mince shot up by nearly a fifth, an extra 2,000 tonnes. Even the amount of pork mince sold went up by 2%. Prices rose during the year too, with the average price of beef mince going up by almost 15%, lamb mince by just over 6% and pork mince by more than 20%. More burgers and sausages were also sold in 2008.

AHDB Meat Services research and insight manager Richard Cullen says the big rise in sales of lamb mince is probably due to people making their own shepherd’s pies and Greek-style meals. The rise also coincided with the first-ever fall in sales of chilled ready-meals. Although the number of meals sold dropped by just 4.82%, it is actually a big decline given the large size of the market, now worth £973m. Until recently it had accounted for more than £1bn-worth of sales a year.

Changes in shopping patterns vary around the UK. Demand for value cuts and easy-to-cook meat products are booming in Wales, particularly for lamb mince and stewing steak.

“Any growth in demand from consumers for red meat is good news, whether it’s for prime cuts or cheaper products such as mince,” says Gwyn Howells, chief executive of Hybu Cig Cymru - Meat Promotion Wales (HCC). “In the last quarter, for example, we have seen a 79% rise in demand for lamb mince and a 50% rise in lamb stewing steak. As a result of the large increase in demand for lamb mince over the last few months, carcase utilisation has been less of a problem.”

HCC predicted last year that consumers, faced with the realities of the credit crunch, would seek out cheaper cuts. “That’s why HCC has produced two recipe guides demonstrating the versatility of mince,” says Howells. “We wanted to show that people don’t have to cut Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef out of their diets when times are tight – they just need to adapt their buying habits, if necessary.

“But even before the current economic situation, there were opportunities for the greater use of OTM cattle and dairy calves. There’s a wide range of different products in the shops – even burgers are made to different specifications – which
means there is greater demand for this product and increased production opportunities. We see this as very encouraging.”

An increase in sales of burgers has been recorded in Wales, up 6% to 95,828t while there has been a 3% rise over the last year in sausage sales to 184,599t.



The picture is somewhat different in Scotland. While beef mince accounts for half of all beef sold north of the border, some butchers there are not seeing the sort of increases in sales experienced in England and Wales.

Beef mince accounted for 50% of the total beef sold in Scotland in 2008 and 38% of the total value. For the final three months of the year, however, the amount bought fell by 6.6% although shoppers paid a fifth more for what they did buy. The price per kg rose by 28% from £3.80 to £4.87.

OTM cattle are not allowed into the Scotch Beef brand. This may account for some of the fall in the volume of beef mince sold north of the border in the final three months of 2008. Some supplies are hard to come by. Flanks of beef are in short supply, according to Douglas Scott of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders. The market for fillet steak has fallen away completely.

Robert Patrick, of Patricks of Camelon, Falkirk, says sales of mince at his shop have been static for the previous three months. Sales of sausages and steak pies are holding up, but he is not buying in extra fillet steaks, making do with those he can cut from the carcases he buys. He notes that the price of beef is increasing sharply, up £1/kg compared to this time last year.

Contrast Patrick’s mince sales with those in parts of England. Allan Bennett says mince sales have increased by 30-40% in the last three months at his butcher’s shop in Codsall, near Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. In particular, sales of lean mince have increased. “We’re selling a tremendous amount,” he says. “Mince sales tend to increase anyway in the winter and the recent cold snap has helped increase sales of it too. Customers prefer to buy mince at a small butcher’s shop, because they know it’s fresher. Pre-packed mince bought at supermarkets can be days old, but sometimes ours doesn’t stay on the tray for more than half an hour,” adds Bennett.

Another West Midlands butcher Keith Boxley says mince is a good seller this time of year anyway. “We’re finding that some customers are having cottage pie or lasagne for Sunday lunch, rather than a joint of meat.” In partnership with another butcher he has recently opened a new shop in Wollaston. “We’ve noticed that mince sales have increased and so have the sales of offal and brisket. People are looking at how much money they’ve got. Most of them don’t buy according to the weight of meat any more; they look for the total price. In buying a joint of beef or lamb, they don’t think they’re getting much for £10; mince seems much better value for them.” His new shop is selling three types of beef mince, as well as pork, lamb and turkey mince.



Supermarkets have been quick to adjust to shoppers’ demands. Some are selling a quarter more mince now than they did last summer.

Sales of mince at Asda have zoomed up by 26% in the last six months. In the main, this has been due to shoppers buying mince as an ingredient for Bolognese sauces and chilli con carne. Other meat items selling well in the recession include poultry, especially whole chickens, which are up 18%, and pork chops and minute steaks both up 16%. “Our three-for-£10 offer is helping push sales too,” says a spokeswoman.


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