Bacon holds its own

Despite the recession, the British love affair with bacon continues, with butchers acting quickly to
follow up on any clear trends. Alyson Magee reports

Sales of bacon through independent butchers are holding out relatively well, with recession, health concerns and supply issues failing to quell British consumers’ love affair with their breakfast or BLT favourite. Although volume sales through butchers have taken a small hit, value returns for both rashers and all bacon have risen by 12% and 8% respectively, year-on-year, on the back of improved pricing.

To put butchers’ sales in context, total retail sales of bacon climbed 12% to a value of £1.2bn in the year to 22 February, according to TNS Worldpanel*, of which butchers accounted for £58.8m (5%).

Total retail volumes of bacon, however, rose by only 0.5% to 196,051 tonnes, while butchers’ sales fell by 3% to 10,725t (5.3%), highlighting the impact of dwindling supply across Europe on pricing.

Across the retail sector, bacon chops took the biggest hit in volume sales, albeit from a very small base, while rashers – constituting around three-quarters of total sales – also posted a small decrease. Volume gains, meanwhile, emerged for bacon steaks and, to a lesser extent, joints.

Tight supply

Producer prices rose by 17% year-on-year to 126.3p/kg in 2008, reaching the highest average since 1996, while retail prices were up 6% to 633p/kg last year, and have since climbed to 666p/kg in February 2009. Factors contributing to the high prices currently prevailing include shortages in both domestic supply and imports, the latter exacerbated by a weakened sterling. Imports totalled 289,000t in 2008, a 4% year-on-year increase.

British bacon production fell from 196,600t in 2007 to 178,700t last year, and is forecast to drop further to 168,000t in 2009**.

However, signs are emerging of a turnaround in the fortunes of the beleaguered British pig industry, according to Tony Fowler, senior economic analyst at the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Breeding sow numbers in England – the biggest producer by far – climbed by 4% between June and December 2008 to 354,000 head, on the back of lower feed costs and higher prices. “It’s a little bit surprising how quickly producers have responded to that,” says Fowler.

Nonetheless, clean pig slaughtering totalled 9.083m head in 2008, down by around 2% year-on-year, as a result of previous declines in the breeding herd and farm backlogs created by FMD-related restrictions. Despite some gains in sow productivity, slaughtering is forecast to fall to 8.75m in 2009.
Recession impact

As a whole, bacon is faring much better than many other proteins, as consumers curb their spending in the economic downturn. “The recession has impacted sales of premium products,” says Sophie Colquhoun, Tulip’s group marketing director. “However, the tier has not shown the dramatic decline that many predicted; it’s more of a slowing of growth”.

Negative press over bacon’s salt content and possible cancer links has also failed to put any significant dent in bacon sales. “People are busy working all week and they like to have bacon as a little reward at the weekend,” says butcher John Buckwell. “It’s a Saturday treat.”

There is no evidence of either cutting back or trading down at Buckwells Butchers of Southsea, Portsmouth, where bacon sales are buoyant and green back rashers are the best-selling line.

Buckwells’ only competition is a Waitrose with a small butchery counter; there are no discounters in its immediate locality. “Our customers are Waitrose shoppers, but still come to us for personal service and attention,” says Buckwell. “There is a great buzz in the shop at the weekend.”

Having previously encountered problems with inconsistency, Buckwells switched last year to dry cured bacon, bought in sliced from Poole-based wholesaler DB Foods. Customers were initially sceptical of the smaller rashers produced through dry curing, as they are not pumped up with water, but soon came around to the superior product.

Rashers are the same size from top to bottom, and don’t produce the white slime coming out of cheap bacon, says Buckwell, who stocks British and Dutch smoked and green back rashers, smoked and unsmoked streaky bacon, bacon hocks and Danish horseshoe gammons.

Bacon sales are also holding up north of the border, according to John Saunderson, High Class Family Butcher of Edinburgh, with no evidence of customers trading down to cheaper cuts. “We just put it out on trays and it sells itself,” says Saunderson, who buys in pre-sliced bacon from Rick Stein Food Hero Ramsay of Carluke, as well as a side of each cut for customers preferring rashers cut to a specified thickness in-store.

Smoked and unsmoked back rashers are the best-sellers, while Saunderson also stocks smoked and unsmoked streaky bacon, and Ayrshire middle and unsmoked gammon. “We try to buy everything as local as we can – Scottish if possible and of good quality,” he says.


Customers have shown greater interest in the provenance of meat and animal welfare since the Jamie Saves Our Bacon TV programme was screened on C4, says Saunderson, who distributes leaflets highlighting Ramsay’s traditional Ayrshire cures, produced from outdoor-reared Scottish pigs.

Robert Smith, communications controller for the Vion Food Group, which supplies both Dutch and British bacon into the UK market following its acquisition of Grampian last year, believes the campaign’s impact was muted by limited follow-up in the media after it was screened, with all the attention focused on the run-up. The Danish Bacon & Meat Council, meanwhile, claims its research suggests the purchasing intentions of British consumers are unaffected by the ‘pro-British’ stance taken in the Jamie Oliver programme.

BPEX is pushing for greater recognition of provenance in foodservice. Independent pubs are among the few catering outlets still shopping at their local butchers and buying bacon and pork with the Quality Standard Mark, according to Tony Goodger, BPEX foodservice trade manager. “We need to encourage chefs to value bacon more, and show them how to get returns for their investment,” he says.

The pig industry body is urging butchers and catering butchers to contact regional food groups with the aim of sourcing bacon locally, taking links out of the supply chain and making it more competitive.


Quality will out

“There is a role for independents,” says Nick Trott, production manager of the Dukeshill Ham Company. “If you can market yourself well and supply a good quality product, you’ll do well.”

Winner of the Independent Retailer category in the recent Britain’s Connoisseur Bacon competition with its Wiltshire Cure Back Bacon, Telford-based Dukeshill supplies its traditionally produced bacon largely through mail order and to upmarket food shops, including Fortnum & Mason and Harrods.

The competition was part of BPEX’s Bacon Connoisseurs’ Week (BCW), and recognised Dukeshill’s Wiltshire Cure for its good meaty texture and versatility for any meal occasion. “You need a very good quality British product to start with,” says Trott, “and then it’s about care and attention, not cutting any corners.

“Dukeshill is very much looking to produce bacon from old-fashioned, traditional methods, using traditional recipes and dry cures, which take time and care.” Its curing and drying processes can take up to two weeks.

On average, the company buys in 50-100 backs and 50 sides of streaky bacon per week; resulting in production of 200-300kg per week, including both sliced bacon and chops.

Bacon sales have grown over recent years, says Trott, with Dukeshill having started out with a small trade in middle bacon. “We are thinking of relaunching an old-style middle bacon with more fat on it,” he says. While back and streaky are its main business now, people are beginning to ask for middle again.

Shropshire Black is a new addition, inspired by a well-established Dukeshill ham. The new bacon line is a dry cure, immersed in a marinade of molasses, coriander, black pepper and juniper, then air cured and sliced. “It is quite a deep-flavoured bacon,” says Trott, “not how you would expect a bacon to taste.”

Referring to the Jamie Oliver effect, Trott says: “It is something the public has latched on to, but we have always sourced British and our customers know we use British pork so we’re not going to notice any greater demand. However, from talking to others, it has had an impact.” 

* TNS Worldpanel data supplied by AHDB
** Figures for total production going into retail and foodservice

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