Don't miss the boat

Although awareness of the different cuts and methods of cooking pork is growing, the multiples may be stealing a march on independent butchers in their promotion of the sector. Alyson Magee reports

The barbecue trade is booming - and customers are showing greater interest in welfare, lesser-known cuts and pork in general - but this year's pork revival masks a shaky trading year for independent butchers.

While total retail pork sales fell by 2.3% to 158,300t in the year to 17 May, volume sales through butchers fell by 17.5% to 14,700t (9.3%)*.

"This would suggest people are trading away from butchers," says AHDB category development manager Richard Cullen. "The number of butchers' shops is still declining, but the volume drop would suggest people are also buying more of their pork from within the multiple sector."

Butchers' value sales of pork, meanwhile, fell by 5.6% to 28.2m (3.6%) against a total retail market gain of 8.3% to 778.6m, driven by a 10.9% increase in the average retail price to 4.92/kg.

Alleviating the impact of butchers' lost volume sales somewhat was a steeper increase in average pricing for the independent sector; up 17.5% to 5.56/kg. "Butchers sell more of expensive cuts such as roasting joints," says Cullen, "but it is still quite a jump. They obviously haven't been doing the same sort of promotions as the multiples."

More recent data, for the 12 weeks to 17 May, paints an even bleaker picture for butchers, with volume trade down 19.5% and value sales dropping 5.3% year-on-year. Over the same period, total retail pork sales rose by 3.5% in volume and 11.5% in value, suggesting a shift in allegiance to the multiples for cost-conscious consumers, lured by supermarkets' meal deals and other promotions.

Pork prices are currently at a 13-year high, and continuing to rise, with butchers around the country reporting shortage of supply. Nevertheless, pork's relative affordability is boosting trade as consumers attempt to moderate the impact of food inflation on their weekly shop.

The multiples have been proactive in highlighting pork's affordability to consumers, with Marks & Spencer, for example, boosting its sales of pork roasting joints, mince and cuts through promotions. Supermarkets have also been quick off the mark in pushing lesser-known cuts, such as shoulder and hock, after they were recommended in the Jamie Oliver TV programme, Jamie Saves Our Bacon, aired at the beginning of 2009.

"With butchers' closer and more direct contact with shoppers, there is an opportunity to guide, advise and educate shoppers to try pork and to try different cuts, particularly for those tightening their purse strings," says Bill Thurston, managing director of Vion UK's pork unit. "There is a real opportunity for butchers here."

While only time will tell if the shifting market share marks a long-term trend or recession-driven blip, the independent trade is not unduly concerned. "There are pockets of the country where butchers are less happy, but the vast majority of shops are not complaining too much," says Scottish Federation of Meat Traders' Association chief executive Douglas Scott. "People are switching from eating out to eating in and there's not much sign of the recession; we haven't had people looking for jobs. Overall, it could be better, but it could be a lot worse." Favourable weather this year, after two poor summers, has also given Scottish butchers a welcome lift, with record sales reported over one good weekend in June.

National Federation of Meat & Food Traders (NFMFT) chief executive Graham Bidston concurs. "In general terms, butchers are not doing too badly," he says. "The weather is keeping them in business right now and more people are staying in the UK for their holidays."

Roasts prove popular

Pork sales across the whole retail sector highlight the cuts currently proving a hit with shoppers, led by shoulder roasts with volume sales rising by close to a quarter in the 12 weeks to 17 May. Over the same period, volume trade was up by 4.5% for leg roasts and 2.2% for chops and steaks, as consumers responded to pork's affordability in comparison to beef, lamb or even chicken fillets.

"It has always been the best value for money but there is more experimentation with it now," says Cullen. "People are doing more with it."

Butcher John Morrison, of HW Irvine in Blairgowrie, reports rising demand for pork loin, while at Ramsays of Carluke, the popularity of belly pork shows no signs of dissipating on the wholesale side.

"Every chef is doing it and every cookery book has a recipe for slow-cooked pork belly," says Andrew Ramsay. "But the most versatile cut for our shop is fillet. You can do kebabs, loin chops - the possibilities are endless. We like to use our imagination for the barbecue range with pork steaks and kebabs, flavoured and marinated bone-in and bone-out chops, escalopes, ribs and fillets."

Interest in lesser-known cuts has increased notably since the Jamie Oliver programme, says Ramsay, with demand rising for diced and minced pork. "We're putting minced shoulder in grill sticks and using marinated belly pork for heavy chops," he says. "We're trying to use as much of the pig as we can."

Demand has also increased for more unusual cuts from the catering trade, particularly cheek but also, for the first time in many years, ear, snout and even tail for use in terrines, says Ramsay.

Chinese is the flavour of choice for customers at Ramsays - where pork constitutes 65-70% of all meat sales - and the shop uses the Verstegen World Grill range.

Pork burgers and sausages are also a mainstay of the barbecue range, with Ramsays producing around 10 new recipes every week. "People like to vary what they buy week-to-week," says Ramsay.

Butchers hoping to boost pork sales should tailor promotions to their clientele, with AHDB's research suggesting that while ABC1s are still attracted by multi-buy offers, C2 and DEs have become more conscious of reducing their weekly spend and will look for discounts on single servings of meat.

Focus on provenance

The Jamie Oliver effect has also extended to provenance and welfare, with demand rising for free-range pork. Both HW Irvine and Ramsays source free-range pork from Pickersford farm in Fife. "We're trying to focus on free-range and it's going quite well at the minute," says Morrison. "People like to know where things come from, and are becoming more conscious of how pigs are raised."

All of Ramsays' pork is free-range and slaughtered at its own small abattoir. "The welfare angle is very important," says Ramsay. "It's a very good farm and the husbandry is second-to-none. Pigs are well looked after when they arrive here. We want happy animals; we don't want them stressed."

Newly appointed National Federation of Meat and Food Traders president Michael Ward also reports rising demand for free-range pork at his shop, Stables Family Butchers at Keighley in West Yorkshire. All his pork is sourced locally from West Yorkshire farmers via two wholesalers in the region. "We buy free-range when it's available, but they don't always have it year-round," says Ward.

BPEX has recently launched a new initiative aimed at boosting local sourcing of pork by catering butchers, creating a database of the 171 abattoirs in England slaughtering pigs.

Butchers can use the database to find abattoirs in their region that slaughter local pigs, and BPEX will help with the introductions if need be. "Many catering butchers didn't know where local pigs were being processed and have just been buying imports," says BPEX foodservice trade manager Tony Goodger. "Or often, caterers had an established relationship with a number of retail butchers and hadn't thought of finding a catering butcher they could source all their pork from in one go."

Catering butcher Browns of Rugby is seeing strong sales of premium, locally sourced Pakenham pork on the back of heavy promotions, says Goodger. "They are finding that although people are eating out less, when they do, it is generally for a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary and they tend to spend more," he says.

BPEX also recommends bringing chefs to local farms. "They find it really interesting and can relate more to what they're buying and be more adventurous with it," says Goodger.

Category update

Meanwhile, BPEX has just published a new foodservice category update, Eating Out on Pork and Sausages, which outlines high demand for pork, as well as its flexibility and affordability in the current financial climate.

The organisation is pushing for greater menu transparency, highlighting demand for locally sourced pork across the country and the potential premium attached to using its Quality Standard Mark (QSM) or the Red Tractor logo. Catering butchers have a role to play, says Goodger. "They should describe it better on their own listings," he says. "It is very much up to catering butchers to list the regional source, farming system etc on their buying list and then chefs are more likely to take interest and put it on their menus."

BPEX has also produced a new recipe booklet to come out in September, Pork - the Meat for All Seasons, featuring seasonal vegetables and salads teamed with different cuts. Taking inspiration from the great British menu concept, the menus were devised with six chefs, based around the regions of England. "The idea is to help chefs get the best out of pork and get them interested in it," says Goodger.

Also in September, a new booklet, Creative Lunchtimes - Sausages, will be published for schools.

BPEX's Pig Task Force is currently looking at public sector procurement, with the aim of gaining inclusion for welfare considerations and thus increasing uptake of British pork; EU rules prohibit any bias towards origin in public sector procurement. ?

* TNS data supplied by AHDB.

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Promotions boost pork awareness

BPEX has produced a new poster and leaflet campaign, the Pork Cuts Range, aimed at helping butchers make the most of the greater interest generated in pork cuts by the Jamie Oliver programme, Jamie Saves Our Bacon. "We're giving butchers a poster with 30 cuts on it, demonstrating just how versatile pork is," says BPEX butchery and product development manager Keith Fisher. "Pork is not just about chops and roasting joints, but a lot more, from rashers to quick cooking barbecue joints. Belly is under-used on the barbecue, but is very popular now, and consumers like trying something different. Ribs are 80-90% bone but it's the novelty and theatre of the experience that people enjoy. "What we are doing with this campaign is demonstrating the cuts and leaving it up to the independent retailers or customers to do what they want to do."

The campaign has proved popular with NFMFT president Michael Ward, who has been handing out the accompanying leaflets to customers of his West Yorkshire shop. "It lets the public appreciate what's available," he says. "The colour coding by different cooking methods is really useful, and appeals to younger people in particular."

A dedicated version of the pork cuts range chart has also been produced for caterers, "showing how to cook the different cuts to get the very best out of them", says BPEX foodservice trade manager Tony Goodger.

Meanwhile, BPEX is focusing attention on the clearer labelling campaign, developing its website for relaunch later this year and educating consumers on cooking pork properly. The campaign for clearer labelling of pork and pork products, 'No More Porkies', is rolling on, with continued consumer and trade PR activity, including radio interviews with BPEX home economist Clare Greenstreet. British pig hero Jimmy Doherty is spearheading a roadshow, which will use a similar approach to the Jamie Oliver TV programme, showing retail packs to consumers to raise their awareness of origin and proper labelling.

BPEX also hopes to launch a new version of its Quality Standard scheme soon, making it easier for butchers to come onboard. "Very few butchers have been able to participate in it, with cost a prohibitive factor," says BPEX consumer marketing manager Chris Lamb. "But there is major work under way to ease access for butchers and catering butchers."

Regardless of scheme membership, butchers should always highlight origin, says Lamb. "Where butchers know provenance, they should feature that, as it is a key issue for consumers right now.

"Pork is doing very well at the minute," adds Lamb. "It has always been a bit of a bridesmaid at the wedding but is stepping up to be the bride now. Consumers are ascribing values to it, being positive about it and it's the one thing where the recession is actually working in our favour."

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