Beef on the brink?
Every year nowadays seems to bring more bad news for British beef. Adam Baker looks into whether it is now on the edge and what that means for butchers
When the chairman of EBLEX writes in the first sentence of his foreword in a special report on the English beef industry that "the English beef industry is in trouble", it does not take an expert to figure out that something might be a bit awry.
Beef has been described as sleepwalking towards irretrievable decline and, as some interesting statistics show, the outlook for the UK beef industry does seem troubled. UK self-sufficiency in beef has fallen from 109% in 1995 to 80% in 2008, according to EBLEX, but on the other hand, beef consumption is 12% higher than it was in 1990.
Household purchases of fresh and frozen beef in England in the 12-week period ended 19 April 2009 was 59,600t, which was 4% lower than in the same period last year and there was a 13% increase in the average retail price, resulting in a 9% increase in total expenditure on beef to £362m.
The National Beef Association (NBA) is going further with the warning cries, saying: "Anyone taking an analytical look at the number of females being rushed into abattoirs has to conclude that the entire beef industry is in the process of eating itself."
Slow and steady decline this might be, but as EBLEX trade marketing manager Phil Davies points out: "There is nothing to say that, at some point, that may change."
Yet as cow supplies dry up quicker than a watering-hole in the Sahara, any glimpses into a dystopian future of butchers dumping British beef and becoming purveyors of the finest the Irish, Dutch or even the Germans have to offer in terms of bovine fare, are easily quashed by Davies. "There are very loyal supply chain links with suppliers," he says. "The impact will be minimal in the short- to medium-term. In truth, as prices move across Europe in a similar fashion, the trend is not specific to the UK."
As supplies in the field go down and prices rise on the shop counter, butchers may be scratching their heads over whether to go for the hard or soft option of premium or cheap cuts with their beef. But Davies sees it as a balance. "Butchers should constantly look at their range and offer both options," he says.
Davies notes that meat is only an ingredient to a meal - it is rarely eaten on its own - and therefore, butchers must constantly check unit pricing to assess what a meal is going to cost for a customer and reflect that in the price. It is just as important to have a range of low-priced cuts and Davies feels it is vital for staff to know what to recommend to customers. There is help on hand from EBLEX, which has various cutting guides, manuals, under-used cuts information and advice to give to consumers. A mass of information can be found at eblexretail.co.uk
Not all doom and gloom
Butchers have many options for sourcing beef if UK produce proves pricey, such as Australia or Ireland. But it seems that English and Scottish loyalty is still as strong as ever and that local beef is still important. "Apart from sausages, beef is our second-biggest seller in the shop - certainly last week where it made up 23% of our sales," says Rothbury Family Butchers proprietor Morris Adamson in Northumberland. "We hang our beef for 21 days and tell our customers that," he adds. "We get our meat from an abattoir 30 miles away, Whitby Bay Meat Supply Company, and we make sure the beef is from Northumberland or the north-east."
Morris sells rolled sirloin, rib of beef, topside and brisket and he has noticed that ribeye is becoming increasingly popular. Rothbury also makes a beef and black bean stir-fry and Morris says it is always good to give customers a variety and keep the shelves colourful.
Down in Oxfordshire, Patrick Strainge finds that, although pork meat is more important for his business, more beef is sold over the counter. "The reason is that beef goes on its own and it goes in pies, whereas pork is made into sausages and pork pies and we do bacon as well," says Patrick. "For the barbecue season, more burgers and sausages are sold, but there have been cutbacks on steak, which is down to price."
Patrick adds that his customer base covers a broad age range, but says that a fall in steak purchases could be due to his older customers being more careful with their money, with less income coming in from pensions and lost money on the stock exchange. "My two brothers produce a bit of beef: one has an abattoir on his farm, so that is zero miles travelled; and the other is a few miles away. I also get beef from friends who farm in the local area."
Patrick mainly uses his beef to make burgers for summer, but he has found that these drop off in popularity in the winter. Some of the beef is used for pies, such as steak and mushroom, and he also does a peppered steak, created from a cheap cut in the buttock of the cow with a pepper marinade, which he prepares in the summer but it also proves a good seller in the winter. Back up north, Cranstons MD Philip Cranston sees beef as one of the main staples in the fresh meat on offer in-store and it accounts for a big percentage of his company's fresh meat sales. He adds that sales have been similar this year compared to previous years and he will always source locally. "We get our beef locally in the Cumbrian and Northumberland area - all over the area from local farms." Philip adds that it has not been the best barbecue season, but says Cranstons has introduced a spicy chilli burger, which goes down well, and the company has won a Q Guild award for its beef roulade. "Beef is one of the mainstay sales," adds Philip, "sales are static but it's a competitive time and it's one of the more expensive meats."
Beef can be regional in popularity and the type of clientele in the area will define how much a butcher specialises in it. For example, butcher Graham Croucher in Sussex says: "Yes, we do beef but we are more famous for our sausages where we use pork. We not as prolific on beef and we get it from Jaspers in the West Country, which is not local at all."
Graham says that he does not like to waste too much; he finds that is the case when he buys a quarter of beef, as he gets a lot of waste from the fore-quarter. "Older people do not want to use a lot of fat, everything has to be lean. We do sell a bit of beef, but more pork and lamb."
He adds: "Bone-in isn't really our forte. It's a lot of years since I had a side of beef, but our customers aren't interested. We're very popular for good, lean, quality meat. Jaspers only supply Devon and Cornwall beef, naturally fed and traditionally bred, using suckler herds."
Eastwoods of Berkamsted's Joe Collier, meanwhile, sees beef as an important part of the business. "It is very popular for us and always has been. Beef sales are good." Joe gets his beef from Millers of Speyside in Scotland, which he reckons is the best source for beef. He buys grass-fed certified Aberdeen Angus and, sometimes, rare breeds. "A good seller for us is Côte de boeuf which is like a rib-eye beef on the bone with an Arkansas marinade, which is oil-based with paprika and garlic. It's our biggest beef seller and I recommend it for two at £13.08 per unit. People really do keep coming back to it. I originally did it for barbecues, but people have it for weekends when the weather is not that good." Joe also has organic beef options in the shop and, despite all the negative attention organic food has received recently, Joe is still a strong defender of the movement. "It's something I believe in. If someone can show me how eating pesticides is good for you, I'd like to see that. Quality should not be comprised."
On a national scale, one success story for EBLEX this year has been the increase in demand for lesser-known specialist steaks, following the launch of a specialist steak range to help deliver greater carcase balance. EBLEX reports that suppliers are seeing an increase in requests for cuts such as: flat iron steaks - a cut from the shoulder of a steer; bavettes, which are the French equivalent of a flank steak; and heel pavés. Created through a collaboration between EBLEX master butcher Dick van Leeuwen and master chef Pierre Koffmann, the range of twelve Quality Standard steaks aimed to provide more cost-effective alternatives to the likes of sirloin and fillet and were developed using seam-butchery techniques from under-used beef primals. "We have had positive feedback from all sectors of the industry about these steaks, and they are really making an impact on the profitability of the supply chain - from the processors and butchers, right up to the kitchen door," says van Leeuwen. "At a time when value, quality and consistency are equally vital, the Quality Standard speciality steak range really delivers."
EBLEX also adds that butchers are witnessing an increase in demand for beef offal, due to it being a nutritious source of food that is tasty and affordable. As consumers pay more attention to food prices, EBLEX reckons that offal can help keep shopping budgets down while still providing a meal that is flavoursome, tender and suitable for dining occasions. EBLEX's 'It's all about offal...' guide, gives advice on buying and storing offal, cooking and preparation methods, as well as tips and recipe ideas, and has been distributed through butchers' shops and regional newspapers. EBLEX has also teamed up with cookery writer Sophie Grigson to further promote the benefits of beef offal and, via recipes in magazines, butchers are also being encouraged to talk to customers about the plus points of offal.
The EBLEX Retail website is also updated every month with a 'Cut of the Month' for beef. This August the cut was escalopes and ranch steaks from the topside of a cow, which should be matured for a minimum of 14 days. The reference section includes a guide that recommends certain under-utilised cuts over an entire year and aims to help the industry maximise the opportunity to profit from these cuts when they are more likely to be in abundant supply. Van Leeuwen adds: "The 'cut of the month' reference section is a great way for butchers and chefs alike to find out which cuts are widely available at any given time. Step-by-step specifications from our Meat Purchasing Guide and Cutting Specification Manual are featured on the retail and foodservice websites, including the primal and cut name as well as a unique identifying code for each 'Cut of the Month'. Although the Manual and Guide are only available to Quality Standard scheme members, the specifications for the 'Cut of the Month' are available to anyone visiting the site, regardless of whether they are a scheme member.
"Pdfs of the specifications for beef are available to download, print and keep," adds Van Leeuwen. "So to take advantage of that, you'll have to remember to log on every month if you want to find out what the featured 'Cut of the Month' is."
For the summer months, when barbecuing season is in full swing, EBLEX recommends flat iron steaks and escalopes from the feather muscle and centre cut steaks from the thick flank. While this July and August may have been disappointing on the weather front, an Indian Summer could be on the cards. This could mean a run on beef dishes that you would not expect to sell well in September, October and, at a push, November. And that might just mean the outlook for sales of beef - and British beef in particular - is not that gloomy after all.
Butchers thinking about doing something different with their beef to catch a customer's eye and imagination cannot go far wrong with steaks - even those all the way from Africa. Last year, Ireland and the Netherlands were the top two countries supplying beef to the UK, but Namibia, situated on the south-east corner of the African continent, neighbouring Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe, was the third-largest importer last year, overtaking South American rivals Brazil and Uruguay. Meanwhile, nearby Botswana was the sixth-largest importer in 2008 and, with countries such as Kenya also ratcheting up their meat industry, African meat might become commonplace in the UK.
Distributor Dalziel supplies Namibian beef under the MeatCo brand to the UK. "As a major distributor for Meatco, butchers we have surveyed are extremely impressed with Namibian beef's consistent quality, tenderness and almost unique shelf-life," says Dalziel meat sales operation head David Whyatt. "It is always competitively priced against other major imported beef producers."
Allied Meat Importers, which imports beef from Botswana to the UK, also claims its beef has been adapted and selected to produce meat with a unique flavour, texture and delicious taste. Food for thought if prices get too much at home.
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