Backing bacon

Total sales of bacon have increased over the past recessionary year, with shoppers switching because it provides a cheaper meal than many other types of meat. Despite this, independent butchers have seen their market share of bacon sales decline, both in terms of the amount of money spent on the product and the amount sold. This is partly due to butcher's shop closures, but also because of aggressive promotions by supermarkets, which also have a much wider choice displayed. The one area where independent butchers continue to excel is in own-cured bacon.

Matthew Southam of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board's (AHDB's) Research & Insight Executive confirms that the amount of total bacon sold has increased by 3.3% in the past year, in line with a 3.7% increase in the number of total sausages sold. Both bacon and sausage sales have benefited from shoppers trading down from more expensive lamb and beef, which have fallen by 8.5% and 1.4% respectively, says Southam. The amount of pork sold has increased for the same reason.

High street butchers saw the spend on bacon decline by nearly 10% and the volume sold drop by an apparently massive 17.4% in the year to 21 February, according to research by Kantar Worldpanel. Prices rose by 9% during that period. The independents fared worse than the supermarkets, because of the supermarkets' promotional activity and the fact they have space to display a greater choice of products. "The supermarkets always put some of their pre-packed bacon on special promotion," says Southam, who adds that the fall in sales in the independent sector is probably distorted slightly by shop closures.

Independent butchers sold just over 8,500t of bacon, taking 50.7m, says Kantar. Just over half the amount traded was in the form of rashers, with joints and steaks coming a relatively poor second and third respectively. As a result, the butchers' share of the bacon market by volume fell from 5.4% to 4.3% in the year to 21 February.

The decline in market share could well be as a result of closures, as many independent butchers continue to trade well in bacon. Martyn Mottershead, who runs a butcher's shop at Weeping Cross, Stafford, said bacon was an important part of his business and was growing. This was partly because he was giving customers more options through his own cures. He produces sweet cures, dry cures and smoked bacons, as well as selling steaks and chops. "It has become a more versatile product that is used in pizzas and omelettes too," he said. While bacon proves to be a popular seller with all types of customers, he has noticed that older customers prefer thicker-cut slices while younger customers like their bacon sliced more thinly, so that it cooks crispier; so he prefers to cut it to order, rather than sell it pre-cut or pre-packed. Younger customers may prefer more thinly sliced bacon as they are used to that style of product in supermarkets.

Versatile use

Bacon is very much used as a meal for all occasions, according to the latest research, which may give butchers the opportunity to promote it more widely. While bacon rashers eaten at weekend breakfasts probably account, to a large extent, for the fact that weekends are nearly twice as popular as weekdays for eating bacon, its popularity as a lunchtime or evening meal item seems to be growing. It accounted for 755m breakfasts in the 12 months ending last November. It also formed the basis of 487m lunches and 567m evening meals in the same period.

Wholesaler Tican Chilled distributes Danish bacon. Trading director Jason Wilkie says sales are good and running to expectations. The trade is moving away from bone-in product to primals, and also to ready-sliced 5lb packs for greater convenience. Sales held up during the cold snap in January and February, as more people shopped with their local butcher. Prospects for the coming spring and summer depend on the weather, but if people again stay in Britain to holiday, then bacon sales are expected to do well, particularly with bed-and-breakfast businesses and small hotels buying supplies from butchers. Butchers can also expect good sales if they trade near campsites. The only growth area in the market though, says Wilkie, is in farm shops.

Bacon continues to be popular, perhaps because of the versatility in the way it can be eaten and its use with other foods. Pig meat is the single most popular meat eaten at home, with bacon accounting for a third of that consumption, according to facts released as part of the recent Bpex-backed Bacon Connoisseurs' Week.

Its versatility as a meat is underlined by the meal occasions where bacon is eaten and by the fact that its use as part of an evening meal has been on the rise since 2006, with 29% of bacon rashers now eaten in the evenings, rather than at breakfast. Bacon rashers are increasingly being consumed with onions, tomatoes, pasta and rice, suggesting they are being used more in dishes and home cooking. The healthy eating message seems to be having some impact, too, with 46% of people now grilling bacon and only 34% tending to fry.

Households do not want to be without bacon in the house apparently; there is usually some in the fridge and, according to MLC research carried out in 2005, even if people do not have a specific recipe in mind when they buy it, it is acknowledged that it will be eaten fairly quickly after purchase.

The north east is generally reckoned to be the bacon capital of England, according to research. People in Tyne Tees eat the most bacon, gammon and sausages each week around 33% more than the average shopper although the gap may have closed with the onset of the recession since the research was carried out.

quality products rise

Perhaps one of the most interesting trends, though, is that consumption of better-quality bacon is on the increase, with the premium sector showing good volume growth.

Weddel Swift Distribution north region director Andy Lea confirms this, saying the company has seen an increase in sales to the independent sector, as butchers have increasingly viewed bacon as a premium, rather than a value or commodity product. Weddel sells sliced bacon, whole bacon and a range of gammons to independent butchers. Shoppers are trading down to gammons for Sunday lunches, rather than more expensive beef or lamb items, he says.

Lea also confirms that the company sells pork loins that butchers use for curing, and the company's own dry-cured bacon products sell well into the independent sector.

He does not think the new voluntary Code of Practice (see panel) will impact on the company's business, as products are already clearly labelled with country-of-origin information.

Martin Blackwell, who trades in Norton near Stockton-on-Tees in Cleveland, buys in bacon from a wholesaler and agrees that people are trading up to premium products. "It's always the good stuff back bacon and dry-cured that sells," he says.

Bacon is a 1.1bn industry, with consumers buying 196,800t each year.

Research suggests shoppers are more decisive about buying bacon than any other protein, with seven out of 10 people having made the decision to buy even before they enter a store or shop; butchers might consider the implications of this for their marketing and display strategies for bacon.n

Cracking the Code

The growing versatility of bacon as a meal item comes as a voluntary Code of Practice to clarify where bacon originates comes into force. The Code, operational this month, is designed to make it clear on labels what the country of origin is for all pork and pork products.
Controversy over country of origin has raged in the UK agriculture and meat industries for a long time, with concerns that foreign bacon can be imported into the UK, further processed and then packed and labelled as British. Although primarily aimed at pre-packed bacon, it indicates that independent butchers signing up to the scheme should display country-of-origin information in close proximity to loose bacon. As well as being designed to make life easier for shoppers, the new Code should go some way to placating British pig farmers who have been up in arms over the issue for years.
Although the Code is designed mainly with big retailers in mind, independent butchers can sign up to it too by giving clear and unambiguous information about country of origin on packs of bacon, pork and ham. Companies adhering to the new Code have to commit to providing clear information with phrases such as 'produced in the UK using bacon from country X'.
National Federation of Meat & Food Traders director Graham Bidston says it would be up to individual butchers to judge whether to support the Code. While the Federation has always supported honest labelling and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) voluntary guidelines, he feels that country of origin is more of an issue for British farmers and Bpex, rather than for the public. Although not opposed to the introduction of the voluntary code, he says, there are some issues he has with it. "I would be very concerned if this Code were extended [beyond country of origin information]," he says, noting that the danger was that butchers could end up with a shop full of labels, many of which the customer would not read. He also wishes the Code had dealt with matters such as loose sales and sales to foodservice customers as separate issues, rather than lumping all the detail into just one set of guidelines.

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