Pork to the future

With beef and lamb prices riding high, pork, which has long languished in the shadows of its red meat cousins, now has an opportunity to make some real gains in the mainstream. But is the butchery sector doing enough to maximise the opportunity?

According to Chris Lamb, head of consumer marketing at Bpex, pork is "going great guns" at the moment, with total pork sales climbing in value by 3.3% year-on-year and volume up 4.8% (Kantar Worldpanel 52 weeks to 16 May, 2010).

Within those figures, shoulder roasting joints and belly are the star performers, with shoulders up 25.9% in value and 41.9% in volume. Belly performance is slightly less stratospheric, with value up 11.9% and volume up 11.3%.

For some butchers, pork is proving to be a summer trade saviour. "To be honest, it's the only thing that's selling," says Yorkshire-based Brindon Addy. "We're well behind with lamb sales, due to the price, and we're a bit down on beef. But pork, we are up on."

But what is behind this success? Lamb says it is simple: "Of all the three red meats, its offering the best value and, within that again, shoulder and belly are even better value."

Having said that, some butchers are reporting that belly prices are firming. Brindon says belly is now one of the most expensive cuts and that shoulder cut sales appear to have peaked and are now falling away.

The success of those traditional cuts can be traced directly back to last year's Jamie Oliver programme, Jamie Saves our Bacon. Lamb says that galvanised the market for lesser-used cuts, particularly shoulder and belly. "Basically the Jamie Oliver programme gave consumers permission to purchase things like shoulder again and retailers permission to promote it. To use a cliché, it was once a distress sale, but it's now a proper sale again." In fact some wholesalers who traditionally stuck to loin and leg sales, recently introduced belly cuts and are enjoying strong sales as a result.

Shoulder sales have certainly climbed, helped mainly by the Jamie Oliver programme, but many butchers report sales have now fallen off. Brindon Addy says: "Following Jamie's show, shoulder pork was flying, but it has fallen back now." He adds that most of his shoulder meat is now going back into manufacturing.



Leg cuts suffer



The success of cuts such as belly and shoulder has had an impact on other products within the category, however, and leg cuts are suffering as consumers look for a slow roasted treat.

According to Kantar data, leg roasting joints have dropped by 8.7% in value and 10.1% in volume. Brindon agrees that the leg trade has fallen off: "Legs are the things that we're struggling with, but we're salting them and getting a good trade for ham and gammon."

Seasonality also has a big impact on consumption trends of course, says Roger Kelsey, who runs Roger Kelsey Traditional Butchers, in Brentwood, Essex. "At this time of year, it completely switches around due to the barbecue trade and it's the legs and loin going into sausages and the shoulder and belly for barbecues."

The potential disadvantage for fresh pork, when up against its red meat cousins, is its versatility, Roger points out. "Pork is a very versatile product it goes into manufacturing, bacon, barbecue products, roasts and so on. So the problem is that people tend to eat pork in different ways, either through ham sandwiches or pork sausages, and don't necessarily look for it as a roast."

Roger says that he has not noticed a particular uplift in pork sales due to high lamb and beef prices. He says it is mainly down to the way customers view the product. "I don't think pork is necessarily seen as an alternative or substitute for beef or lamb it's not particularly something people love or hate, and it's something they'll buy occasionally as a change."

He says pork tends to compete more with poultry meat products. "In the past we've found that if poultry prices rise, then we sell more pork. I think the category is more closely aligned with poultry than lamb or beef. In fact, the MLC used to market pork as an alternative to chicken."

Free-range and high-welfare products continue to prove a popular draw in the independent sector. Being able to offer locally sourced or higher-welfare products gives butchers a good story to offer their customers and allows them to differentiate themselves from their supermarket competitors.

However, following the recent recession, and the fact that times and money are tight, are we likely to see a shift away from premium varieties? Jimmy Butler, who runs Blythburgh Free Range Pork in Suffolk, does not think this is likely for some sectors: "We're not seeing any signs of people trading down from free range. The welfare story is still there people are still coming to us and are prepared to pay."

However, that is not necessarily the case for all categories: "There has been a certain amount of trading-down, which has affected organic pig production a totally different commodity and at a much higher premium than free range."

In fact, the price gap between free range and intensive is starting to look negligible, says Roger Kelsey: "We've seen prices on the wholesale sector between intensive and free range narrow lately." Roger says he switched his production over to completely free range around five or six years ago. However, the expected jump in sales failed to materialise: "We do free-range pork here and there's a steady demand for it. However, I thought that if I switched from intensive to free range I would see a real uplift in sales, for two reasons: because the price difference between intensive and free range is favourable; and the retail price for pork is less sensitive than beef or lamb.

"I thought the ingredients were there to do really well with it. I have seen something of an uplift, but in general I've just managed to maintain my sales on pork over the past five to six years."

And buying in premium pork means you are using premium products when it comes to your manufacturing as well, he points out. As a result, Roger says he is forced to add an even greater premium to his fresh cuts to make up the shortfall.

Yet according to suppliers, consumers are continuing to look for welfare-friendly pork and, with the supermarkets following consumer trends closely, butchers ignore those demands at their peril.



Political play



Speciality pork has even gained a political focus of late, with Defra minister Caroline Spelman recently announcing the news that the Gloucester Old Spot variety of pig had been given protected EU status. The breed has been given Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status, which highlights traditional character, either in composition or the means of production.

Pork is also a great opportunity for butchers looking to branch out into foodservice, with the perennial favourite the hog roast. And a prize-winning suggestion by East Anglian producer Alastair Butler could help butchers to boost sales of pork shoulders, both to foodservice outlets, but also through the retail trade.

Butler's suggestion was simple and netted him the £1,000 ABN Innovation Award at the British Pig and Poultry Fair back in May. He is calling on the industry to rebrand the pork shoulder as the hog roast joint. Butler says the concept of home-cooked hog-roast pork would be cheap and simple and would also help improve carcase balance.

Butler points out that most consumers are familiar with the concept of hog roasts and it carries many positive associations. He reckons the simplicity of its preparation would make it a winner with modern, time-pressed consumers and says the key is to implement the concept in the retail sector, before beginning to tackle the foodservice sector.

Bpex's Lamb agrees that an opportunity exists: "A smaller carvery outlet doesn't want a big thing, but they can do any size of rolled shoulder, cook it slowly, keep waste to a minimum and do good business with it. Everyone has a good impression of the hog roast, and that brings a direct association with it."

So, the opportunities for pork are wide and varied and now might be the time for butchers to start thinking a bit more seriously about how to sell it.

At the moment, their supermarket competitors are doing little to add value to the pork sector although a mooted Jamie Oliver range is in the offing so the opportunity for butchers to be seen to be driving real innovation and demand for pork is there.

If the sector moves quickly enough, they may even catch the supermarkets napping and be able to create a strong vibrant market, based on their pork offer.




BBQ bounty


Barbecue opportunities abound when it comes to pork and butchers need to make the most of the opportunity any good weather might provide.

The World Cup may well be all but over, but predictions were for good sales in butchers over the four-week period, with barbecue products to the fore.

According to Bpex, last summer, in spite of the disappointing weather, around 102m barbecues took place across the UK, with pork and sausages performing well.

Pork features at 35 million barbecue meal occasions, but sausages hold the top spot as the most popular meat, consumed at over half of all barbecue meals. Pork chops are also creeping up the popularity chart, having enjoyed a year-on-year increase of 38% in 2009 to feature at six million barbecue occasions.




Pork promo


Bpex is hoping to send sales of quality pork soaring this summer with promotional activity planned for the coming months.

Three separate campaigns have been developed to raise awareness of a range of easy-to-cook pork cuts, suitable for summer-eating occasions. Kicking off the activity was the launch, in June, of the Girls' Guide to Grilling. Fronted by Apprentice runner-up and television presenter Kate Walsh, the scheme was aiming to tie in with the football World Cup and focused on the idea of getting girls behind the barbecue, while their partners were glued to the television.

In August the campaign shifts to picnics, when Bpex plans to raise the profile that the role pork and pork products play at picnic occasions. The campaign will aim to have picnics renamed as 'Pignics'.

To top off the campaign, in late summer, the focus will shift to encouraging people to recreate their holiday moments, with pork dishes suitable for al fresco dining.

Underpinning this is a new Love Summer Love Pork recipe booklet, available online at www.lovepork.co.uk, with 18 recipes featuring pork, bacon, gammon and sausages. From Fruity Pork Kebabs to Sausage Lollipops, many of the recipes can be prepared in under 15 minutes and are suitable for picnics, barbecues or lighter summer meals.

Packs of postcard-size recipe cards and three A1 posters are being made available to independent butchers who apply to Bpex.




Levy proposal


Movements within the pig industry to double the levy paid for marketing could see increased promotional opportunities for the independent retail sector.

Pig farmers are currently creating a groundswell of support for the increase to the marketing levy paid to Bpex, which would enable the organisation to further develop marketing opportunities for pork.

Suffolk farmer Jimmy Butler is the man behind the campaign, and he is keen to see an increase in marketing of pork under the Red Tractor (RT) system. "The issue over increasing the levy is still very much alive. Of all the people who replied to a survey done by the National Pig Association, around 75% have come back positive."

However, Butler admits those figures do not represent 75% of the pig industry, and says there is still work to be done to persuade the larger pig farming operations to back the scheme.

But the benefits are there for the taking, he adds: "We're only talking about a levy of 1p/kg. If we can put the message across to the public about the benefits of RT pigs, and if that doesn't increase demand for RT pigs by 1p/kg then we'll have failed.

"There's £10bn-worth of RT product sold in the UK, with poor marketing. Just think what we could do if we educated the public."

Chris Lamb, head of consumer marketing at Bpex, notes that while the move to increase the levy is coming from industry, if there was enough support on the ground, Bpex would be happy to consider the move.

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