Mince matters

At the start of the last decade it is fair to say that mince had a bad reputation with the consumer, albeit one of perception rather than sales. The film Supersize Me and the book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser had made a huge impact on people's impressions of the product, mainly based on what a certain fast food giant put in its burgers at that time.

But, fast-forward to 2011 and things have changed. Thanks to the recession and a whole back to basics, we are all in it together mentality, the product has witnessed something of a revival. Even Jamie Oliver has recipes that use mince beef on his website, proving the whipping that was once de rigueur in some circles has abated and even McDonald's escapes the bashing with which it used to be regularly assaulted.

Recent figures compiled by TNS/Kantar show that mince is performing well. Year-on-year sales for the 52 weeks to the end of November 2010 improved by 4.6% up from an already impressive 658m in 2009 to 688m. Volumes increased too, up 3.7% from 146m kg sold in 2009 to 152m kg in 2010.

For analyst Stephen Lavery, from Kantar Worldpanel, the reason was clear: "Mince sales received a boost in 2010 from supermarket promotions. These two-for-5 or three-for-10 deals proved to be really popular with the consumer," he says. "What's more, we saw an increase in what we call trip volume. People were purchasing more packets of mince when they bought it than in years gone by. Again, this was because of multiple promotions by larger supermarkets."

However, he warns that despite another increase in sales of mince since the latest data was compiled, sales could flatten off in 2011. "We could see trip volume decline as fatigue from promotions or the sheer number of promotions falls as we move into 2011," he explains. "The question is whether or not the supermarkets continue with the heavy promoting they have been doing."

positive story

The positive sales story of mince is echoed by Vion one of the UK's largest food manufacturers. Robert Smith, group communications controller at Vion UK, says: "Mince sales have performed well across the board in 2010 and that is the case for Vion as well. Another positive, certainly from our point of view has been a slight return towards the premium end of things."

Much has been said about the versatility of mince for recipe ideas. Already a firm favourite in shepherd's pie, cottage pie and lasagne, consumers at home are now experimenting, adding lamb mince to dishes, creating their own moussaka or using pork mince for their own homemade Oriental dim sum. To this end, one of the rising stars of the mince market is lamb. Sales of the product jumped by 8.2%, from 34.5m in 2009 to 37.3m in 2010 as supermarkets strived to move the product to the premier end of the scale. Year-on-year volumes improved only slightly, by 0.7%, but lamb did improve its market share in sales by 3.5%.

For Tom Harvey, a buyer at Sainsbury's, mince, and beef in particular, is unlikely to lose its enduring quality. "Customers see mince as a staple product. They will often buy it from us without a clear idea of exactly what they will cook with it or when they will use it, but they always want to have a pack in the fridge or freezer because it's so convenient to cook with," he explains. "Most housewives only know six recipes that they rotate each week and four of these recipes use mince."

Unlike retailers in different sectors, the weather does not seem to have a negative impact on mince sales. Instead, the reverse is true as consumers turn to comfort staples. Sainsbury's, for one, has seen an increase in sales. "Customers have certainly been buying in greater quantities, but this is more a factor of the weather we have experienced rather than any sort of trading-down from premium cuts of beef. The colder the weather we have, the more mince we sell. I'm about the only person on the Sainsbury's trading floor who gets really excited when the forecaster says that its non-stop rain, sleet and snow for weeks on end!" adds Harvey.

As a result, Sainsbury's saw sales of mince in excess of 110m during 2010, making the product an important part of its business and "significantly ahead of the market", according to Harvey.

Unsurprisingly, supermarkets rule the roost when it comes to amount of mince sold. The latest figures for 2010 reveal that the multiples sold 90.4% of all beef mince in the past 12 months, smaller independent chains accounted for 0.2% and other non grocer outlets sold 9.4%.

For Asda, too, mince remains a key product, as Laura Newbold, a beef buyer at the retailer explains. "Mince is a core basket category for our customers," she says. "It's an extremely versatile product, which is quick and convenient for mid-week meals. Mince remains an over-trade category for us at 19.2% market share versus meat share at 14.7%. We pride ourselves on fantastic quality and as testament to that, lean steak mince remains our number one selling line in the mince category."

What is more, Asda continues to develop products to utilise the meat. Newbold adds: "While NPD in the mince category is limited, burgers and meatball sales continue to go from strength to strength as does the innovation. We've got some great new products coming through for the summer. Meatballs have continued to really drive the category sales, as they become more fashionable with customers .

"Following this trend we've launched some great NPD in this range, including Extra Special Thai Pork Meatballs. Customers are definitely thinking about burgers and meatballs more as a mid-week tea and the grillsteak category again has seen some great developments in terms of flavour profiles. Late last year we launched an Extra Special Chinese Pork Grillsteak; the herbs and spices in the recipe come from authentic supply and it uses 100% British pork."

Despite the dominance of the supermarkets, the product is still a "must-have" for high street butchers, according to Roger Kelsey, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders (NFMFT). For Kelsey, customers turn to their butchers when they want to buy a better quality of mince, but it is the versatility of mince and the variety of different categories that keeps people coming back to it. "Mince is absolutely vital to the butchers and one of the main factors is that it allows them to use more of a carcase," he says. "Many butchers will offer a range of minces, using different cuts and different qualities and people pay the price according to that. It is also popular with a lot of younger people, because it is relatively quick to cook, and children find it easy to eat as well. Indeed, for many, it is their first taste of meat."

This is an opinion that is echoed by Douglas Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association (SFMTA). "Customers know that if you want the best mince, then the best place to get it from is a butchers," he says. "The product is hugely important to us. Although I do have to question the figures for the amount of mince sold by the supermarkets."

Interestingly, Kelsey also points out that when supermarkets put up the prices of their mince as was the case with beef in 2008 butchers actually see an increase in trade. "People see that the price has gone up at the supermarket and think they might as well buy it at their butcher's and choose to get a slightly better quality. That said, you cannot ignore the fact they [supermarkets] are getting better with the quality of their meat. The supermarkets also use mince to a great extent in their promotions and buy-one-get-one-free or BOGOF deals. This is a technique that the butcher can use as well it's a very good tool for the industry," he adds.

The quality of mince and variations across the country made headline news last August, after a Local Government Authority (LGA) slammed the levels of fat content and misleading product information. The study found a variation in mince fat content from 1.8% to 33.6%. The organisation suggested that consumers "faced a lottery" when it came to buying minced beef.

The report led to a spat with Asda, which called on the LGA to release more details on the products it tested and suggested the tests were not consistent across all local authorities. At the time, a spokesman for Asda said: "In our own tests, our minced beef conforms to the fat content guidelines as set by the LGA."

For Harvey at Sainsbury's, it is important that the retailer stocks a range of products for a range of different customers. The retailer has chosen not to dictate to its customers what style of mince they should eat. "We stock a range of mince products with a broad spectrum of price points and fat contents, which are all very clearly labelled to help customers make an informed choice on what they are buying and choose the product that best suits their personal requirements," he explains.

"We're proud of the fact that many of our mince products have the lowest fat content within their tiers of any supermarket and we're also delighted to see that, following a recent Trading Standards investigation, we were one of only a minority of multiple retailers whose fat content was in line with the published information on the label."

Kelsey says: "The problem lies in what is the difference between the categories? What is the difference between an economy mince, a premium or an extra lean mince. Some quarters want this difference to be categorised, so that premium has, for example, a 10% fat content, extra lean has around 15% and economy is no more than 20%. The difficulty with that, of course, is that it is difficult to achieve.

"Plus, at a butcher's, sometimes people come in and ask for a fatty mince, because they are making a pt or a sauce for example."

Smith at Vion believes that the supermarkets have done a good job in catering for all tastes. However, he argues that more should be done by the whole of the industry to move towards clearer labelling. "Certainly there is work to be done by all parties on this issue, so that consumers know what they are buying when it comes to mince," he adds.

Because of its perceived high fat content in some quarters, it seems health is one of the major issues for the consumer when it comes to buying mince.

Splitting mince into categories including branded, economy, healthy, premium and standard there is one clear winner when it comes to the latest data from TNS/Kantar and that is health. That category saw a 6.6% increase in year-on-year sales in 2010 and, at the same time, experienced an 11% jump in the volume sold during the year too, suggesting the sales growth was not just down to increased prices.

Remarkably, considering the UK is still in the grip of a recession, the economy category did not fare as well as most commentators thought it would. Sales in 2010 dipped by -1.7% to 63m and its year-on-year volume also declined by 4.4%. According to most commentators, it would appear that those who had previously been tempted by value mince have already been converted and there is little scope for growth in these categories.

Branded mince and the premium category were the worst-hit products. The value of branded sales slumped by 8.4% in 2010 to 7.8m and the volume sold also dropped considerably by 12.4%.Premium mince achieved sales worth 40.9m last year a drop of 5.6% on 2009 and an 8.8% tumble in the volume sold.

After healthy mince, it was standard that was the next best-performing category. Sales increased by 5.7% to 586m and volumes also grew by 4.4%.

But, according to Lavery, from Kantar Worldpanel, the trends in mince buying in the past year could have been distorted because of the number of supermarket promotions. "It would be wrong to think that such-and-such a category is benefiting or suffering because of the recession. In 2010, the consumer has been swayed by promotions. If healthy mince or standard mince has been on promotion, that is what they have bought," he explains.

Legislative shadow

Unfortunately, UK mince production still lies in the shadow of planned EU legislation. Meat Trades Journal has previously reported on the proposed six-day limit for manufacturing mince. The time limits for meat production are set by the European Commission and specified in its hygiene regulations. These rules include three days for poultry and 15 days for vacuum-packed beef and veal and the UK is currently locked in talks to obtain a derogation from the six-day rule for mince.

Those discussions to get a pass on the matter are still ongoing. As Peter Hewson, a consultant to the NFMFT, explains, the six-day limit is not needed in the UK. "Making mince in Europe is a different process and they have a tradition of dishes like steak tartare. We have a tradition of hanging beef for longer. The plus point is that the FSA recognises this and is working in favour of the industry to make sure we are not covered by this legislation."

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