Mince on the menu

Spaghetti bolognese is off the menu,” screamed the Daily Mail last September. The paper claimed that the price of 
value-tier mince had broken the “psychologically important” £1 barrier for the first time in two years, with a 25% increase in pack prices making family staple spaghetti bolognese “too expensive” for British families. 

The article was based on figures published in The Grocer magazine, which revealed that Sainsbury’s had increased the price of a 400g pack of Basics mince by 25%, to £1.20, Tesco had pushed up the price of a 500g pack of its own-label value mince by 25%, to £1.50, and Morrisons had increased the price of a 800g pack of its budget mince by 24.5% to £2.39.

The supermarkets blamed the price increases on rising beef wholesale prices and Mintec analyst Robert Miles warned that this trend could continue into 2012, with farmers changing their cattle-rearing cycles to mitigate feed costs.

At the time, meat industry experts denied that price increases would have a detrimental impact on mince sales. Peter Hardwick, head of trade development for Eblex, said that of all beef products, demand for mince was most resistant to price change. “It is a staple of many recipes and still remains relatively cheap,” he said. Hardwick pointed out that most proteins are seeing an upward trend in price, so beef mince remains an attractive purchase relative to other cuts of meat. “The other way of looking at this is what the price increases quoted might looks like per portion — possibly not more than about 5p — so perhaps not enough to significantly hit sales,” he said.

The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. Several months on, mince is certainly still on the menu: according to data from Kantar Worldpanel, the market value grew by 1.5% to £754.8m in the 52 weeks ending 27 November 2011. But the same data suggests a slight decline in volume sales, suggesting that this growth was driven by inflated prices. So were the Daily Mail soothsayers right in their predictions that price rises would threaten mince sales? Or is there something else going on?

Lamb mince in decline

A closer look at the data gives some clearer answers. Although overall mince volumes declined by 0.2%, this was driven primarily by reductions in sales of lamb mince. Volumes of lamb mince were down -20.5% in the 52 weeks ending 27 November 2011, leading to a -7.5% decrease in the total value of lamb mince, despite inflated prices. “As far as lamb is concerned, price has had a significant effect on all lamb purchases over the past 12 months,” explains Chris Leeman, retail project manager for Eblex, who points out that the price for lamb mince was on average £5.85/kg last year, compared to a £4.50/kg for beef mince and £4.65/kg for pork mince. “Lamb has become significantly more expensive than the other minces available,” he says.

The decline of lamb mince reflects a wider market trend, with many consumers switching from lamb to other proteins as a result of exceptionally high prices. A report released by Eblex in July last year suggests that these prices look set to continue “for the immediate future”, with tight global supply as a result of harsh weather in New Zealand during lambing and growing demand in the Far and Middle East.

Beef mince, on the other hand, has continued to grow despite the price increases seen back in September. Data from Kantar Worldpanel shows that volume sales were up 0.2% in the 52 weeks ending 27 November 2011, with value up 1.7% in the same period. 
It is tempting to attribute this growth to the recession — with mince one of the cheapest cuts available to cash-strapped consumers — but Leeman says it actually reflects a longer-term trend towards easy-cook meals and versatility.

According to statistics from Kantar Worldpanel, the value of beef mince has grown by a staggering 67% over the past six years (December 2005 to November 2011), while volume sales increased by 19% during the same period.
“The market for beef mince has been very strong in recent years, which has been predominantly driven by demand from consumers for quick and easy meals, particularly in the evenings,” says Leeman. “Beef or lamb mince can be used to create a wide range of dishes, including spaghetti bolognese, cottage/shepherd’s pie and jacket potatoes topped with chilli con carne, which all feature in the top 10 meals eaten in the home in the evening.”

With consumers switching away from lamb mince in the light of increasing prices, supermarkets have been quick to respond by implementing a range of promotional offers on beef mince to drive volume sales. The amount of beef mince sold on promotion increased from 39.5% in 2009, to 43.5% in 2011, with most promotional activity focused on Y for £X offers as opposed to buy-one-get-one-free, or straight price promotions. “And while the price of beef mince has increased slightly too, in comparison with other proteins — which have also seen an increase in price — beef mince continues to offer consumers very good value for money,” Leeman adds.

Retail perspective

Mince represents a very important part of supermarket beef offerings. The percentage share of beef mince sales compared to other cuts has continued to grow, with beef mince accounting for over half (50.3%) of all fresh beef volume sold, up from 43.2% in 2005. Laura Newbold, beef buyer for Asda, agrees that mince is a very important part of Asda’s beef business. “This is reflected in the fact that our market share in volume is 0.5% ahead of our total beef share,” she says.

Newbold admits that high beef prices have had some impact on sales across the category, but says she expects this will mean more consumers buying mince, rather than less. “I would expect sales to improve going into the new year, as customers trade into lower-priced products such as mince and burgers.”

According to data from Kantar Worldpanel, there have been reductions in premium mince, in healthy mince and in value mince, with standard mince now accounting for 70.5% of all beef mince sold.

However, Newbold says customers still want premium and healthy products. “There is a demand for premium mince products and we introduced an Extra Special mince in September this year, which is trading above our expectations,” she explains. “Lean mince takes nearly 75% of our total mince sales, so leaner mince is definitely at the front of our customers’ minds.”

Newbold says Asda’s new product development in beef mince has been centred around larger packs for large family meal occasions. However, added-value mince products, such as burgers and meatballs, are also important products for supermarkets. “Over the past two or three years, meatballs have shown quite big increases in sales,” says Leeman. “Consumers are buying the meatballs fresh and then cooking them with a jar or a packet of sauce, with some pasta or something like that.”

Of the retailers, Tesco dominates the mince market, with a 29.6% share. However, Sainsbury’s saw the fastest growth in retail sales last year, increasing share by 4.4% to make it the second-biggest mince retailer. The Co-operative, Asda and Morrisons saw some losses on mince sales, dropping 6.3%, 2.2% and 1.1% of their share of the market respectively. Interestingly, Waitrose and Iceland gained share, indicating growth at both the premium and budget ends of the sector.

Rise of the burger

Beef or lamb mince has always been a popular ingredient for the foodservice sector, with dishes such as lasagne, shepherd’s pie and chilli con carne mainstays of many foodservice menus. However, Hugh Judd, foodservice project manager for Eblex, says that while these dishes still form a huge part of business for the cost sector, such as schools and hospitals, they are becoming a rarity on pub and restaurant menus.

Thirty years ago, almost every foodservice establishment would have around five dishes on the menu that were all made from mince,” he says. “However, in recent years, chefs have tended to move away from carrying too many mince-based beef or lamb dishes on their menus. Instead, they are using it more creatively to make dishes that can add more value to their menus.”

Judd gives the example of the gourmet burger, which has become extremely popular in pubs and restaurants in recent years. “Chefs have moved away from ready-made burgers, to using fresh mince to make their own juicy home-made burgers,” he says. “When served in a good-quality bun with chips, a side salad and various toppings and sauces, a homemade burger meal will produce a dish that adds real value to the menu and satisfies discerning consumers.” Burgers are also easier to heat up and serve than traditional mince dishes, meaning that pubs can cut down on kitchen staff.

At the premium end of the restaurant market, mince is being used to produce rich man/poor man dishes, says Judd. “Trim is being minced up to make really good-quality mince, or ordinary mince is being used to create very niche mince dishes, such as individual cottage pies that will be served with a smaller portion of a prime cut,” he says. “This both 
keeps the plate cost down and adds interesting variety.”

Judd says that there has even been some move away from mince, with chefs looking at other ways to use cuts that are traditionally minced. “They will take cuts traditionally minced and they will braise them, slow-cook them and then shred them or pull them to make similar kinds of dishes,” he explains. Indeed, Eblex’s work on getting better value out of a carcase has focused on finding uses for cuts that are traditionally minced, such as the chuck. 

However, mince is not going to go 
away and Judd says there is a real opportunity for catering butchers to drive sales of beef and lamb mince by using them to make other dishes. “By encouraging chefs to reintroduce old favourites to the menu and adding value through the use of quality-assured beef and lamb, profit is there to be had,” he says. “Homemade lasagne, cottage or shepherd’s pie are all comforting dishes, which are still very popular in the cost sector and will go down really well 
with customers — especially on a cold winter’s day.”

Firm future

Looking to the future, it seems that beef mince will continue to dominate the market position it holds. If anything, rising beef prices are making mince more favourable compared to other cuts, and spaghetti bolognese looks set to stay on family tables in the year ahead. The future of lamb mince is less certain, with exceptionally high prices turning consumers off lamb altogether and towards cheaper beef mince. Perhaps, if the Daily Mail had predicted that shepherd’s pie was off the menu, it would have been closer to the truth.


Mince derogation

Processors are still waiting to learn whether the UK’s bid to obtain a derogation for the six-day limit for manufacturing mince will be successful.

The European Commission’s hygiene regulations currently state that no fresh red meat can be processed for mince after six days from slaughter, or three days for poultry. However, the UK industry argues that these limits are too restrictive and are based on Continental needs, where mince is used for dishes such as steak tartare and regulations only stipulate a holding temperature of 5˚C. UK processors tend to hang meat for longer and most store meat at 3˚C, reducing the risk of microbe growth.

The UK is alone in its opposition to the rules and has fought a long battle to obtain a derogation. 
“The Food Standards Agency (FSA) made an application towards the end of 2010 to the Commission for a removal of the time limit, which the Commission was open to and, as part of that, the UK committed to send in data and a report highlighting what the problems were and sending some evidence to support our current practice,” explains Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson, legislation and technical manager for the British Meat Processors Association. “An initial submission was made and we needed to send some data, so the FSA part-funded an industry/FSA research project. Industry has provided that data and the FSA is now in the process of looking at it. We are hoping that the submission will go some time this year.”

Once the submission has been entered, it is unclear exactly how long it will take for a decision to be made. “As far as we know it will have to go for an European Food Safety Authority opinion, which could take three months, or six, or it could even be shorter than that,” says Andoh-Kesson. “It is all subject to enough data being sent. We feel we have that, but it all needs to be looked at and analysed, with an interpretation given in the FSA research report.”

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