Raising the standard

Older than the ancient Greeks, sausages date back as far as the Sumerians - an ancient race that lived in Iraq some 5,000 years ago. Although briefly banned by the Catholic Church for their association with pagan festivals, sausages were very popular in Rome and rolled on to British shores around 400AD.

Since then, sausages have become a national obsession: 90% of Brits buy them and celebrity fans include Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Prince Charles. Last year, approximately 182,848 metric tonnes of sausage were consumed in the UK. Laid end to end, that would be enough sausages to form a wall four sausages high around the entire coastline of Great Britain.

For the last few years, the sausage market has been driven by a boom in the premium sector, with a focus on quality and provenance. Consumers have been piling their plates with rare-breed and free-range British sausages, blendedwith an array of exotic ingredients - such as chilli, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. In August, spend on premium sausages had increased by 12.7% year-on-year - driving the total value of the sausage market up by 6.2% on 2007 to an impressive £571m.

Recently, however, there have been some dramatic changes to the market. Over the last three months, the premium sector has completely flattened out and the standard sector has rocketed - increasing by 9.6% in value over the 12 weeks leading up to 7 September and driving total sausage spend up by 10.9% in that period. Defying the trend in all other meat categories, standard sausages are making their mark as the ultimate high-quality, affordable protein for British consumers.


Switching to standard

Richard Cullen, category manager at BPEX, says the premium sausage sector has flattened off after a period of sustained growth. "The market for premium is consolidating. High pork prices mean that the multiples are not discounting so heavily on premium lines and although those who have already traded up are continuing to buy premium, not as many people are trading up," he says.

Despite the 'credit crunch' and heavy discounts on economy lines offered by multiples such as Asda and Morrisons, economy sales have continued their decline - dropping 11.1% in the year leading up to August 2008 and 14% in the last 12 weeks. "Retailers have offered quite aggressive discounts on economy sausages as a result of the economic situation, but it didn't seem to have affected purchasing habits too much - sales of economy sausages are still down year-on-year," comments Cullen.

When it comes to sausages, consumers are switching to standard. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of the meat industry, where standard lines are losing out to premium and economy.

Cullen thinks that this can be explained by the fact that consumers are switching off ready meals in a bid to reduce their overall shopping bills. "Sausages are a good alternative - they are quick and easy to cook and a fairly cheap way to get protein on the dinner table," he says. "People are choosing standard rather than economy, because they are being eaten as a main meal by the whole family, rather than just for breakfast or by the kids for tea."


Best of British

The boom in sales of standard sausages has led to rejuvenation and new product development in the sector. Wall's - a brand that commands 8% of the British sausage market and is a mainstay of standard ranges in most multiples - has been completely overhauled by Kerry Foods in a bid to meet consumer demand for "meatier, tastier and more succulent" sausages.

"Following extensive research on what consumers think about our sausages and how they consume them, we decided that we needed to rejuvenate the Wall's brand, with a new pack design and recipe," says Mark Brown, marketing manager for the Wall's brand at Kerry Foods.

The entire Wall's range has been reformulated, with new recipes that use "only the two finest cuts of pork" - the shoulder for tenderness and the belly for taste - although Brown admits, "We have always used shoulder and belly in our sausages, we have just never really shouted about it."

The salt and fat content of the sausages has been also been reduced, although health is not a major factor when it comes to sausage purchases. "Health is always a fine line, because consumers buy sausages for taste, but, at the same time, we have a responsibility and commitment across all our brands at Kerry to reduce our salt and fat according to FSA guidelines," says Brown.

Butchers-style brown paper packs will replace the current packaging, in order to achieve a product that "looks and feels more natural".

Brown believes that, despite its phenomenal growth to date, the premium end of the market has perhaps "reached its ceiling" in terms of consumer share. He is confident that standard brands, such as Richmond and Wall's, will continue to dominate the market.

"Wall's and Richmond are successful because they are affordable, but we have a good consistent product quality," he says. "There is also a lot of heritage behind the brands, both have been around for a very long time and consumers trust them as a result."


Foodservice favourites

Sausages are not just thriving in the retail sector. Sausage and mash is currently the fourth most common menu item in foodservice establishments and sausage's overall share of the menu (based on the menus from 100 leading brands) increased from 11.6% in July 2007 to 12.3% in July 2008.

"This is partly down to the credit crunch - menu development managers have to look at the profit margins of each dish and sausages have good price potential compared to dishes such as steak," says Tony Goodger, trade sector manager of foodservice at BPEX. "Sausage and mash will always sell - it is a great, affordable comfort food."

Goodger says that although there has been some investment in different flavours of mash and gravy, the foodservice market has been slow to premiumise the sausages themselves.

He points out that while there is a lot of innovation - with manufacturers producing sausages made from rare-breed and free-range pork, using premium ingredients such as acacia honey, most menus are still relying on Traditional Pork or Pork & Leek sausages. "That said, there some great examples of different flavour profiles available - such as a Pork, Chive and Caerphilly Cheese Sausages - but they don't appear to have become mainstream yet," he says.

Entries to this year's Foodservice Sausage of the Year awards have demonstrated the innovation present among catering butchers and small-scale manufacturers, but Goodger says more must be done to encourage foodservice establishments to buy sausages with different flavour profiles.

While manufacturers are encouraged to innovate, care must be taken not to add ingredients that push up the overall cost of the sausage significantly. "Chefs need to be a bit wary when premiumising sausages - there is a ceiling that consumers will be willing to pay," he says. "You don't want sausages to be more expensive than chicken or steak - research shows consumers expect to pay the same for a sausage meal as for a pasta dish."

Health is an important factor in foodservice, especially when it comes to catering in hospitals |and schools. In the school meals market, low-fat and low-salt sausages are really coming to the fore, as school meal guidelines tighten on the frequency with which sausages can be served. "Hand on heart, the general quality of sausages in school meals was poor two years ago," reflects Goodger, "But the school meals market had to develop quickly as a result of bad press and manufacturers responded efficiently, producing a range of lower-fat and reduced salt sausages to suit the market."


Heart of the matter

With consumers eating more frequently at home and steering away from pricey ready meals, sausages have nothing to fear from the dreaded credit crunch, but manufacturers should not rest on their laurels - innovation is key to keeping up with changing consumer demands.

"Sausage manufacturers are not just competing among ourselves; we are competing against pizzas, chicken nuggets and other things available to mums and dads," Brown says. "We have to look at ways that we can extend the category and the market and look at ways to add value to sausages."

New product development is also important in foodservice. "I would like to see a better range of flavours, with innovation from different herbs and spices," says Goodger. "We need to promote a bigger variety of sausage dishes - not just sausage and mash and toad in the hole - but sausages used as a base ingredient for dishes such as pies and casseroles."

As long as sausage manufacturers stay on top of their game, the category looks set to continue its meteoric rise. Cheap, tasty and easy to cook, sausages will always have a place in the heart of the British nation.

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