The demand for organic poultry is providing butchers with a welcome trade boost, says Becca Wilkins

The desire for organic and free-range poultry is swelling sales at independent butcher shops after a period of steep decline and strong competition from the major multiples.

Statistics from TNS Worldpanel show that during the last year, the independent sector has turned a corner with consumers spending £93.6m on fresh poultry in the 52 weeks to 9 October 2005 in butcher's shops and spending £95.2m during the same period in 2006 - an increase of 1.7%. The total consumer spend on frozen poultry sold in independent butchers during the same period in 2005 came to £5m, increasing to £5.17m in 2006 - a rise of 2.2%, year-on-year.

In the same period, figures from TNS show that while consumer spend on fresh poultry has increased year-on-year by 1% within the major multiples, from £1.12bn to £1.13bn, the total spend on frozen poultry has decreased by -7.4%, from £180.8m to £167.4m.

Consumer spend in the entire fresh poultry market (independent butchers and major multiples combined) increased by 0.9%, from a figure of £1.293bn to £1.305bn. However, consumers spent less on frozen poultry in 2006 compared to 2005, decreasing by -6.8% from £188m to £175.9m.

Ed Macdonald of TNS Worldpanel says: "Butcher's share of the UK poultry market has been in long term steep decline, driven by heavy promotion in the major multiples. Butcher's performance has stabilised in the last two years as consumers have increasingly looked for higher quality organic and free range poultry and better animal welfare."

John Richardson, of Richardson's Fine Foods in Buckinghamshire, sells a wide range of poultry from game to French imported birds and English free-range chickens.

Richardson says: "People aren't over worried about price, they are more and more concerned about where poultry is coming from. This has developed over the last 10 years and it's a trend in the meat trade generally."

The British Poultry Council's (BPC) senior executive officer, Richard Griffiths, says the British poultry market is currently steady and although it was knocked financially by AI this year (mainly through the need to heavily promote products), it still has the prospect of having to deal with further AI incidents. But retail sales have remained solid with UK production not dropping, he says.

Griffiths adds: "On the retail side the last three years (52 weeks to October) have seen sales of £3.39bn in 2004, £3.47bn in 2005, and £3.41bn in 2006.

"Given the negative issues the poultry industry has had to deal with over the last year only a 2% decrease means that the market has held up quite well."

He says the smaller poultry markets have continued to expand, including free range and organic, which is currently growing its share of the total poultry market by 1% to 1.5% a year.

Griffiths says: "At the moment it accounts for around 5% of the total poultry market.

"We expect goose to also increase in>> >> interest due to the attention now being paid to traditional and specialist foods, but as it's a niche Christmas market and we won't know figures for a while."

The independent butchery sector currently represents 8% of turnover in terms of direct sales to butchers, for Scottish firm and family-owned Mitchells Chickens.

"Indirectly, the figure is in fact larger due to the fact that we supply many much larger wholesalers who then distribute in smaller lots to butchers also," Mike Mitchell, one of the three brothers and company directors says.

He adds that demand for their products throughout this sector remains buoyant as butchers look for home grown products to give them a point of difference from the larger retailers.

Mitchell says that the butchers selling the greatest volume of chicken are the ones with the most creativity, adding: "Value is added in many ways, cooking in store, marinading, stuffing thighs or fillets and so on. Boneless products are still the biggest sellers although recently the whole bird for roasting appears to be making a comeback."

Research conducted for British Chicken Marketing, a campaign launched in 2004 in order to create a brand for Great British Chicken and push the positives for home-grown production, shows that British consumers strongly want to buy British. A spokeswoman for the campaign says origin has become "increasingly important" over the past year.

Campaign organisers for British Chicken are keen to entice more butchers to get involved in an event called Roast a Great British Chicken Weekend, planned for March next year. This event will encourage butchers and retailers to sell Red Tractor labelled (British) chicken - a point of difference which is becoming increasingly relevant according to recent MORI research, which reveals that more people, (20%) are actively looking for the Red Tractor when buying chicken, compared to 18% in 2004.

BCM chairman, Charles Bournes, says the campaign needed to continue to drum home its educational messages to enable consumers to make informed choices about the chicken they bought.

Griffiths says: "Overall poultry accounts for 49.1% of the meat eaten in this country - so one in two meals containing meat are poultry (of which chicken is 42.9% on its own). It's already a favourite with the consumer."

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