Christmas feature: Cracking Christmas

While turkey is still viewed as the Christmas hero, consumer demand is always evolving and butchers need to keep up with the trends. 

According to research firm Kantar Worldpanel, total sales of turkey for the 12 weeks ending 4 January 2015 saw a growth in volume of 3.2%, compared to the same period last year. However, fresh turkey products experienced minimal growth at just 0.4%. Furthermore, the amount spent on fresh turkey declined by 1.7%. Despite these figures, the market remains optimistic.

Turkey takes the crown

“The big trend we have seen over the last few years is a growth in demand for premium products,” explains Jason Winstanley, senior insight and research manager at Moy Park. The Northern-Irish poultry producer claims to be the country’s largest private sector business and one of Europe’s leading poultry manufacturers.

Research conducted by the business revealed that, last Christmas, over half of its consumers claimed the traditional bird was the showpiece of their meal. “Fifty-eight per cent of shoppers told us that, last Christmas, they had turkey for their centrepiece Christmas dinner, with a further 8% buying a large chicken. Whereas in previous years the majority of these shoppers may have bought a plain whole turkey, now the market is moving towards premium crowns and joints, stuffed and other added-value products.”

Winstanley also points out that Kantar’s research supports the business’ sentiments. “Last Christmas, while fresh turkey whole birds saw decent market growth of 2.4%, growth in fresh crowns was almost double that, at 4.6%, with crowns now accounting for 52% of the Christmas market.”

However, Ed Hurford, chairman of the Traditional Farmfresh Turkey Association (TFTA), believes whole turkeys remain a firm favourite over the festive period.

TFTA is a group made up of approximately 60 farming families who produce their own turkeys, selling mainly over the farmgate and to local butchers. Hurford says around 80% of their products are whole turkeys, while crowns and cuts make up the additional 20%. “Whole birds are better in terms of value, because every time you cut a product it costs money, so in most instances the consumer is getting a lot less for their pound.”

The hero of Christmas

Sarah Copas, of award-winning Copas Turkeys, shares Hurford’s opinions that the whole turkey should be “celebrated”. “The hero of Christmas is the whole turkey, because when you come out on Christmas day to serve the meal, it’s what we call the most important part of the most important meal of the year. To come out, in our view, with anything other than the whole bird is a little bit of a compromise.”

Although the focus of Copas Turkeys is on the whole bird, Copas has admitted to seeing a growth in crowns over several years, alongside an increase in popularity for value-added products. Capitalising on this movement, Copas Turkeys is launching its stuffed whole birds this year.

Customers’ raised awareness in the origins of their food is helping the whole turkey remain a constant over the Christmas period. People are interested in how the animals are raised, and want to engage with the producers to learn about what they are eating. Purchasing and consuming meat from a manufacturer customers know and trust is an experience that cannot be replicated in supermarkets.

“People are moving towards that traditional market because it’s transparency into the farmer, but also as they learn more about that, they look at what that means to them and what the farmer does that is different. Then you start to get people gaining interest,” added Copas. “The end consumer is coming with us at the moment. People want to know more about their meat and, year on year, we see more interest. We see more questions coming into us as a business.”

Although producers may still champion the whole turkey as the Christmas centrepiece, some butchers are offering differing perspectives. “We definitely sold a lot more turkey breasts rather than the whole turkey last year,” comments Adam Cullinane, shop manager at Eastwoods of Berkhamsted. He has noticed that customers do not always want to spend money on something that they won’t eat. “I think it’s to do with people tightening their belts a little bit. With the turkey breasts they can have the whole turkey. I think as well that breast meat is a lot more popular than leg meat. Our turkey breast sales have definitely gone up.”

Just buying what is needed as opposed to what customers might think they ought to buy may not be a bad method of thinking. Moy Park’s research indicated that only 12% of consumers had no leftovers from their Christmas dinner last year.

Alternative meat

Although different cuts may be emerging, turkey clearly remains a strong seller when Christmas comes around. However, that is not to say that there aren’t any alternatives. Beef, for example, is considered a traditional British meat year round.

James Bullmore, managing director of Prime Fresh Foods, is confident sales will be strong heading into the festive period. “I noticed how, last year, trade picked up pretty much month on month throughout the whole of 2014 and again throughout the whole of this year,” he says.

Prime Fresh Foods supplies several meats to catering establishments, but is especially proud of its 28-day matured British beef, which contributes towards 45% of its business. Similar to trends happening in the turkey industry, Bullmore has noticed a demand for different cuts – in particular cheaper cuts.

Beef blade, brisket and shin have traditionally been overlooked when it comes to high-quality beef products. However, as Bullmore explains, the market is shifting. “There’s definitely a trend for cheaper cuts, which have been ignored quite a bit in the past quite. It’s very en vogue at the moment to be using those cuts and there is quite a big demand for them which, due to supply and demand, could increase the prices of those cuts as time goes on.”

Of course, like most industries, a number of outside factors contribute to the successes or failures of the trade. “Little things like the weather can affect the prices of meat, due to crops. You can be quite reliant on that at times,” he says. However, Bullmore is confident of the future of his business going into the Christmas period.

Out of beef, chicken, lamb, pork and turkey, pork performed the worst when it comes to amount spent for the 12 weeks ending 4 January 2015, with a decline of 9.7% in the amount spent. Regardless of the statistics, AHD) Pork’s butchery development manager Keith Fisher sees a bright future for the meat. While he says that turkey still remains a popular dish among British customers at Christmas, he highlights that people have never had so many choices before in terms of what they can eat, leading them to stray from the traditional turkey.

“People are becoming a lot more adventurous. The days when people thought ‘It’s Christmas, we’ve got to have turkey’ – and it was almost a danger zone if they didn’t – are gone.”

Fisher has observed how the market for pork products has increased this year. He notes that butchers should take the opportunity to utilise the versatility of pork, pointing out that, for many, the meat is consumed in some capacity on a daily basis.

“I don’t think pork was quite so prominent last year. If people were going to get pork or gammon, it was the large roasting joints they were looking for.”

In contrast to previous demand, customers have gained an eye for something different. “A nice loin of pork at Christmas is just the sort of thing people are looking for. If the butcher scores it very thinly, the customers are going to get a really nice batch of crackling from it.”

Furthermore, butchers should use the chance to take advantage of the pork’s flexibility, he says. “The other area where pork has got phenomenal value is the amount that can be used in stuffing. If you add thyme and parsley to minced pork it gives a much bulkier stuffing with a much firmer bite.”

Fisher hopes that the efforts undertaken by AHDB Pork to promote the product will have paid off as Christmas approaches. “Pork has a lot going for it, particularly around Christmas time. There are tremendous recipes on the Love Pork website for pork mince. They are not imitations of beef mince recipes; they are actual pork mince recipes, which are full of flavour.”

Christmas leftovers

In an effort to make the most out of Christmas leftovers, TFTA has teamed up with chef Rachel Green to develop original recipes using the remains of Christmas meals. The dishes are designed to be quick and easy, catering to the busy lifestyles of consumers’ modern routines.

Innovative meals in the range include turkey, ham and gruyère pasties, turkey with coriander and feta pesto in salt baked potatoes, and potted turkey, ham and parsley with sourdough soldiers.

“Everybody is very traditional when they get to Christmas; they always think they’ll do something different and then they don’t and I do think people need a bit of inspiration,” says Green.

The chef explains that the key to these dishes is to make them efficient and practical. “When you’re creating these recipes, you’ve got to be realistic,” she says. “They’re very nice, and very smart, but people are time-poor. They want something a little bit different but they don’t want to spend too much time on it.”

The effort to prevent food waste comes in light of a recent report from the journal Environmental Research Letters that claims the UK is the biggest waster of food in Europe, with wasted meat and fish having the worst impact on the environment due to the intensive resourcing process. Additionally, Defra revealed earlier in the year that, as a nation, the UK wasted 300,000 tonnes of meat and fish in 2012. Most of this waste was simply down to consumers preparing too much food.

“The leftovers are really important to use up. We’re really bad at throwing things out,” adds Green.

Extending the interest

The Christmas period is a time of year where butchers experience an understandable increase in sales. In an effort to source high-quality meat for the special occasion, more of the general public turn to their local butchers than any other time of the year. This presents butchers with an opportunity to capitalise upon the surge in popularity and find a way to boost trade throughout the year.

Despite only being in their third full year of business, Cardiff-based The Moody Sow uses Christmas as an opportunity to show off its products through merchandising. “I put on some cracking displays,” says manager Anthony Tilbury, speaking of the festive season. “We’re still relatively new into the business, but we’re just building all the time. Once people taste the difference in what we have to offer, they inevitably tend to come back time and time again.”

Although the aesthetics of the shop may make the goods look eye-catching to the consumers, engaging with customers’ needs is a vital part of finding success, as AHDB Beef & Lamb’s independent retail sector manager Mike Richardson explains. He believes that by targeting a younger generation of shoppers, and by sharing information with them, the butcher has the chance of gaining new patrons. “There is the need to educate them about what they can do with the meat in terms of cooking styles and cooking methods, so they are less intimidated and more likely to come back to a butcher’s knowing that they’ve got the knowledge and they’re given the advice with what to do with good quality meat.”

Richardson recommends providing customers with information that they can take home with them. To assist in achieving this, as part of its winter range AHDB Beef & Lamb is providing butchers with information that they can pass on to their customers from November onwards. The information will come in three stages; the pre-Christmas ‘casserole’ stage, when the nights begin to draw in, followed by the lead up to the main Christmas meal, and finishing with the New Year’s period leading into January, where people may seek something lighter and healthier.

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