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Horsemeat: UK beef sales down 3%

14 January 2014

British consumers bought nearly 8,000 tonnes less red meat in 2013 as sales of frozen burgers and ready meals containing beef slid in the wake of the horse meat scandal.

A year ago this week, horsemeat was discovered in burgers sold by British supermarkets and industry insiders say the scandal continues to influence shoppers' habits.

The Guardian reports that sales of beef were down nearly 3% in the year to 8 December, according to the latest figures from industry analyst Kantar, with frozen burgers and frozen ready meals – the two foods most caught up in the scandal – falling 7.2% and 7.6% respectively. Pork sales also declined, but sales of lamb soared, up 14.2%, as a glut of New Zealand lamb pushed prices down.

A survey by Ipsos MORI and The Grocer magazine published on Friday showed that more than 30% of adults say the scandal has changed the way they buy and choose food, and 10% of adults say they are now eating less processed meat as a result.

The horsemeat scandal has also provided a boost for small independent butchers – 7% of shoppers say they are using high-street butchers more than before – while the survey shows that Tesco was the supermarket most damaged, with one-in-five adults saying they now regarded the UK's biggest retailer less favourably. Tesco and Aldi had the biggest problems with contaminated products, and Tesco took out full page newspaper adverts to apologise to their shoppers.

A spokesman for Aldi said it had suffered no lasting damage to its trade or reputation: "Trust in retailers and manufacturers across the industry was affected as a result of horsemeat. We have raised our standards of compliance for suppliers to ensure that our stringent specifications are met. We continue to test products, including speciation tests on all of our meat products." The German-based chain has just recorded its best ever Christmas in the UK.

A spokesman for Tesco said the grocer had seen a "small but discernable impact" on frozen and chilled food sales early last year, and that its customers "appreciate the work we've been doing to demonstrate the care we take in making our food." Changes made since the controversy include a new "world class DNA testing system", a new website about food, a new agriculture director and "a root and branch review of our supply chain, bringing food closer to home."

Sainsbury's, which got a sales boost in the wake of the horsemeat scandal because none of its products were contaminated, said shoppers now look for a range of alternatives to minced beef, including chicken, fish and meat-free foods.

Quorn Foods, the company which makes vegetarian sausages, mince and other meat alternatives, said its sales rose 13% in 2013 as 2 million more shoppers opted to buy meat alternatives, nearly all of whom were meat eaters wanting to cut down rather than vegetarians.

Chief executive Kevin Brennan said: "There is very clear evidence that the trend is away from eating meat." He said the horsemeat scandal had "focused minds" on the potential poor quality of cheap meat products: "Horsegate has really got people thinking about their consumption of meat," he said.

However, closer analysis of the meat sales figures suggest that other factors are also at play beyond concerns about provenance, health or environment. While the weight of red meat bought sank, the overall value rose 3.9%, with beef up 3.8% as prices rose an average 7%.

That suggests that the move away from red meat has quite a lot to do with economics as shopper look for ways to save money as their disposable income remains under pressure during Britain's economic malaise.

The drop in meat sales also reflects a more general trend in food buying – that people are buying less, wasting less and looking for better quality where they can.

Nick Allen at Eblex says that part of the rise in the price of beef is due to supermarkets responding to demand for meat reared closer to home. Named varieties such as Aberdeen Angus and Hereford are struggling to meet demand. "Retailers are being much more specific about the processes involved and where the meat should come from. No one wants to find themselves back on the front pages for the wrong reason."
British farmers have benefited from shoppers demand to know more about where their food comes from, as have those retail chains known for better quality food such as Waitrose, M&S and Sainsbury's.
Waitrose, for example, claims it has won customers in the wake of the scandal, helping it deliver a bumper year. It saw sales of its Duchy Originals organic beef, for example rise 52%.
Heather Jenkins, Waitrose agriculture director, said: "What we ate in 2013 was shaped by a clear focus on provenance. As the spotlight shone on the relationship between supplier and retailer, the public wanted to know more about where their food comes from."

Mike Coupe, commercial director of Sainsbury's agrees. "For ten years we've been able to see in the way that people are thinking and feeling that they were taking more interest in where the things they buy came from. The horsemeat issue reinforced that trend."

However, it is worth noting that some retailers who were closely linked to the horse meat scandal have nevertheless enjoyed success. German discount chain Aldi had its best Christmas on record and has grabbed the biggest slice of the market it has ever enjoyed - putting it on track to overtake Waitrose to become the UK's fifth largest grocer.

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