Wednesday, 15 January 2014

What should the legacy of 'horsegate' be?

Given the contradictory stories that have appeared in the media over the past few days, the public could be forgiven for being very confused about the legacy of last year’s horse meat scandal.

A 2.9 per cent decrease year on year in the volumes of beef sold (in the 52 weeks to 8 December 2013) has variously been heralded by the mainstream media as a ‘slump’, a ‘slide’ or a ‘slip’. Conversely, The Grocer, which never shies away from making valid criticisms of the food industry, took a different tack, beginning its 11-page horse meat scandal anniversary feature with an article entitled “Why Horsegate is yesterday’s news”.

Much of the mainstream media interest in the story appears to have been generated by an enterprising campaign by the producers of Quorn, who contacted journalists to trumpet the news of the 10 per cent growth in sales they experienced last year while simultaneously directing them to stories about the fall in red meat sales. Similarly, vegan organisations have been celebrating the rise in the number of people Googling the term ‘vegan’, while going vegan for January (the clumsily-named ‘Veganuary’) has picked up some coverage as part of a wider trend about giving things up for the new year.

So, have consumers really made a long-term commitment to eating less red meat?

Taken at face value, a 2.9 per cent reduction in overall sales volumes of beef (a drop of 7,800 tonnes) should not be ignored. However, it’s important to put this figure in the context of tight supply, strong demand and the resulting rise in the farmgate price.

Overall expenditure on beef was up 3.8 per cent due to a rise in average price per kilogram, partly due to a squeeze on production (UK beef and veal production from January to November 2013 was back 4.3% on the same period in 2012) and partly due to supermarkets responding to demand for meat reared closer to home. Named varieties such as Aberdeen Angus and Hereford are experiencing strong demand, which anecdotally they are struggling to meet.

What isn’t up for debate is the impact on frozen ready meals and frozen burgers, which have undoubtedly had a challenging time, down 7.6 and 7.2 per cent respectively. Fresh burgers enjoyed a boost though, up 1.8 per cent thanks to a warm summer, and if we go back to the period when the horse meat scandal was headline news, the 12 weeks to 31 March 2013, fresh beef sales were up 4.6 per cent. This indicates that consumers turned away from frozen and processed product to fresh, home-grown beef.

There has certainly been an element of consumers experimenting with different proteins, and, according to The Grocer, Quorn reported a 38 per cent uplift in sales at the height of the scandal, with its manufacturing facility working flat out to produce more than 140 tonnes of Quorn a week. However, even if production continued at this level for 52 weeks of the year, total annual Quorn production would still be less than 8,000 tonnes. To put this into context, total beef, lamb and pork sales in the 52 weeks to 8 December 2013 were 550,000 tonnes.

Our own research suggests supermarkets are now stocking more British beef and lamb. Consumers are seeking out assured product, like that bearing the Red Tractor logo or our own Quality Standard Mark (QSM), in order to give them confidence about traceability and provenance. Hopefully this is the real legacy of the horse meat scandal.