Making a difference

“Lazy Sunday afternoon, I’ve got no mind to worry, close my eyes and drift away” might have been the case for the Small Faces singer Steve Marriott in 1968, but fast forward to 2011 and things are mightily different. The Sunday roast — once a staple of the nation — is in decline and the hardest-hit category has been the traditional roast beef with all the trimmings.

Social commentators point to the slip of the work/life balance, the growth of smaller family units, increased leisure time, all-day pub opening and a number of other factors as the main reasons behind the roast’s decline.

Recent figures for 2010, supplied by TNS/Kantar Worldpanel, show that the value of roasts sold in 2010 slipped by 3% from £4.12bn to £3.99bn and that the volume sold dropped by 2.3% from 6.13bn kg to 6.17bn kg in the same year. This is backed up by butchers, who admit that the humble roast has been having a tough time of it.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” explains Allan Bennett, the award-winning butcher from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. “People have got more money to spend on leisure time — and so consequently are often out of the house on a Sunday.

“Also people do not have the time to actually cook a roast — or at least that is what they think — so they are going for steaks and the like. Cost is another thing, although beef, inn the balance of things, is not so expensive.”

This is supported by Adrian Jackson of Boxleys in Wombourne, Staffordshire, who says: “People just don’t have the time to spend on meal.”

Despite the pressures regarding roast cuts, beef was still able to make a comeback during the Christmas period. Figures released by Eblex, the levy body, show that beef sales were up by 1.27% over the Christmas period as consumers looked for an alternative.

In the four weeks to 26 December, fresh meat volume sales overall were up by nearly 13% on the same period in 2009, at 28,548t, with expenditure up 11.3%. Roasting joint volume sales were up some 6.3%, at 10,583t. Indeed, over the four week period in the run-up to Christmas, £167.3m was spent on fresh beef in total.

Unfortunately for the retail high street butcher, the majority of this was because of discounting at the hands of the supermarkets. “There was a definite element of freezer-building during some heavy promotional activity in the run-up to Christmas,” says Richard Cullen, category development manager for Eblex. “Obviously, mince is the main driver of beef, being the biggest sector and the cheapest product. We have also seen stewing products doing well because of the cold snap that the nation experienced before Christmas. You get people making more stews and casseroles during this time because it reminds them of their childhood.

“The roasting sector has struggled for most of the year, although it did come back slightly over the Christmas period. The promotions in supermarkets would have helped this because, in the main, people have been deterred by the cost of a roast. But when they suddenly see it on promotion, they realise they haven’t had beef for a while.

“However, price is an issue because, compared with a whole chicken or a joint of pork, beef is expensive.”
Price factors aside, Roger Kelsey, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat & Food Traders (NFMFT) claims that a good butcher will cater his beef offer to his particular beef market. He says: “A good butcher will have various ways of assessing the situation. They need to be very savvy, they get to know what people are thinking and, in the end, they will sell what they need to.

“A good butcher will develop a value range of beef products if that is what is needed and might turn to BOGOFs. But they will know if they need topside or silverside instead of sirloin or a rack; it’s what they do.”

However, Jackson at Boxleys believes that the price discussion is a moot one. “We don’t buy boxed beef; we believe in a quality product and find, that in general, people are willing to pay for it,” he says. “Some people might call it expensive, but we think it is a premium price for a premium product and when it comes to our beef we enter a lot of competitions for it and we win them.”

That said, there is no denying that when it comes to beef, price is an issue for the consumer as we delve into 2011. Research by Mintel, the global consumer product and market research company, found that nearly half of meat-eaters limit how often they eat red meat, because they see it as expensive, while two in five have switched to alternatives such as poultry to save money.

With roasts and more traditional cuts in decline, Eblex has been pushing a number of better cuts in order to boost returns for butchers. Its research has also garnered positive feedback from consumers when it comes to taste and quality of these alternative cuts.

In a report into alternative cuts of steak last year, Mike Whittemore, retail project manager at Eblex, revealed that, by adopting its long-advocated seam butchery techniques, the industry could generate a 13% uplift in revenue and an increase in the market value of more than £6m.

Whittemore says: “All of this development work has had the double benefit of producing an innovative range of additional cuts that can be marketed, while at the same time enhancing the overall value of the carcase. That’s a benefit to everyone throughout the supply chain, as well as adding to consumer choice.

“However, any reluctance to embrace the method of preparing meat following the muscle structure of the carcase seems to be based on the perceived additional processing or butchery costs involved. I’m pleased to say, we can demonstrate that seam butchery methods are not an act of faith. Our research not only confirms that consumers perceive a quality differential and an enhanced eating experience with the new cuts, it reveals they would be prepared to pay the modest additional costs involved in their preparation.”

The cuts tested in this research were bistro rump steak, prime rump steak, picanha steak, flat-iron steak, Denver steak and the centre cut steak. “By separating the rump primal into three direct muscle blocks to produce the bistro, picanha and the premium prime rump steak, we believe it is possible to elevate eating quality and enhance consumer experience,” adds Whittemore. “We’ve also researched the US retail beef market and adapted some excellent work there using the feather blade and major chuck primal to develop a further two steak cuts suitable for the market in England – the flat-iron steak (from the feather blade) and the Denver steak (from the chuck primal).”

Since this steak research, Eblex has added more than 70 cuts to the fourth edition of its Meat Purchasing Guide and Cutting Specification, meaning that the acclaimed guide – which also includes cuts for mutton and lamb – lists 320 cuts. All of these are available to download at www.eblextrade.co.uk.
Creator of the Guide and Manual, master butcher and project manager for Eblex Dick van Leeuwen, says:

“Because consumer requirements and eating habits are constantly changing, we keep adding new products on to the market, not only to satisfy consumer demand, but improve carcase balance and utilisation.

“We regularly send out new specification sheets for any new cuts we develop to our scheme members to keep them up-to-date with current market trends. In this instance, because we’ve developed a significant number of new cuts and included mutton for the first time, it made sense to republish and publicise the latest editions.”

The analysts at Mintel have also issued advice regarding alternative cuts and offal. But the researcher warns that, when it comes to meat, consumers are anything but adventurous. Its study found that if one-third of adults say they like to experiment with different cuts, over 25% would explicitly disagree with this view. It found that some 52% of the population will not touch offal, which rises to 74% among the under-25s and 70% of the 25-34.

One key facet that butchery has over its supermarket rivals is traceability and its differentiation of product and it is something that the sector is keen to promote even further. Bennett says: “I source all my meat from Bridgnorth market and it will be slaughtered in nearby Bridgtown, then I hang my beef for a minimum of three weeks. Some might get away with it if they hang it for less, but if you are feeding eight to 10 people, say, for a Sunday lunch, and they all think it is tough, then you know you have done something wrong. It also has to be hung on the bone, I’m not a fan of the vacuum pack.

“If you don’t sell the premium cuts any more, then topside and silverside are still very good cuts of meats. It needs to be cooked a little slower, but the results can be fantastic.

“Sometimes people can get hung up on price. The price of beef is very good value, and value does not mean cheap.”

Kelsey adds: “One of the biggest problems the trade faces at the moment is one of differentiation. In the past you were always able to source beef from something that was not just run-of-the-mill stock. For example, I always used to supply beef that was from stock that was older than 30 months. However, that changed in about 1996/1997 with the onset of BSE legislation. Now it means that butchers are buying from faster maturing breeds — but there are moves afoot to get this increased to 36 months.”