Good meat sales boost organic sector

Strong sales of organic meat, particularly lamb and chicken, helped strengthen a dip in the organic sector, the Soil Association’s annual market report revealed.

While the overall organic market in the UK was down by 3.7%, there were strong sales in red meat and poultry, with lamb up 16% and poultry also enjoying a revival, up 5.8%. There was a 2.5% lift for organic chicken, while sales of organic turkey increased by 56%, underlining evidence that consumers increasingly choose organic for special occasions.

Despite a contraction in organically managed land in Scotland, there was strong demand for organic Scottish beef and lamb throughout the year, with beef prices reaching unprecedented levels and the Scottish Government’s new action plan boosting confidence in the sector. Organically farmed land also fell in Wales, but the number of Welsh lambs and beef was significantly higher, up 26% and 44% respectively. However, statistics showed that half of organically produced Welsh lambs were sold as non-organic, suggesting that organic producers may be considering switching to non-organic production.  

Organic farming rose by 3.4% in England and 15% overall in Northern Ireland, with around 78% of newly converted organic farm land in England being used as pasture land, in response to growth in the beef and lamb markets, combined with good support through the Organic Entry Level Stewardship Scheme. Numbers of organically raised cattle and sheep in England increased by 13% and 5% respectively, while the SA abattoir survey showed that the number of organic beef cattle at slaughter in 2011 was up 8.2%  to 33,113, although lamb remained largely unchanged (0.6%).

Organic pork production throughout the UK declined throughout 2011, with the largest UK organic pig producer closing at the end of 2011. However, the report said that most producers were able to remain in business despite the effect of rising production costs and static prices, and were helped by a buoyant export demand and a strong euro.

Poultry producers also struggled with high feed prices. The main organic poultry processor in Northern Ireland produced 30% fewer birds in 2011 compared to 2010, while the SA’s abattoir survey showed the number of birds was down 19.3%.

The Soil Association identified several consumer trends. As supermarkets reduced the choice and availability of organic products, it said that committed organic shoppers increasingly bought from specialist retailers, with box schemes, home delivery and mail order increasing by 7.2%. However, multiple retail sales still accounted for 71.4% of the organic market, which was worth £1,189.6bn.

There was a 5% fall in sales in multiple retailers, with the major supermarkets anticipating further sales drops in 2012. The Soil Association attributed to a lack of investment and promotion and described it as a ”defeatist climate in which decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Waitrose, which has invested heavily in its organic sector, saw the smallest drop, at 2.2% compared to the combined totals of the other six retailers at 9.5%, while Asda’s organic sales declined by 22.4%. Organic meat sales were strongest at Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons, but discounter Lidl saw overall organic sales increase by 16.7%.

Sales in the independent sector fell by 0.5% to £477.4m, while farm shops were said to be a struggling sector in a flat economy, falling 3.5% in 2011 to £30.4m. Catering in restaurants rose by 2.4% in 2011, worth around £15.7m, partly as a result of the SA’s Food for Life catering mark.

Although consumers on higher incomes accounted for 71% of organic spend, up 4% year-on-year, the SA said that the the appeal of organics had a broad base, with nearly a third (29%) being brought by those in lower-income social groups. However, a survey of 1,000 shoppers found that 91% of people said that the reason for not buying organic was down to price. Health, taste and environment were key reasons to buy organic, with a third (34%) of shoppers saying that animal welfare was also a factor.

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