‘Tighter household budgets are squeezing sales of fresh meat’

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The vast majority of consumers are still putting price before provenance even after their confidence in food supply chains was rattled by the horsemeat scandal, an industry expert says.

Although farmers are receiving a fairer price for their meat, the squeeze on living standards as a result of the country’s wider economic situation is driving consumer trends, said John Mettrick, president of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders.

Figures obtained by the Yorkshire Post from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board show that British meat sales fell by 6,000 tonnes this year.

A complicated series of factors, involving significantly warmer summer weather, changes in pack sizes by retailers and promotions on cheap imports, contributed to the decline - even though industry surveys have pointed to increased consumer sentiment for buying British meat.

Mr Mettrick, who runs a family butchers in Glossop with his brother Steven, said: “I’m not entirely surprised by the figures because the price of meat has risen considerably and within a recession consumers are stretched so prices tend to be more important to people than quality and provenance.

“It’s sad because we are paying more realistic prices for our meat than we have done in the past so it’s unfortunate for farmers that people are stretched and can’t afford to buy it.

“It is a bit tough for businesses like us but we are fortunate in that we have loyal customers.

“We have probably sold a bit less this year and that is reflected over the Christmas period too.”

Average national retail prices for a kilogram of meat have increased across most cuts of beef in the last year. Latest figures show, for example, that the average cost of a kg of standard mince is currently £5.15, compared to £4.75 a year ago and a kg of braising steak is £9.07, up from £8.40 this time last year.

Combined with rising prices and hugely contrasting weather conditions compared to a year earlier, the public scrutiny over the provenance of food has not yet translated to a long term consumer trend towards increased sales of British meat, Mr Mettrick said.

“The horsemeat scandal hit home while it was in the public eye but eventually fell away and while the hot summer was good for barbecue season for sales of burgers not many people were looking to buy the likes of roasting beef when it was 80 degrees outside so we saw a drop in volume sold.”

Despite the sales slump, the National Farmers’ Union said customers have been sending signals to encourage supermarkets to stock more British food.

Sharon Hockley, the NFU’s head of communications, said: “The NFU carried out a survey of consumers in February this year to ask questions about food, traceability and provenance of food.

“It was carried out by YouGov and revealed that more than 86 per cent of shoppers are as likely or more likely to want to buy more traceable food that has been produced on British farms and a further 78 per cent agree or strongly agree that supermarkets should sell more food from British farms.

“We believe that all players in the food chain have a role to play. They should be looking to source and sell more British food, because this is what consumers tell us they want.”

Any sales uplift in the new year however hinges largely on the wider economy, according to Mr Mettrick.

Better household budgets would translate to increased British meat sales, he said.

“It all depends on the price and if customers feel that they have got more money in their pockets.

“It also depends on supermarkets, if they decide to go more down the British route, but customers are the ones that drive this.”