Why mince is only part of the coronavirus problem for the meat industry

With cornavirus changing consumer behavior, and dictating direction for supermarkets, Food Spark looks at the wide range of issues facing the UK meat market

27 March 2020

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is affecting everyone. From beleaguered independent restaurateurs struggling to stay afloat to embattled major supermarket names fighting to keep shelves stocked, no one is safe from seismic change in the face of the global crisis.

The food supply chain is also being greatly impacted by the situation, with the UK meat industry facing an unprecedent situation as restaurants fall by the wayside and consumer panic drives unpredictable sales in retail.

Last week, the BMPA reported a dramatic shift in demand for meat products since the crisis hit, with sales increasing in supermarket by 20-30% as stockpiling came to the fore.

However, there are significant underlying problems that the meat industry is facing that will come into focus as the days and weeks pass.

Meat market mayhem

The liveweight prime cattle average fell by 5p/kg on Monday, as buyers digested the news that McDonalds, the country’s biggest beef buyer, decided to close all its outlets. Many will think that, with abattoirs currently up and running, it will be a case of redirecting supply from restaurants to retail.

But, for some, it’s not as simple to supply supermarkets with meat as it might appear.

“One of the problems the meat industry is facing is that some abattoirs are contractors,” says Tony Goodger of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers. “They are certificated to supply supermarkets through BRC Certification.

“Others are only set up to supply the catering side of the industry and don’t have the correct accreditation. All they can do is supply retail butchers and what is left of the catering division: hospitals, care homes, takeaways and delivery services.

“Many of our catering butchers are suffering because they do not have enough business left and are unable to find new markets.”

Meat farmers are also starting to feel the pressure.

“Due to significant disruption in the hospitality and out-of-home sector we are beginning to see farmers who supply these markets become affected,” a spokesperson for the National Union of Famers (NFU) tells Food Spark.

“For example, some farmers have had prices cut and heard that payments will take longer to arrive.”

More and more mince

It seems one single cut of meat has come to symbolise the changing face of meat in the UK: mince.

According to Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), one of the problems over the past few weeks for the whole meat industry has been a bigger demand for mince, with other parts of the carcass getting left behind.

And with carcass balancing getting out of kilter, the value of animals is being driven down, with there being only wafer-thin margins on mince.

“Nearly half of beef gets consumed as mince in the retail sector, whereas in the food service sector, it’s mostly served as steak,” said Allen. “The meat supply chain is all about carcass balance - you’ve only made a profit when you’ve sold the whole animal.”

Allen has said he doesn’t think supermarkets are putting pressure on the supply chain deliberately but are just responding to what consumers want the most - and mince is easy to transform into a variety of recipes.

What seems apparent is that consumer demand is now shaping the marketplace in new ways. With home cooking now the predominant way of eating, the consumer is now dictating to supermarkets what they want to eat - and how they want to buy it.

Mid-month, a survey from retail butcher Donald Russell found that 88% of consumers have bought fresh meat with the intention of freezing at home. It’s clear that consumers are wanting to eat simply in a way that is easy to make provisions last, with price and convenience becoming the lead purchasing drivers.

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