Week on a Plate

The week digested: Christmas sales figures revealed and Japan opens up to British beef

Catch up on the food news from January 7-11, from the World Health Organisation’s criticism of low-carb diets to the creation of spicy tomatoes.

11 January 2019

Retailers suffer worst Christmas since 2008…

Retailers had the worst Christmas since 2008, according to data compiled by KPMG and the British Retail Consortium, which showed flat sales across the industry. The figures are thought to reflect more on high-street stores than online sales, due to the composition of the BRC’s members.


…but supermarkets set new record

Despite the overall doom and gloom, Britain's supermarkets set a new record for Christmas period sales in 2018, making £29.3bn, according to Kantar Worldpanel. It was a story of winners and losers – the losers being Sainsbury's and Waitrose. Both saw declining sales, with the former suffering a 0.4% dip while the latter dropped by 1.7%. Over at Aldi, premium ranges helped the supermarket sell nearly £1bn worth of goods during December, though some analysts have questioned the selective data from the discount retailer. Morrisons, meanwhile, said like-for-like sales grew by 0.6% in the nine weeks to January 6, while also announcing it will cut the price of more than 900 products for staples like tinned tomatoes, cereals, sandwich fillers and ready meals. Despite food like-for-like sales dipping 2.1% due to price cutting on 200 products, Marks & Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe said he was still happy with the performance among challenging conditions. Stuart Machin, who heads up the food division, is undertaking a review of what M&S buys and sells and pricing. Tesco was the big winner, celebrating the festive period with its best sales growth in almost a decade. The UK’s largest supermarket revealed a 2.2% rise in like-for like sales in the six weeks to January 5, with the festive five vegetable offering selling almost 20m units in just three weeks, and promotions on lamb and beef also proving popular.


Mitchells & Butlers welcomes record sales

Over on the foodservice side, Mitchells & Butlers had an impressive holiday season, with like-for-like sales rising 12.3% in the last fortnight of December. On Christmas Day alone, the owner of Harvester, All Bar One and Toby Carvery raked in a record £12m. Stonegate and Greene King also saw festive booms, thanks in part to the milder weather, with sales 12% and 10.9% higher respectively.


Sales of Greggs’ bakes rise

With its festive bakes, mince pies, hot drinks and breakfast range proving popular, Greggs has announced it’s expecting pre-tax profits of at least £88m for 2018. And despite some controversy surrounding its vegan sausage roll, the bakery chain said it has been an early hit for 2019. 


World Health Organisation lambasts low-carb diets

The negative perceptions of sugar and the move to embrace diets that reject carbohydrates means people are missing out on crucial fibre in their diet – fibre that could cut chances of heart disease and early death. Research commissioned by the World Health Organisation found that people should be eating fibre from wholegrain cereals and breads, pasta, pulses and nuts, recommending that this approach to the daily diet inform national public health policy. 


Crazy for keto

Speaking of low fibre, both the Guardian and the Evening Standard used this week to examine the rise of the ketogenic diet, which outranked paleo in Google searches over the last year. The diet restricts carb, fruit and protein intake, with followers eating high-fat foods like butter, oils, meat and cheese for 60 to 80% of their daily calories. But critics say the low-fibre, high-saturated-fat diet could be a passing trend or – more alarmingly – a way to encourage disordered eating.

image credit: Getty Images

Japan beefs up Britain’s meat prospects

British farmers will now be able to export beef and lamb to Japan, after a ban implemented in 1996 due to mad cow’s disease was lifted. The new deal could be worth £25m to the UK and increase exports by 3%, but there are still big Brexit fears, as currently 96% of British beef and lamb is exported to the EU.


Government mulls banishing end-of-aisle sweets
A Government-funded study has found that the temptation of sweets and crisps at the checkout or at the end of the aisle increases sales. Conversely, removing them could help prevent obesity. The research showed 76% fewer purchases annually when the sweet treats disappeared from the checkout area, prompting the government to look at the initiative as part of its latest obesity plan.


Plant-based burgers get 2019 update

Two of the market leaders in the plant-based burger game have announced updated versions of their signature meat-free patties since the New Year. Impossible Foods has replaced wheat with soybeans to make its product gluten-free, while Beyond Meat has added blended peas, mung beans and brown rice to its recipe to make both the taste and texture ‘meatier.’


Brexit could obliterate small manufacturers

Smaller food and drink companies, which make up around 90% of Britain’s 7,000 food manufacturers, are concerned that crashing out of the EU without a deal will have dire consequences, to the point where it could even threaten their ability to continue trading. William Kendall, chairman of Cawston Press, warns that there is little small companies can do to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, while owners like Sanjay Aggarwal from Spice Kitchen are more relaxed about the prospect. Other companies have already implemented plans from stockpiling goods, avoiding imports in March and April while looking elsewhere to source raw materials and packaging.


Farm fire sale

Property expert Savills is predicting that many farmers will choose to sell their land after Brexit as they will no longer receive EU subsidies, which contribute to 60% of profits for commercial farms. Instead, from 2021 farmers will be rewarded for delivering environmental benefits like protecting habitats and improving air and water quality.


Tomatoes with spicy properties

Researchers from Brazil and Ireland are working on a gene-editing technique to create spicy tomatoes. Part of the aim of the study is to help consumers accept that the sometimes controversial technology is actually useful. The method could also counteract the difficulty in cultivating chilli pepper crops as tomatoes are easier to grow.


More tomatoes

Containing a quarter of a million plants that are expected to yield 150m tomatoes a year, a new design of semi-closed glasshouse is being hailed as a first for Britain. It employs a number of efficiency-saving technologies to help the crop, such as venting on the side of the glasshouse – meaning less energy is required – and plants are grown with rainwater sterilised using UV light. The first harvest expected next month.

image credit: Getty Images

Robotic innovation for retail

Invasive technology or a device to help you eat better? A leather smart belt has been created to alert people if they are eating too much. There are sensors embedded in the belt which detect if a wearer’s stomach is expanding and send a stern message through to their mobile. It’s being showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show, which will also have a bread-making vending machine for retailers that automatically produces 265 loaves a day and a robot called Pepper that is designed to work at click-and-collect counters.


Coffee overconsumed

The increasing demand for coffee could push the bean into unsustainable territory as climate change wreaks havoc on the crop, according to the Guardian. The World Coffee Research institute is trialling 35 coffee types in 23 countries to study the impact in different climates.


Hooked on fish

While aquaculture creates only 5% of the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture, there are still concerns about its environmental impact, as demand for fish is expected to greatly outstrip available supply in the next few years. This will particularly affect Scottish salmon farms, which already face concerns over sea lice infestations and affects they are having on the general marine environment. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a regulatory overhaul in November last year, but some claim more regulation is needed.


Organic food needs better backing

The UK has one of the least supported organic food markets in Europe, according to the founder of Riverford Organic, Guy Singh-Watson. His comments are backed up by figures that show French organic food sales are three times as high as Britain’s, while Danes purchase six times as much. Poorer segments of the population are being priced out from purchasing organic ingredients and products, according to survey results released by Kantar Worldpanel in November, which showed that 72% of the populace think organic ingredients and products are too expensive.


Campaign group cries salty tears

Campaign group Action on Salt has labelled the PHE's attempt to reduce salt intake as a national tragedy, adding that comprehensive monitoring and guidance is needed for the voluntary scheme. The PHE report that examined salt reduction in the food industry showed retailers fared better than manufacturers, with 73% meeting the target compared to 37%.


The lifespan of plastic

European packaging supplier Rajapak has examined the lifespan of single-use plastic and found that if polystyrene cups existed in the Jurassic age, they would still be around today. Plastic straws, meanwhile, remain intact for the same span of time as between Queen Victoria's reign and now.


Orange you going to pick me?

Spanish farmers, which are the biggest producers of oranges for the UK market, are leaving tonnes of the fruit rotting in the field as a fall in prices and competition from other countries, including a trade deal with South Africa, means the crop isn’t worth picking. However, British consumers are not benefiting from lower costs as agencies fix the price, reports the Times.

image credit: Getty Images

Just Eat trials seaweed sachets

A trial from Just Eat of biodegradable seaweed sauce sachets in London saw 10 restaurants replace 40,000 plastic sachets with the sustainable alternative. Fat Pizza kicked off the trial and said customers loved the environmentally friendly initiative, with its owner, Sunny Chhina, calling for more ideas like it.


Are novelty restaurants stripping back?

A Paris restaurant called O’naturel, which saw diners eating in the nude, has closed down after 15 months due to a lack of patronage. Founder of Nourish PR, Hannah Norris, believes this reflects a move away from novelty restaurants, as consumers seek out a killer dish and culinary creativity instead of gimmicks.


Delivery drivers have credentials questioned

Concerns have been raised that Uber Eats and Deliveroo have illegal couriers delivering food who are not properly insured and could have criminal convictions, according to the Times.


2018: a year of closures

Finally, the Telegraph has been tracking all the store closures in 2018. An estimated 1,267 shops have been, or are in the process of being, shuttered since January last year, jeopardising 25,159 jobs. While the complete liquidation of Toys R Us and Maplin is responsible for a sizable chunk of this, Prezzo, Carluccio’s and M&S have also contributed significantly to the overall figure. Taking a closer look at seven major chains, the Telegraph found the South East was the area with the most closures, followed by Greater London, the South West, the North West and Scotland.

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