In Suffolk, a huge construction project is under way. Cranswick’s new poultry processing facility is the first meat processing plant to be built from scratch in the UK since the 1980s. The site, in Eye, is due to open in October 2019.
The investment of £60m reflects the firm’s confidence in the growth of chicken and, despite being the first of its kind in decades, the factory is just one of many multi-million pound investments announced by the meat processing sector in the past year.
Although Brexit continues to cast a shadow over the meat processing sector, which is heavily dependent on EU labour and international trade, demand for meat among UK consumers remains strong.
But while overall meat sales are growing in retail, people are eating meat differently to previous generations, and processors are having to work hard to respond to changing consumer trends.
“Meat and two veg is dead,” was the message from Adam Couch, Cranswick chief executive, at a recent conference of Meat Business Women, the organisation that aims to inspire more women to succeed in the meat sector.
Instead, he claimed, people are increasingly eating meat in easy to cook or pre-cooked formats – for example pulled pork – that can be simply prepared or reheated.
More than ever before, marinated products, ready-cooked or partly-cooked products that just need to be quickly finished at home – and even lower-meat products, such as Asda’s 50/50 mince made with half beans and half beef, have all been created to give today’s meat shoppers what they want.
There is also a long-term gradual shift away from red meat towards poultry, as families cook fewer big roasts and become more aware of the perceived health risks of heavy red meat consumption.
This is reflected in the latest Kantar Worldpanel grocery sales data, which shows expenditure on fresh and frozen beef fell 1% to £2.2bn in the 52 weeks ending 9 September, with volume falling 2% year-on-year.
Lamb is also becoming a less popular choice. Expenditure fell 2% to £589m and volume took an 8% nosedive during the same period. For pork, it’s a slightly better picture – volume dropped 2%, but the value of the market rose by 1% to £749m.
Poultry continues to grow
But it’s nothing like the success of poultry, which is growing year-on-year, with sales worth £2.9bn in the same 12-month period.
Volume is up 2% year-on-year, and this follows a 4% volume uplift in 2016/17, a 5% uplift in 2015/16 and 1% growth in 2014/15. In fact, poultry now makes up half of all the meat eaten by volume in the UK.
It’s little surprise then, that machinery suppliers such as Interfood Technology are reporting significant demand for poultry processing equipment from manufacturers keen to build on the growth.
Within the sector, chicken legs are performing particularly well, with volume up 5.2% and value up 3.6%. Again, this growth is reflected in the investment levels from poultry processing plants, which are continuing to commit to refits and new equipment to extend capacity and keep up with demand.
The versatility of chicken is undoubtedly one of its major draws for the consumer and, through different processes, the range of poultry-based products continues to increase. Coating of chicken breast and thighs is a big area of development as processors look to add flavour and, importantly, value to their product ranges.
Interfood offers the Alco Breading/Dusting/Coating system, which can be used for coating different food products, with chicken being a prime market. Flour, spices or finely-ground breadcrumbs can all be applied through a process that includes an innovative ‘blow-off’ system, which creates minimal dust after application of the chosen coating.
Despite the challenges of the red meat sector, big investments are being made to respond to changing consumer tastes. For ABP, which specialises in beef and lamb, it’s all about innovation and creating excitement for consumers – an approach that was recognised last month when it was crowned Food Manufacture Company of the Year at the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards.
“Innovation is a significant focus of the business and we pay particular attention to ensure that the products and formats deliver against the needs and priorities of our customers,” says a spokesman.
“Convenient and quality products that are quick to cook and provide inspiration for shoppers are key to expanding usage occasions, increasing repertoires and encouraging engagement in beef and lamb,” he says.
Link up with Warner Brothers
A good example, he claims, is a recent link up with Warner Brothers and the launch of the new range of DC Super Hero fresh and frozen sausages and frozen burgers.
“These products have been developed to create fun and engagement around the red meat category for young consumers.”
All the products carry the distinctive DC imagery while the burger range resembles the famous superhero logos of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. ABP is also trying to address environmental concerns about red meat production.
“We are looking at how better beef genetics can reduce the carbon footprint of beef production,” says the spokesman.
“Initial results from trials on our Research and Demonstration Farm indicate the potential for a 13% carbon reduction through the use of improved genetics in beef animals from the dairy herd.”
Concrete results may be a way off just yet, but processors are continuing to invest in their plants to make them the most efficient they possibly can be. ABP has recently spent £30m on its Ellesmere plant in Shropshire, which it says has made it one of the world’s most advanced, efficient and sustainable beef processing operations.
“We believe it is the most sustainable carbon neutral beef processing facility in the world,” the spokesman claims.
Sausage and burger manufacturers are also changing the way they operate. Machinery manufacturer Handtmann says its clients are now focusing on quality. “In the past, the focus has always been on high volumes and low prices, but we are noticing a shift towards higher-quality products that consumers are happy to pay a little extra for,” says managing director Anthony Daniels.
“We have seen an unprecedented demand for ‘artisan type’ products, especially in the burger market. This has caused a huge interest in our burger formers such as the MBF1, which are able to manufacture loose textured handmade-style burgers, meatballs and koftas.”
One of the key trends in consumer tastes is the push towards healthy food products and, in particular, an increasing demand for gluten-free and meat-free options.
‘Meat-free versions of traditional favourites’
“As a result, several companies in the meat sector have been coming to us to develop not only gluten-free but meat-free versions of traditional favourites like sausages,” says Daniels.
“This is an area that is going to see significant change as producers are starting to achieve incredible results in areas such as meat substitute products, which are almost indistinguishable to the real thing in terms of flavour and texture.
”Meat processing is a labour-intensive business, particularly red meat, which requires skilled labour in deboning. But there is room to automate certain repetitive tasks and functions. Brexit is making many meat processors consider investing in automation due to uncertainty over future access to EU labour.
“According to the British Meat Processors Association, the meat processing sector’s workforce is more than two-thirds (69%) non-UK EU nationals."
Some large meat processing plants have introduced high levels of automation into their businesses, reducing the need for boots on the ground. For example, 2 Sisters Food Group opened a fully automated chicken processing plant in Scunthorpe in 2017, where no humans handle the birds.
Red meat processing is trickier to automate because it is more difficult for machines to effectively portion large cuts without high levels of wastage. But according to Rob Stephens, managing director of Systems Integration, a tech firm supplying software to food manufacturers, there are ways to introduce automation gradually and still achieve impressive results.
“A relatively cheap thing to do is control the product changeovers, so all the printers are set up to print the correct date information, and to check the label is correct,” he explains.
“The manual changeover process is quite convoluted. When you automate, it’s faster; you push a button and off you go, and you also increase the accuracy.”
While poultry processing is relatively easy to automate, the black hole at the moment is the ability to process red meat primals, says Stephens. “[If you were] processing a topside by machine, you’d get a really poor yield.”
Vision technology is developing
But vision technology that analyses where the muscles are, and the seams are between the muscles, is developing apace. “Eventually, I would see you being able to do all that in an automated fashion. The issue, though, will be the cost benefit, because if it costs you £100m to replace one skilled butcher, you wouldn’t do that.”
Semi-automatic picking and despatch, however, can be done without huge investment, says Stephens, and intelligent slicers that produce two steaks that go in a pack with minimum giveaway are in the pipeline. Automated warehousing, meanwhile, is being rolled out by some bigger companies.
Meat processors are embracing software that allows them to make more of their product. Stephens says Systems Integration has recently introduced software called Plan to Produce and Available to Sell into Kepak’s St Merryn site.
The software allows the business to plan how it distributes different cuts to different clients, to ensure maximum efficiency and use of every part of the animal.
Another supplier pursuing more use of automation is Handtmann. Daniels says clients primarily want to reduce labour costs and increase reliability, efficiency and the reduction of accidental contamination.
“We are also developing new machinery to assist our customers in automated manufacturing to reduce manual handling and improve efficiencies,” he says.
“We have seen a huge interest in our ConPro system. This provides the ability to manufacture quality sausages on a continuous basis, which reduces labour and manufacturing time.”
Ultimately, as the sector becomes more competitive, wage costs increase and profit margins get tighter, the consensus is that automation – as a means for large-scale producers to protect their market share by improving the efficiency of their production lines – will continue to grow.
Veganism: should meat processors be worried?
Veganism certainly seems to have gone mainstream in 2018. It’s difficult to escape talk of the plant-based trend, and retailers and foodservice businesses continue to rapidly expand their ranges of non-meat products.
But just how much of a threat does it present to meat processing businesses? Insight from Kantar Worldpanel shows consumers are increasingly choosing to eat meat-free dinners. In fact, 29% of evening meals are veggie, and this has grown consistently over the past few years.
The biggest spike has been over the past year, during which UK consumers ate an additional 200 million meat-free evening meals. “The surge in vegetarian evening meals over the past year is down to the wider availability of products that make eating meat-free more attractive and practical,” says Richard Allen, usage expert at Kantar.
“Ideas about what’s healthy are also changing – we’re more focused on natural and less processed foods, and we’re eating a more varied diet.”
Meat-free products such as Quorn meat substitutes are growing strongly, with shoppers spending an additional £30m on these year-on-year. In addition, 50% of spend on meat-free is going on ‘meal centres’ like sausages and burgers.
Other firms such as Dawn Farms, which specialises in cooked meat ingredients, are introducing products aimed at ‘meat reducers’, such as flexitarian chicken and edamame meatballs.
Vegan and vegetarian diets
The rise of vegan and vegetarian diets, however, does not necessarily mean consumers are moving away from meat altogether – and across the whole population, no single story fits all. Fresh meat and poultry, for instance, had a strong year with the volume sold growing faster than can be explained by population growth (1.8% versus around 1%).
Price may be a key factor, says Nathan Ward, business unit director for meat, fish and poultry at Kantar. “One dynamic is that shoppers are trying to find ways to cope with rising prices and falling promotions,” he explains.
“A jacket potato and beans might be an easy – and vegetarian – midweek dinner, but consumers may also be motivated by other factors, such as saving money.”
Globally, meat firms are taking the vegan trend seriously. US-based Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor of meat after Brazilian firm JBS, has made major investments into meat alternatives of late, with a stake in vegan meat brand Beyond Meat and cultured meat business Memphis Meats.
Tyson Foods chief executive Tom Hayes says the decision to invest in vegan food was a wise decision. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?” he told Feedstuffs magazine.