Britons are increasingly turning to vegetarian alternatives amid concerns sparked by the horsemeat scandal, according to food producers.
Quorn, the UK’s biggest vegetarian ready meal brand, said it had seen sales growth more than double in the second half of February as shoppers snapped up its burgers, mince and sausages made from a form of fungus. The company is having to increase the number of shifts at its fermenting plant to cope with demand.
Other specialist brands have also enjoyed a surge in sales since January when regulators found horsemeat in ready-made burgers sold in supermarkets. Asda said sales of meat-free foods had been booming in recent weeks as the scandal has widened to include well known brands including Findus and Birds Eye.
Fry’s, a South African brand which sells frozen vegetarian sausages and pies mainly to health foods shops such as Holland & Barrett, said sales had risen 30% since the beginning of February, three times the pace of its growth over the last few years.
Cauldron Foods, another brand owned by Quorn that includes specialist vegetarian options such as tofu as well as vegetarian sausages, has seen sales lift 6% after months without growth.
Meanwhile, VeggieDay, a German brand which recently launched in Co-op stores, said sales were greater than forecast and it had seen a burst of interest from retailers. “We have responded to the growth in consumer interest by bringing forward our product development schedule by approximately six months,” the company said.
Lisa Drummy, boss of the UK importer of Fry’s, said the company had been contacted by a number of supermarkets after years of being ignored. Fry’s also benefited from a deal to supply meat-free pies to food distributor 3663 after the UK foodservice wholesaler found traces of pork in Halal pies it was supplying to prisons. Although she was unsure how long it would last, Drummy said: “We’ve seen a big step up in February; it’s a kneejerk reaction.”
Kevin Brennan, the chief executive of Quorn, said the horsemeat scandal had served to highlight the rising cost of meat protein, particularly beef, and those cost pressures would mean more and more people would seek out alternatives in future. High beef prices are thought to have been a key factor behind the contamination of ready meals with cheaper horsemeat.
Beef prices are expected to continue to rise in future. Raising a cow requires the use of a relatively large amount of feed-crops such as wheat or soybeans and, as the world’s population grows, competition for those crops will increase. At the same time, demand for meat is on the rise, particularly in parts of Asia.
“Over time beef is going to become more of a luxury,” Brennan said. “People probably won’t continue doing what they are right now but I do think there is genuine potential that they could shift away from meat. It’s not about giving it up altogether but reducing consumption.”
Still, meat-free ready meals have some way to go. A YouGov poll commissioned by Quorn about a week ago, which found that just 15% of those questioned were more likely to consider an alternative to meat as a result of the horsemeat saga.
Drummy from Fry’s said: “A minority might think what’s happened is awful and people have definitely been put off buying more processed foods but most will carry on eating without looking to see what’s in it.”
Asda said that, while Quorn sales were still up, overall sales of meat-free products were beginning to plateau.
Amy Price, senior food retail analyst at research firm Mintel, said just 6% of the UK population were vegetarians, although a further 13% choose to avoid red meat.
She said: “There are still barriers for meat free on shoppers’ perception of taste and value for money while a third say they don’t know how to cook with meat alternatives.”
She added that publicity from those retailers who had worked hard to protect their meat supply chain from contamination by using British farmers who they worked with closely were also comforting shoppers.
Waitrose and Morrisons have both publicised their use of British farmers while last week Tesco said it would try to source more meat in the UK and Ireland as a result of horsemeat being found in some of its food.