SPECIAL REPORT: Time to raise your game

With the Glorious Twelfth fast approaching the game sector is gearing up for one of the most profitable seasons to date. Sales of venison have already soared by 413% according to Kantar Worldpanel and UK retailers have been quick to jump on the trend, offering various different cuts and products, but much like British beef and lamb, venison is struggling to compete with cheaper imports.

Marks & Spencer has already successfully tapped into the venison market, but this year venison is readily available across all the main supermarkets, including hard discounters Lidl and Aldi. Once seen as a luxury, autumnal product, venison producers such as Highland Game are trying to push venison as a healthy alternative to traditional red meats – all year round.

Heightened consumer awareness following the horsemeat scandal has resulted in increased interest in game. “One of the consequences of the horsemeat scandal was not a move away from meat by UK consumers but a move towards fresh meat and particularly leaner, healthier meat,” explains John Nevens, co-founder of market research organisation Bridgethorne.

“However, while UK consumers have spent more in the last year on beef (up 2%), pork (4%) and lamb (6%) only volume sales of lamb actually increased. This suggests a continuing love for meat, but a desire to explore new options. That’s one of the reasons why multiples like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and even Asda are planning new venison launches later this year,” Nevens adds.

Much like the challenges faced in the turkey industry, suppliers in the game sector want to move game out of the seasonal bracket and into the everyday meat market. Christian Nissen, founder of Scottish venison company Highland Game, sees venison as an “alternative to the commodity”. To do this venison needs to be marketed as an affordable product, despite its luxury connotations.

Nissen says: “We have been in this business since 1997 and my vision and ambition was to make venison readily available in the UK. I believed that the British consumer would appreciate venison as much as our neighbours on the Continent, if they only could easily get hold of it and knew how to cook it. That’s why we have produced venison cook books, organised venison masterclasses up and down the country and worked closely with our suppliers and buyers alike to provide the very best quality and products for our consumers.”

In order to offer a true alternative to the commodity, venison must be as versatile as traditional British meats and, to ensure this, Highland Game has engineered its venison into several everyday products, such as venison sausages, grill steaks, meatballs, burgers, steaks and diced meat, as well as offering a range of sauces that complement the meat.

But as Nevens points out, this development could also present new opportunities for suppliers of premium ready meals if consumers’ interest in venison extends beyond the fresh meat counter. Sales of premium ready meals grew in the UK by between 7% and 8% in 2013 taking total ready meal sales in major supermarkets above the £2.3bn mark in the past year.

The game sector consists of more than just Highland venison. Although it is by far the most popular type of game meat, other wild meats are proving popular with Brits. Fatima Khan, game buyer at Sainsbury’s, says the supermarket has had to diversify its offering, with meats such as grouse in higher demand: “Last year we saw a growing increase in demand for our wild game bird range, with grouse becoming popular more widely.”

Rabbit meat is also going through a renaissance period, with numbers back to the level prior to the myxomatosis outbreak which ravished its numbers in 2005-2007, This has been echoed by the Wild Meat Company, a Suffolk-based game supplier, which believes rabbit meat has been making its way back into our diets with the help of celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson. Robert Gooch, director at Wild Meat Company, explains: “Celebrity chefs and the media have encouraged consumers to try novel foods, and this has included rabbit. Farmed rabbit is very popular across southern Europe and some parts of Asia, which means that supermarkets have been able to access product from those markets. The volume of wild rabbit that we supply to local stores has not increased, but the national picture, I suspect, will be more to do with farmed rabbit than wild rabbit. This is also the case with venison.”

So will game no longer continue its traditional passage from hill to plate? Like other British meats, namely beef and lamb, British venison has to compete on the supermarket shelves with cheaper imports from New Zealand. “The venison market has increased massively. The British deer farms haven’t been able to keep up and the shortfall is being met by New Zealand. Included in this, New Zealand farms on a larger scale and therefore can provide the venison at a cheaper price,” explains Jack Knot from the Countryside Alliance’s campaign Game-to-Eat.

And with demand for venison growing, UK supermarkets are after the quickest, easiest solution: “The UK has a huge issue with wild deer. It would be great to get these put into the market as well. The issue here is the difficulty of ageing wild deer. All farmed deer are dispatched at 18 months. The wild deer, at four to five years, will be tasty but more tough and stringy – hence needing to be cooked in a different way. The supermarkets don’t understand this and want the simple choice. If we got the public to understand that age matters with animals, and wild really means wild – then we will go a long way towards sorting out the wild deer populations,” says Knot.

If game suppliers succeed in changing perceptions of their meat, supply will have to meet demand. Yet Nissen at Highland Game says there is already limited supply of Scottish venison for supermarket requirements, meaning it is forced to source deer from New Zealand. However, he remains positive that venison and other game meats can capitalise on this trend: “We are never going to beat the commodity, but believe venison offers a natural alternative for a consumer who is looking to try something different and something healthy. The difference is, it’s just better.”

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