By Scott Wright

AS supermarket shelves were routed in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, the casual observer may have thought it spelled good news for Scottish red meat suppliers, given the hoarding impulse that gripped consumers. But in actual fact it created an acute problem for the industry that only added to the deep sense of dislocation the pandemic was bringing.

Alan Clarke, chief executive of industry body Quality Meat Scotland, recalls the extent of panic buying in supermarkets was such suppliers experienced five consecutive days of trading that were each bigger than December 23, traditionally the biggest day in their retail calendar.

But the turbulence sparked by the crisis created a “carcass imbalance” as hotels, restaurants, and pubs were suddenly closed, cutting off a key route to market.

“The key was the foodservice industry literally closed overnight,” said Mr Clarke.

“All of a sudden, the market that was there for the high-value items [was gone]. From a red meat point of view, people will buy a lot of the more expensive cuts when they are in a restaurant, and then they might buy some of the cheaper cuts when they are cooking at home.

“One of the keys to red meat processing is what we would call carcass balance. The carcass was totally out of balance with consumers going and looking for things like mince, whereas the higher value stuff was not getting away. This created total imbalance in the market.”

New avenues have opened up for more expensive cuts, though. Mr Clarke said QMS moved to alter the Make It marketing campaign it had been developing to encourage consumers to prepare restaurant quality meals in their own homes.

“It was make it Steak Night, and it was really trying to get people to have a restaurant meal in their own home,” he said. “Make It once, cook it twice, if you are doing a roast. We started to realise there was a generation not used to cooking high quality food at home, but they have an appetite for it.”

The campaign has now been taken up by the Agriculture Horticultural Development Board in England and the HCC in Wales, which have licensed the Make It marketing assets from QMS.

“We have actually now taken that campaign across GB, and we have seen such a change in retail sales,“ Mr Clarke said. “A lot of the supermarkets are reporting sales of sirloins and roasts have increased significantly, which is great to see.”

He added: “One of the biggest learnings for us during this crisis has been the amount of people who now want to support the local community, and particularly the rural community in Scotland. Butchers’ business has been good in this time, farm shops have been strong as people know there are not the food miles there anymore. They want to be able to buy and support local. We are hoping that is a silver lining that comes out of this.”

Indeed, the spirit of entrepreneurship that has been a hallmark throughout the crisis has been evident in the meat industry, too. Many butchers moved quickly into online retailing and click and collect services.

“The market turbulence has been incredible, but I have to say the industry has pulled together really, really well,” Mr Clarke said. “We have had lots and lots of challenges to get over, and unfortunately [there will be] lots and lots of challenges still to come.”

Now, as Scotland slowly begins to emerge from lockdown, there would appear to be hope of some recovery. The hospitality and tourism industries are gradually reopening, and Mr Clark is hoping staycations this summer may help his sector.

“The progressive reopening of fast food chains, coffee shops, sandwich shops and supermarket food-to-go (services) will give a boost to demand for mince, sausages, bacon and burgers,” he said. “The reopening of pubs and restaurants will hopefully support demand for higher value cuts of red meat, like steaks and roasts, thereby underpinning the overall value of beef, lamb and pork carcases for processors.

“Given that Office for National Statistics (ONS) consumer spending statistics point to a net import of UK spending from tourism under normal circumstances, the reduction in overseas holidays this summer is likely to boost overall demand in the UK for food, with a greater number of meal occasions being provided for.”

The coronavirus crisis is not the only challenge on the plates of red meat suppliers. Fears have been expressed that talks between the US and the UK over a free-trade deal may lead to the market here being flooded by food that has not been produced to the standards British suppliers adhere to.

“It is essential that the Scottish red meat industry is provided with concrete assurances as soon as possible from the UK Government that our world-renowned, whole-chain assured brands.... will not be undercut by imported products produced to lower welfare and environmental standards, post-Brexit,” Mr Clarke said.