The public might have lost some trust in supermarkets and caterers, but smart operators can turn the situation to their advantage if their supply chain is robust. John Porter reports
While German politicians debate the ethics of distributing ready meals found to contain horse DNA to the poor, the prices paid for UK beef cattle at auction are climbing week by week.
Whatever else emerges from the horse meat scandal, campaigners for short, transparent supply chains and meat produced to high welfare standards hope this is the moment when - pardon the expression - the blinkers come off.
Peter Hardwick, head of trade development at EBLEX, told the BBC: "I suspect that, when the dust settles on this particular issue, the conclusion that people will come to is that you can't get something for nothing."
His colleague Hugh Judd, EBLEX food service project manager, expects the upward movement in beef prices to be followed by lamb, although to a lesser extent. "For both beef and lamb, the value farmers have been getting was less than it was costing them to produce it," he says. "To have a sustainable industry, you have to pay the going rate.
"At present, lamb represents excellent value for money principally because New Zealand has flooded the market with cheap lamb."
Judd expects the annual increase in demand for new season British lamb - as well as renewed interest in assured British meat generally, following the horse meat scandal - to help push up the price British lamb producers receive.
That won't necessarily be good news for caterers struggling to balance their budgets, but Judd believes the advantages to operators of signing up to the EBLEX Quality Standard Mark will become even more apparent over the coming months.
"With traceability a particularly hot topic at the moment, customers will increasingly be looking for assurance and origin indicators on menus," he says.
The scheme includes specific requirements for mince and burgers, and EBLEX will also promote a new Gourmet Burger Range through QSM butchers later in the year.
Other areas of focus include a range of 11 alternative steak cuts, all of which represent a saving for caterers, enabling them to put steak on the menu at a more economical price point.
Tony Goodger, food service trade sector manager at BPEX, also forecasts benefits for British pork producers, in terms of increased demand for products such as pork mince and charcuterie.
He predicts: "Pork mince is something we're going to be seeing more use of by caterers. We have a continuing interest in Italian cooking, and in Italy they're more likely to use pork mince in a dish such as a bolognese sauce." Asian cuisine, also in growth in the restaurant sector, widely uses minced pork.
The Red Tractor standard for farm-assured pork is being further tightened this year to require that pigs are vet-inspected four times a year. Goodger expects this higher welfare standard, combined with a growing interest in traditional pork dishes, to support British producers.
Alongside gastropub staples such as home-made Scotch eggs and pork scratchings, dishes such as haslet and pork terrine are increasingly appearing on menus.
"We are getting more interest in buying a whole animal, and in a recession chefs look to traditional recipes," Goodger says.
A new BPEX DVD, also available on YouTube, demonstrates how to get maximum value by buying a whole pig.
The growing interest in less-familiar cuts has prompted Gilbert's Foods to launch two new 400g Stuffed Lamb Shoulder dishes, designed for spring menus, in Apricot & Lemonâ¨ and Redcurrant & Rosemaryâ¨varieties.
Managing director Peter Smith says: "There are many under-used and under-valued cuts of meat that deserve more attention, as they can be cost-effective and â¨versatile without compromising on taste.
"Our Stuffed Lamb Shoulders are a good-value, tasty cut of meat and, cooked properly with a good combination of quality herbs and ingredients, they provide a great menu option."
Poultry can also help to drive menu diversity, according to â¨Nigel Parkes, purchasing and marketing director.
"Operators are increasingly choosing to consolidate their order by buying larger quantities of one item, achieving a better price per unit, but still managing to maintain diversity by presenting it on the menu in a variety of different ways using sauces, dressings, glazes and seasonings," he says.
With frozen meals at the heart of the contamination scandal, Brian Young, director general of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF), rejects the view that frozen food is of inferior â¨quality to fresh food, but accepts consumers will now have concerns. "It's about how we keep criminals out of the food chain," he says.
"Frozen food can have major benefits for caterers looking to reduce overheads in a bid to offset ingredient price rises and boost the bottom line in the face of economic pressures."
These benefits include better portion control, less preparation time, a need for fewer skilled kitchen staff and reduced wastage, while hugely extended shelf-life means that frozen is more protected from sudden price rises and caterers are able to buy in bulk, in order to ease stock control difficulties brought by unstable prices.
Stephen Minall, director of consultancy Moving Food and of sandwich bar business Wrapid, believes that a disconnect between menu development teams and those tasked with procuring products has created the working conditions that led to the horse meat scandal.
While decisions about new menu items often comes via chefs' steering committees and new product development departments, "negotiation of suggested costs and pricing is often left to the procurement team".
"If the procurement team visits the manufacturer at all - and many never do," says Minall, "the actual ingredients are never discussed, as long as the price seems about right, and the dish will fit the menu and required GP.
"Who really asks the important questions, such as: what's in the product; where did it come from; what were the farming techniques; and, more importantly, what additives, preservatives or E numbers are in this range? The answer is, very few ask at all."
He sums up: "As catering chains and especially pub groups demand lower food prices with quick, microwavable results, who is left to care about what drives the shelf life, or what's in the products? The procurement teams from these chains have little knowledge and perhaps even less interest in totally traceability. Add to that the so-called procurement experts, who are more concerned with GPs, cheaper logistics and winning contracts, and it's not so hard to see how the industry has ended up in disarray."
MACDONALD HOTELS & RESORTS' SCOTTISH STEAK CLUB
Recognising growing consumer interest in the provenance of food, Macdonald Hotels & Resorts has revamped its Scottish Steak Club restaurant brand, which operates at 10 of the group's hotels, from Aviemore in Scotland to the new Forest in Hampshire.
At the heart of the menu is a range of 21-day aged steaks sourced from processor Scotbeef, cooked on Josper charcoal grills at most sites. The choice ranges from a 225g sirloin steak priced at £20.50 to a 350g T-bone at £24.50, with a Scotbeef burger also available.
The Scottish Steak Club menu highlights not only the provenance of the beef, but also of other dishes, including Highland lamb, pork produced to the British Meat Quality Standard, and free-range chicken and eggs holding the Good Farm Animal Welfare 2012 Good Egg Award.
Macdonald Hotels regional development chef Stuart Duff says: "The core Scottish Steak Club menu is priced competitively within the steak restaurant market. We also do in-house specials every day, featuring food in season, using the best-quality produce available from our suppliers."
A loyalty scheme has also been launched.
THE ROAST WITH THE MOST
Sunday lunch is an important trading period for pubs and restaurants. Sarah Branagan, Knorr category manager at Unilever Food Solutions, offers some tips to make the most of roast meat and poultry.
â- Don't bulk buy Bulk buying meat doesn't necessarily mean value for money if there's nowhere to store it. One of the best ways to save money without compromising quality is to ask for less "service" - a butcher's term for how much effort went into preparing a piece of meat. Less effort generally means a cheaper price per pound.
â- Don't forget the flavouring Increase the flavours of cheaper cuts of meat with seasoning. â¨A paste made with Knorr Bouillon and olive oil is really easy and boosts the natural flavour. Leaving meat to marinade for a few hours before cooking helps break down the natural fibres, making it more tender and tastier.
â- Waste not, want not - Use your leftovers to create classic dishes such as bubble and squeak, or boil up the leftover bones with some vegetables and blend with spices to make a tasty soup or stock.