Unprecedented growth” is not a phrase you expect to hear in a conversation about frozen burgers. Ever since the infamous ‘horseburger’ was discovered back in January, the category seemed doomed to decline, with sales plummeting and a major supplier, ABP, selling up its frozen burger plant to focus on chilled products instead.
But Birds Eye UK and Ireland MD Andy Weston-Webb begs to differ. Far from being damaged by ‘Horsegate’, his company’s burger business has been boosted by the scandal, he claims, with value sales up by 11.9% year-on-year in the three months to 11 May - a sharp contrast to the wider category, which saw its value shrink by 34.4% during the same period [Nielsen]. And in the four-week period to 11 May, Birds Eye frozen burger sales were up by an astonishing 72.8% year-on-year.
True, that most recent boost was partly helped by some good weather, he admits, but it still amounts to “unprecedented levels of growth - frankly, it surprised us.” Birds Eye was the only frozen burger brand to remain on shelf at the height of the crisis, so it’s clearly benefited from rivals being out of action, but Weston-Webb insists that’s not the only reason it’s done well. “Most retailers now have their private-label offers back on shelf, and our sales are still growing,” he says. “What’s evident is that throughout this, [UK] consumers have trusted the Birds Eye brand.”
Birds Eye is now looking to reinforce that trust further by committing to sourcing only British and Irish beef for its burgers, and even at category level, Weston-Webb is hopeful frozen burgers are now through the worst of ‘Horsegate’. Category value sales fell by just 1.5% during the most recent four-week period and are now flat, he says - “and hopefully they will remain flat for the rest of the summer now.”
It’s a different story in ready meals, however. During the scandal, a far greater variety of ready meals (including three Birds Eye lines) were affected than burgers, eroding consumer trust in the category on a much wider scale.
Accordingly, ready meals sales continue to suffer - down by about 10% year-on-year in the three months to 11 May. But Birds Eye’s sales were down “more than that”, Weston-Webb admits - and the industry has some way to go to get the category back on track. “The ready meals market definitely has more headwinds. We all need to do a lot of work to reassure consumers - through point of sale, and in terms of innovation and quality.”
But if consumers really do trust the Birds Eye brand to the extent Weston-Webb is suggesting, why wasn’t it able to hold on to ready meals sales in the way it managed on the burger side?
“I think Birds Eye historically has had a very strong frozen burger business - our market share is 30% plus - and we are recognised as one of the original beefburgers in the market place,” he says. “We’re just not as strong in ready meals. We’ve got 6%-7% of that market, so our ability to influence that total is much lower.”
He won’t put a figure on how much Birds Eye lost as a result of having to withdraw three ready meals lines because of horse DNA contamination, but suggests the impact was small. The ready meals Birds Eye withdrew - shepherd’s pie, lasagne and spaghetti bolognese - represented 0.16% of its UK sales for the quarter, he says.
Given how small a part ready meals play in the Birds Eye portfolio - and the difficulties the category is experiencing - Weston-Webb would be forgiven for wanting out, but he insists the company remains committed. Its new British and Irish sourcing pledge will be extended to its ready meals later this year, and Weston-Webb hints at some major innovation in the pipeline. “Later in the year, we’ll be doing more to rebuild some consumer confidence in the category,” he says. “The big challenge is, can we raise the threshold of what consumers are prepared to pay? We’ll be looking to innovate, but we’ll be looking to do it to add value rather than just undercutting people on price.”