“Monday, Monday, no meat that day... ” With no little thanks to a certain Beatle, meat-free sales are looking rosy. But it’s not the vegetarian community that’s driving most of the growth. Beth Phillips reports

One meat-free day a week could become "as obvious as recycling, or hybrid cars", Sir Paul McCartney told the European Parliament last month.

Macca's argument that eating less meat can reduce global warming may seem far-fetched for hardcore carnivores, but it doesn't detract from the fact that, for whatever reason, more people are turning to meat-free foods.

Sales have risen 5.8% by value to £243m in the past year, with volume up 2.8% [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 1 November 2009]. Crucially, with the number of vegetarians static at about three to four million, growth in the sector is coming from meat-eaters looking to cut their meat consumption 390,000 new shoppers have bought into meat-free in the past year.

So far, 14,000 people have signed up via website and Facebook to Macca's Meat Free Monday campaign, launched in June. And many others have responded to warnings that meat production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than other climate change contributors by cutting down on their meat intake.

"People are becoming more interested in alternatives to the meat-heavy diet," says Meat Free Monday campaign director Pat Thomas. "It is likely a renewed interest in growing your own not just because it is cheaper, but because it is a more sustainable way to eat is helping to create a parallel rise in interest in eating more fresh, seasonal plant-based foods."

Concerns about the cost and environmental impact of meat have dovetailed with anxieties about the impact of a meat-rich diet on health, bolstering the sector further. Indeed, meat-free's healthy eating credentials remain the biggest attraction for new shoppers, especially when combined with a strong price message.

Hence Premier Foods' £7m investment in new packaging, a new logo, an ad campaign and strong value promotions for Quorn. It has also launched bigger value packs of frozen sausages and burgers and linked up with Iceland to offer round-pound price-marked packs. This has helped boost Quorn sales 7% to £125m in the past 12 months, according to the company.

Quorn's growth has also been helped by the popularity of scratch cooking, with sales of meat-free mince and pieces products, led by Quorn mince, rising 9.4% by value and 17.9% by volume in the past year [Kantar Worldpanel]. "Consumers are keen on eating healthy, freshly prepared food," says Ben Johnson, marketing director for Cranks. "If they haven't been able to find a vegetarian prepared meal that offers these qualities, then they may have turned to scratch cooking or shopping within other categories."

Consumers have become more confident at cooking with veggie mince and veggie pieces, adds Vanessa Brown, head of corporate relations for the Vegetarian Society. "It's second nature in a lot of meat-eating households to use veggie mince instead of minced meat due to fat content," she says.

Quorn is hoping to cash in further on the boom in scratch cooking with Just Add, a range launched last autumn that includes Quorn mince and pieces ready-mixed with herbs, spices and vegetables. Meanwhile, Linda McCartney Foods is planning to launch a vegetarian mince previously available under owner Hain Celestial's RealEat brand this year.

Whether it is successful or not will depend upon price as much as anything else. While Quorn has thrived in the recession, Premier's premium brand has struggled. "Cauldron had a difficult year in 2009, like many other organic and premium brands and markets," says a spokesman. "Cauldron is seen as a natural, vegetarian, more aspirational brand and in 2010 will focus on taste and recipe inspiration."

Ready meals, which are naturally higher in price than ingredients, have also had a torrid time, sales slumping 22.3% by volume and 12% by value [Kantar Worldpanel], despite high-profile NPD. One casualty was New Covent Garden Food Co, which made its first move into ready meals in March with Sprout, a range of three meat-free meals that launched into Waitrose but was axed six months later.

Even Quorn failed to buck the trend. Although ready meals account for only a fraction of its portfolio, they hold a 60% share of the ready meals market. So a lapsed promotion can have a dramatic effect on the overall sector's sales. And last year it did.

"The decline is mostly due to very heavy Quorn cottage pie promotions in the first-quarter of 2008, which were not repeated in 2009," admits general manger for insight and customer marketing Jeremy Hughes. "These promotions were in support of the Quorn TV advert at the time, which featured cottage pie. In 2009, the Quorn TV ad featured mince, hence the change in emphasis."

The ready meals slump didn't put Linda McCartney Foods off launching a ready-meals range inspired by exotic dishes at the beginning of 2009, followed by cottage pie and toad in the hole in October. In the same month, Cranks launched three prepared meals. But category experts express disquiet over Quorn's continued dominance of the sector and say they would like to see still more innovation.

"The category needs more variety when it comes to brands and more specialist, niche products," claims a spokeswoman for The Redwood Wholefood Company, which was bought by Sir Paul McCartney's ex-wife Heather Mills in July last year. "At the moment, the category is dominated by brands such as Cauldron and Quorn. There's definitely a move towards artisan producers such as ourselves."

The bias of the supermarkets towards the big brands could be putting off new customers, adds the Vegetarian Society's Brown. "There needs to be more choice in the major supermarkets. The Vegetarian Society works with hundreds of companies that produce some excellent, innovative vegetarian products. Unfortunately, very few make it on to supermarket shelves."

This is only underscored by the manner in which supermarkets market their meat-free categories. Sainsbury's signage for frozen meat-free products, for example, includes images of Linda McCartney products. But ranging and merchandising tactics are getting better, believes vegetarian and vegan campaigning group Viva! "Gone are the days of vegetarian and vegan foods being relegated to a dark corner in shops," says Viva! campaigns manager Justin Kerswell. "A trip to a supermarket shows how much the market has expanded in the past 10 years."

Quorn needs help to push the category, adds Hughes. "Brands need to invest in consumer communications to convince new buyers to add meat-free products to their meal repertoire. So far only the Quorn brand has invested in significant marketing activity to drive the category."

Heather Mills' The Redwood Wholefood Company is expected to up the ante this year raising the tantalising prospect of the two former McCartney wives' brands going head to head on supermarket shelves. At the moment its 50 product portfolio, which features brands such as Vegideli, Cheatin' and Cheezly, is only listed in health food shops. But, hints a spokeswoman, there is potential for further growth.

"The category needs more innovation and a broader range of products," she says. "People want specialist knowledge, the highest quality and to be assured that attention has been paid to every aspect of the product, especially sourcing."

Other players are equally coy about their plans, although Northern Foods, which owns Grassington's, says it plans to launch a fajita product in March, while Cranks is looking to expand its organic bread range with new varieties. The good news is that vegetarians are open to the unusual and new.

Vegetarian haggis has been a bestseller for haggis maker Macsween since its launch 25 years ago and won Best Vegetarian Society Approved Convenience Food at the Vegetarian Society Awards in October. Another winner was Grolsch, which won Best Vegetarian Society Approved Drink, seeing off McDonald's milkshakes.

That such major fmcg names are associating themselves with vegetarian bodes well for the category. "There is no longer a stigma about the word 'vegetarian' as it is increasingly associated with being a greener, more sustainable way of eating," says James Gentle, marketing manager for Linda McCartney Foods.

With Meat Free Monday and its celebrity supporters giving vegetarian food an increasingly cool image, meat-free looks set for further sales uplifts in 2010.

Focus On Meat-Free