The children’s nursery rhyme serves them traditionally, “on top of spaghetti all covered with cheese”, but these days retailers and suppliers are looking to tempt shoppers into the meatballs category with more adventurous flavour combinations, and are clearly determined not to let the horsemeat scandal - and the fact even Ikea’s iconic meatballs were caught up in it - dampen their creative juices.

So what’s the source of their optimism? Although the £74m meatballs category has seen healthy value growth of 6.8% over the past year, it’s actually price inflation and fewer promotions that have mostly been responsible for the growth - volume sales have risen by just 0.8% year-on-year to 13,687 tonnes [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 17 February 2013], as budget-conscious shoppers have “managed spend by buying in smaller quantities”, says Kantar analyst James Todd.

But the meatballs market is likely to develop in the way cooked meat has grown, with new flavourings”, claims Charlie Douglas, brand marketing controller at Bernard Matthews. “We wouldn’t be surprised if meatballs take on an international feel with tastes from India, China and the US.”

Most innovation involves a modest tweak in flavour profile at best. Tesco now offers tomato and chilli beef meatballs, Asda has listed a roast garlic variant and Morrisons has extended its range with a sun-dried tomato and basil flavour. “Meatballs have risen in popularity, and we have therefore launched additional products to meet consumer demand,” explains Morrisons head of meat trading Andrew Smith.

Since earlier this month, Sainsbury’s has started listing Petruzzi’s meatballs. The family-owned brand produces ready-cooked meatballs in tomato sauce, with the slogan ‘Italian soul - Irish attitude’.

But with Brits embracing spicier meats and sausages, retailers and suppliers can afford to be brave, says Mike Whittemore, head of trade marketing at Eblex. “There are other, sharper flavour profiles to be tapped into, such as jalapeño peppers.”

And greater variety doesn’t just mean fancier flavours. Although the meatballs category continues to be dominated by beef, other meats are making inroads.

Even before ‘Horsegate’, pork had emerged as the rising star of the category, far outperforming total market growth with value sales up by 31.3% and volume up 24.7% over the past year.

Kerry Foods hopes to capitalise on the market dynamics with its latest launch, Richmond Mini Meatballs. They went into stores in March, aimed at mothers with children aged two to nine, and take just eight minutes to prepare instead of the 20 for fresh meatballs.

And Bernard Matthews - no stranger to a crisis - is talking to retailers about launching fresh turkey meatball ranges, which could be “a big growth area”, according to Douglas, for the turkey giant.

Morrisons has already added turkey (sold under its NuMe healthy eating label) as well as venison meatballs to its range.

Meanwhile, Kantar’s figures are encouraging - “well over one quarter of all households” are now purchasing meatballs, says Todd. With new, exciting flavours in the pipeline, retailers and suppliers are hoping shoppers will soon be coming back for more

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