Hints of a weakening in consumer demand for beef and perhaps even for pork but more evidence of surprisingly resilient trade in the bacon and lamb categories are the main features of MLC analyst Tony Fowler's latest farm to retail price spread calculations. His figures on beef costs and returns to retailers are intriguing in light of recent media coverage of the continental BSE crisis and the resulting cheap imports. Last month's average farm gate price for cattle in this country was only about 3% lower than a year earlier, an experience producers nearly everywhere else in Europe would envy, whereas the retail price here was down nearly 6%. This appears to confirm the supermarkets' claims to continuing their support for the home industry, resisting the temptation offered by foreign bargains. At the same time there is clear pressure on the multiples' checkout prices, due at least in part to softening demand from shoppers as the trigger for widespread discounting. However, it is possible an improvement in the cattle and sheep slaughterers' returns from 'fifth quarter' by-product trade is masking a deteriorating margin on their supermarket business. The feeble retail prices for pork, despite tight supply, lend weight to the consumer demand weakness theory. Yet shopper response to the proliferation of bacon specials has clearly been enthusiastic. {{M/E MEAT }}