The horsemeat scandal: an opportunity to increase fresh beef prices as concerned shoppers are prepared to pay more for higher-value options? Or time to slash prices to ensure they don’t trade out of the category?

Three months after the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) first announced it had found horse DNA in processed meat products, the answer across the big four appears to be… neither.

Although wholesale prices for UK and Irish beef have continued to climb in the wake of the scandal - driven by generally tight supplies and increased demand for more local meat - retail price inflation on fresh beef products has stalled.

An analysis of 320 fresh beef lines across Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons that were stocked in mid-January and are still stocked today shows 258 - 81% - are the same price now as they were on 16 January, the day the FSAI announced its infamous ‘horseburger’ discovery []. Meanwhile, 46 (15%) have become more expensive, and 14 (4%) are now cheaper than they were in mid-January.

Ingredient prices cheaper than a year ago

Bar a few exceptions such as honey,, prices for most dry ingredients are cheaper than a year ago, although they have started to pick up again over the past month. Excellent production in 2012 triggered a decline in desiccated coconut prices over the past 12 months, with prices falling about 20% however, prices have started to strengthen month-on-month due to stronger demand, especially from China.

Improved supplies have also caused dried apricot to tumble year-on-year, thanks to a good production run in turkey, the world’s biggest producer. But prices have edged up over the past four weeks, as lower prices have stimulated demand.

Peanut prices are down 31.7% year-on-year as the market returns to more normal pricing after poor US harvests in 2011/12 led to a supply shortfall and unusually high prices. The 5.5% rise in the past month is due to US forecasts that the 2013/14 planted area will be down significantly.

Examples of products that have become more expensive can be found in all four retailers and span every sub-category of the beef fixture, including a 454g pack of Tesco premium beef burgers with Cheddar, which was £3 in mid-January and costs £3.50 today, an Asda frying steak, which has gone up from £5 to £6, a roasting joint in Sainsbury’s, which used to cost £4.99 and is now £5.49, and a 500g pack of mince in Morrisons, which has moved from £2.60 to £3.75.

Having said this, mince products account for a disproportionately large share of price increases, making up 14 (30%) of the 46 beef lines that have gone up in price in the mults over the past three months. This could give rise to suggestions retailers are capitalising on consumers wanting to make more of their own burgers from fresh mince instead of buying prepared, ready-to-cook products, but needs to be seen against the wider background of the mince category, which accounts for 59 lines in our sample - of which 76% have not gone up in price since mid-January.

While the big four have kept beef prices steady, the picture is markedly different in Waitrose. data suggests that of the 82 fresh beef lines that were stocked in Waitrose in mid-January and are still on sale today, 68% (56) have become more expensive over the past three months, while just 23 have stayed the same and three have become cheaper.

On a year-on-year basis, prices have gone up on beef products in all retailers, in line with general meat inflation. On average, a fresh beef product is now 4% more expensive than last year [].