Meat and dairy substitute products have had a disproportionate amount of airtime in recent years, being touted as the shortcut to dealing with climate change by reducing the need for livestock.

They have attracted huge celebrity investment and looked set to present a real challenge to meat and dairy products with consumers.

However, as the Irish Farmers Journal has been reporting, it has been a very bleak picture for the sector in recent months, with demand falling, though not as fast as the share price, and losses increasing.

AHDB study

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) - the levy dairy board in England - has recently carried out analysis on the relative price values and consumer choices in that market.

The study found that, unsurprisingly, inflation has hit all sectors hard and led consumers to think harder about their food purchasing choices.

Milk is identified as a core product in any household shop. In Britain, where most milk sales are own-label, it has frequently been used as a loss leader in supermarkets to attract shoppers, according to the AHDB.

The average retail price only moved marginally from 54p/l (63c/l) in 2018 to 55p/l (64c/l) in October 2021, but it has jumped by 35% to 74p/l (86c/l) in October 2022.

Consumer demand

Despite this increase, there has been no material drop off in consumer demand or switching to milk substitute products.

In the Kantar retail data to September 2022, 95% of households in Britain were milk buyers, while just 13% of households bought an own-label substitute and 22% when branded products were included.

When the real milk and milk substitute markets are combined, the milk substitute products make up just 6% of the overall market.

The AHDB has identified two reasons for the continued strong performance of real milk in retail sales.

Despite the increased price, it makes an invaluable contribution to nutrition and it still remains price competitive with the alternative substitutes.

Equally persuasively for consumers, the milk substitute products are not a low-price alternative. While real milk has increased in price, so also has the price of substitute products, with own-label alternatives now costing 91p/l (€106c/l), a huge 23% more than the price of real milk.

Own-label milk has displaced branded milk in Irish supermarkets, as well as in the UK.

Interestingly, branded substitute milk products have increased by only 8%, but this was on a much higher original base of £1.59/l (€1.85/l). This category has lost 10% of volume sales over the past year and the AHDB draws the parallel of own-label replacing branded product for mild substitutes just has it has done several years ago with real milk.

Of course, Irish farmers are well aware of the same happening in Ireland in relation to own-label supermarket sales growing at the expensive of the branded milk products.

It is interesting to note that despite a big increase in retail price, milk remains a staple with consumers in Britain.

It should also give some encouragement to farmers and the food industry that consumers will pay more for a product that they value highly.

It also helps that what might be considered as competitor products are actually more expensive than milk, so there isn’t a cheap alternative.

Similarly for meat consumers, pork and chicken are cheaper options than beef and lamb and are acceptable to consumers, making switching an option. Milk benefits from the fact that it is unique in this respect.

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