More discerning consumers are driving growth at UK meat processor Cranswick – despite the reputation of sausages and bacon taking a hit in the battle against rising obesity. In this month’s just-food interview, Bernard Hoggarth, chief executive of Cranswick’s food division, explains why the company is thriving on the back of consumers’ enduring love for a posh banger.

In the battle against obesity, and in the push to convince consumers of the merits of a healthy diet, some of the UK’s best loved foods have taken a bit of a hammering.

Take, for instance, the humble bacon sarnie. In November, the sandwich hit the headlines in the UK after a global study from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) claimed avoiding processed meats like bacon could help prevent the disease.

Leaving aside the merits of such claims, headlines like these can only inflict damage to a food’s reputation. Add that to concerns over the waistline of the British nation – and government-backed initiatives to promote a balanced diet – and it would seem the country’s meat processors would be in a state of anxiety.

Not so at Cranswick, one of the UK’s leading suppliers of pork, ham, bacon and sausages. Bernard Hoggarth, chief executive of the company’s Cranswick Food Group division, exudes confidence in his business. He says he heard news of the WCRF report on a train to London. “I remember the guy in front of me saying: ‘There’s no bloody way I’m going to stop eating my bacon sandwiches’. I think the consumer in the UK is like a totally saturated sponge now as far as food scares go and it can’t take any more on. We’ve never asked people to have bacon or sausages or pork with every meal of the day.”

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Despite a level of anxiety around eating bacon, sausages and the like, Cranswick’s business has thrived as, at the same time, some UK shoppers have become more sophisticated in their tastes. The Yorkshire-based company started out in pig feed but in the 1980s decided to rear pigs too. Through a mixture of acquisitions and new products, Cranswick has enjoyed double-digit profit growth over the last five years. The company majors on producing own-label products for retailers but, as Hoggarth points out, its focus is on the more premium end of the market.

“If you look at the structure of the business right across the piece, we are predominantly pushing the premiumisation of those categories to our retail customers,” Hoggarth explains over a coffee in London. “We’ve developed free-range products, organic products – anything to add some USP and some value and some differentiation from just the standard.”

Bernard Hoggarth, chief executive, Cranswick Food Group

Cranswick has cultivated relationships with retailers, for instance, in a deal with Sainsbury’s over the UK retailer’s Taste the Difference range. For Hoggarth, this focus on the upper end of the categories in which it operates has seen Cranswick prosper as the wider market treads water. “The whole market is stagnant and we’ve still got approaching double-digit growth. We account for about 40% of the premium sausage market. We just keep upping the ante,” Hoggarth says.

For the last 12 years, Cranswick has produced free-range and organic sausages under licence for the Duchy Originals brand, a company set up by the Prince of Wales in 1990. This week, however, the agreement between the two sides came to an end. Hoggarth insists the end of the deal will not affect Cranswick. “Is it an issue to Cranswick? It most certainly isn’t. It will be an opportunity for us to rejig our factories for our own benefit,” he says.

Hoggarth points to a series of investments in the company’s manufacturing footprint as evidence of its confidence that consumers will still plump for a posh banger. Nevertheless, with fears of an economic downturn hanging over the heads of UK shoppers, could a possible tightening of the belts hit a company so focused on selling upmarket products?

“I wonder how much this talk on the economic climate is just hype and journalists getting all excited,” Hoggarth says. “Speaking to the retailers, it doesn’t seem to be quite that “boom and bust” furrow through the middle of what was a great period in 06/07 to what is a disastrous period now.”

Nevertheless, Hoggarth concedes that some retailers had seen a change over Christmas. “Retailers said it was a very good Christmas but they said there wasn’t the same premiumisation uplift in some of their meat categories. Speaking to other retailers, they said that they had sold out of their premium meat products and they hadn’t seen that switch to standard or value. It depends on the demographic and the retailer’s badge.”

Hoggarth’s – and Cranswick’s confidence – remains predicated on the assumption that should consumer spending weaken, it will be restaurants that are more likely to suffer. Shoppers will still spend on quality – but at home. “When the nip and tuck comes, there’ll be less bums on seats in restaurants generally speaking but the quality of food will continue to be purchased for home consumption. And that’s where we are.”

Furthermore, Hoggarth argues, the fierce rivalry among UK retailers means there will still be competition on price. “They are all looking backwards and over their shoulder rather than looking forwards,” he says. “There is such a battle for market share and having the cheapest basket or, in the main, the best-value basket.”

Nevertheless, in a climate of rising commodity costs, pig farmers are facing financial hardship. Some retailers, Hoggarth reveals, are taking a “balanced and long-term view” about “making sure that they have a supply chain of raw material”. He adds: “We’ve got a situation where, for instance, Sainsbury’s is supporting all the pig producers that we process for them. The only reason that is not happening universally is because the retailers are paranoid about market share.”

With pig feed costs alone almost doubling in eight months, and something of a surplus of pork in the industry, some farmers are exiting the business. Rising costs are also likely to affect the processing part of the supply chain with some consolidation looking certain. Cranswick will play an active role in that process, Hoggarth admits, but he is cagey on where the company will move next. “We have always been acquisitive – ever since we went public. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a discussion of some kind at some time within the group. If you look at our business, there will always be opportunities.”

In the current nutritional and economic climate, Hoggarth’s belief could seem a little misplaced. However, looking at Cranswick’s growth in recent years – and bearing in mind the place a bacon sarnie has in British hearts – the company’s reputation as a darling of the City seems deserved.