What’s on the menu? Provenance and price increases

WHEN THERE’S a food price spike it’s often played down as a flash in the pan. That’s what happened in 2008. But then there was another spike in 2010 and it’s happening again now. Or is it?


In January, Waitrose’s managing director, Mark Price, warned that price increases in some commodities will be “massive”. After months of heavy rain, planting of crops such as wheat has been significantly delayed. The springtime snow could also affect livestock prices this year, with feed prices also up 50% from 15 months ago according to some reports.


However, at the Financial Times Global Commodities Summit, there were claims that wholesale food prices are set to tumble this year thanks to “bumper crops” in the US and South America. Last year, the worst drought in half a century devastated US crops and drove prices to record highs.


The weather was still refusing to release its grip on crops though. Greg Page, the chief executive at agricultural trader Cargill, cautioned in the FT that the soil in some areas was still frozen, making it too soon to draw conclusions.


The point is: the climate is changing and with it are food prices. Horizons’ latest biannual Menurama research, which tracks menu changes across 116 chain hotels, pubs, restaurants and quickservice outlets, reveals that over the past six months average dish prices have risen more than in any six-month period since the survey began in 2006.


The average price of a dish across all outlets has risen 6.4% in a year, from £6.29 to £6.69, with a 5.7% rise in the past six months. The average cost of a starter is £5.59 (up 5.6% in the past six months), a main course is £10.62 (up 7%) and a dessert averages £4.20 (up 4.2%). These rises are significantly above RPI inflation of 2.7% as of January 2013.


As well as a rise in price, there’s also been a greater focus on provenance. The Horizons director of services, Nicola Knight, says statements such as “local sourcing”, “free range”, “homemade” and other quality assurances are more frequent. There has also been growth in the number of British dishes listed, such as Eton Mess and Bakewell Tart (Hilton) and Gloucester Old Spot sausage & mash (Slug & Lettuce).


In fact, describing a menu ingredient as “local” has become one of the top five terms used on menus, joining “homemade”, “free range”, “organic” and “sustainable” as the ethical favourites. The use of food provenance labels has risen nearly 18% since summer 2010.


“Descriptions of food provenance are something [we have] tracked previously, but operators are now using it far more,” explains Knight. “This survey was undertaken before the recent horse meat scandal emerged, but because of renewed concerns over food sourcing, particularly meat, we would expect our next survey to show even more effort being made by operators
to reassure consumers with details of provenance.”