The meat snack industry has evolved in recent years. Transforming from an industry of products that consumers viewed as unhealthy, snacks like biltong have been driving the evolution of meat snacks into foods suitable for picky, health-conscious consumers. This article details how the UK biltong industry has evolved, industry growth drivers in the region, the importance of the European market, and opportunities and threats that biltong producers in the UK need to consider.
Biltong originated in South Africa over 400 years ago. Originally created as a way to preserve meat in times before fridges and electricity were invented, biltong was a staple amongst people who travelled long distances in the South African heat. Unlike other meat snacks, biltong is different in the fact that it doesn’t require cooking or re-dehydration before it can be consumed.
The traditional way to produce biltong is by using a selection of meats such as game meat, beef or ostrich. These meats are filleted while they are raw. The fillets either follow the grain of the meat or flat pieces are produced by slicing across the grain. Indigenous South Africans would then cure these strips of meat with salt and hang them up to dehydrate the meat. This process changed slightly after European settlers arrived in South Africa in the early 17th century, with the introduction of vinegar and herbs and spices such as pepper, coriander and cloves added to the curing process. It would take two weeks for the meat to dehydrate before it was ready to eat.
South African folklore also paints a picture of how biltong was produced back when Voortrekkers made the Great Trek from the Cape Colony in the north to the interior of South Africa, moving away from territories under British rule. To survive the trek, the Voortrekkers needed non-perishable food which is why biltong was so important to these people. It’s reported that some travellers would even place strips of meat under their horse saddles — the weight of the horse saddle and sweat of the horse acting as a way to tenderise and flavour the meat.
From its humble beginnings as a food produced primarily for its non-perishable nature, the biltong industry has become more commercialised. In South Africa, the biltong industry is worth USD2.6 billion. One of the key threats to the biltong industry in South Africa is the prevalence of foot and mouth disease (FMD) with two outbreaks of the disease in the three years to June 2018. This makes the demand for quality meat significant in South Africa, but it also presents an opportunity for South Africans living abroad in countries such as the UK to import their products back to their home country.
Biltong has become increasingly popular in markets that have a large South African population such as the UK. The growth of the broader meat snacks industry has driven part of this popularity. From 2011 to 2016, the UK’s meat snack industry grew by 50 per cent. One of the biggest drivers of growth in this industry is the introduction of ‘premiumised’ products that meet consumer demand for healthy snacks that are convenient to purchase and consume. Biltong meets these consumer demands, and with further education around the production process and health benefits of biltong, the UK biltong market could grow significantly.
While some consumers, particularly in America, refer to biltong and jerky interchangeably, the end products couldn't be more different due to the different production processes and the difference in taste and texture. Unlike jerky, biltong is cut into bite-sized strips after the meat is fully dehydrated. As a result, pieces of biltong are more consistent in taste, size and texture than jerky, making it an excellent snacking choice for health-conscious consumers who don’t enjoy the inconsistent texture of jerky.
Biltong also has a range of health benefits when it’s consumed in moderation. It’s low in fat, at about 3 per cent, so it makes a great snacking choice for health-conscious consumers on the go. The other health benefits of consuming biltong include its high vitamin B12 content, the fact it’s naturally gluten-free, and its high protein content. About 25 grams of beef biltong can provide almost half of a person’s daily protein needs.
Beyond the health benefits of consuming biltong, there are other elements of this meat snack that consumers like and dislike. According to a research paper published in the African Journal of Agricultural Research, consumers enjoy the flavoursome taste of biltong, while some consumers cited undesirable texture as the major factor that will cause a consumer to dislike biltong. To produce the research paper, a study was conducted by a team in Brazil with Brazilian consumers. The study recorded how consumers liked three different formulations of biltong. The formulations in the study were:
Based on looking at and tasting the three biltong formulations detailed above, the consumers in the study preferred the lighter looking colour of formulation II and formulation III. All formulations were described as having a hard texture that could be easily softened as the consumers chewed. Formulation III, with the addition of the pineapple juice, had the most appealing texture as it was softer than formulation I and formulation II. This study demonstrates that, while a relatively unknown product in Brazil, consumers were curious about and enjoyed the flavour and texture of biltong when it included some traditional South American flavours that consumers already liked. Using this study as an example, it’s important that biltong producers ensure the flavours included in the curing process appeal to their target market.
One of the most important factors in meat snack production is the cost of meat. If the cost of meat goes up, these increases can’t always be passed down the supply chain, which can result in diminished profit margins. This is a key risk that biltong producers need to keep top of mind and address in their business planning and strategy.
Brexit should remain a key consideration for UK-based biltong producers, and businesses importing products to the European Union (EU) need to ensure they remain up to date with the latest trade rules. Fortunately, these rules have become clearer since the UK and EU agreed to a new trade deal on 24 December 2020. The new deal, which came into effect at 11pm GMT on 31 December 2020, outlines how trade across borders will be managed.
Prior to Brexit, UK companies could buy and sell goods across EU borders without tax implications. There also weren’t any limits on the number of goods that could be bought and sold. These two key enablers to free trade in the region remain in place under the new trade deal, which is good news for UK companies. While there won’t be any new taxes on goods moving across borders, there will be additional paperwork and checks at borders. These checks include safety checks and customs declarations. It’s important that companies are aware of the paperwork and procedures required, as incomplete paperwork could lead to significant delays at ports.
Under the new trade deal, some UK animal food products are subject to new restrictions. UK companies moving live animals or animal products between the UK and the EU will need to obtain an export health certificate (EHC). Full details and guidance about the process of obtaining an EHC are available through the UK’s Animal Plant and Health Agency and the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
It’s important to note that while the UK and EU have agreed to identical rules, including those around buying and selling goods across borders, it doesn’t mean these rules will be identical in the future. For example, if one side of the deal negotiates an exception to the trade deal, it could trigger a dispute and the potential for the introduction of tariffs on specific products. This means that the potential for a trade dispute and tariffs is a possibility and risk that all UK companies must continually consider and mitigate.
The proximity of Europe to the UK presents promising export opportunities for UK-based biltong producers. These opportunities include exporting high-quality, ‘clean and green’ biltong, but also in creating products that meet the niche demands of European consumers. For example, in Europe, there is high demand for pork-based meat snacks, demonstrating a niche that UK companies could capitalise on as they expand to the European market.
The global meat snacks market is expected to be worth USD9.47 billion by 2021. The UK and European markets will drive a large portion of this growth with these markets expected to grow at a CAGR of 10.6 per cent and 10.1 per cent, respectively, from 2017 to 2025. According to FONA, the largest percentage of global consumers to eat meat snacks in 2017 were:
And with meat snack product launches growing by 115 per cent in the UK from 2013 to 2017, the rapid growth of the meat snacks industry in the region is just beginning. For new market entrants, this is a prime time to bring new products to market to capitalise on the industry’s infancy and recent momentum.
Another promising factor for the UK is the high levels of meat snack consumption in nearby European countries. For example, the popularity of meat snack products in Germany and Spain means these countries could become strong export markets further driving the growth of the industry in the UK. Further, according to Grand View Research, the UK, Belgium and Luxembourg are expected to be the fastest-growing markets from 2017 to 2025, highlighting further export opportunities for UK-based producers.
The image below details the saturation of the global meat snacks industry. As detailed in the image, the UK is a medium-sized market along with South America, presenting an opportunity for entrepreneurial biltong producers to capitalise on the smaller size of the market to become key industry players.
Image source: Mordor Intelligence.
As a mid-sized market, the UK biltong industry presents promising opportunities for entrepreneurial producers looking to capitalise on the changing snacking habits of health-conscious consumers. This is demonstrated in the 115 per cent growth of the meat snacks industry in the UK from 2013 to 2017. The UK, Belgium and Luxembourg are expected to be the fastest-growing markets from 2017 to 2025. For UK-based companies first looking to establish their brand in the UK, followed by export to nearby markets, this demonstrates the powerful growth that UK-based biltong producers can experience from domestic and international sales.
As meat snacks have become more popular in recent years, biltong has become a great snacking option for health-conscious consumers who value convenience and quality food. Unlike other meat snacks, biltong is very flavoursome while having a more appealing texture than products such as jerky. It’s not just enough, however, to create healthy snacks. The packaging and marketing for these products need to look ‘clean and green’ and healthy too. Companies that create their biltong products and branding in alignment with what health-conscious consumers like will have significant potential to establish a strong, sustainable business in the UK and neighbouring international markets.