A successful lamb supply chain depends on farmers, processors and retailers communicating and responding to evolving consumer demand.
Producers attending a series of three Waitrose workshops in England and Wales heard that they should forget the 1980s when most supermarkets had 10 lamb products in their chill cabinets.
Liz Rees, a lamb specialist at processor Dalehead Foods, said most retailers now stocked 24 lines, plus organic lamb products.
Retailers knew what sold well and put pressure on processors, who in turn set precise carcass specifications for farmers.
When lambs fell outside those guidelines, both processors and producers lost out.
“The efficiency of the abattoir is reduced because it has to slaughter an increased number of lambs to deliver the retail requirement,” said Ms Rees.
“Consumers do not like fat, and the pack with the most fat is always the last on the shelf.
It is difficult and expensive to trim the fat to achieve an acceptable finished pack quality.”
As a result, farmers were paid discounted prices for over-fat lambs, as they were for those that were heavier than specified.
The reason was that when an 18.5kg lamb was processed, a pack containing a whole shoulder retailed for 5.79 and a leg pack for £14.28.
Corresponding prices for packs from a 22kg lamb were £7.12 and £16.94, which put off buyers.
She had a message for producers who compared supermarket prices with what they received.
They should be aware that when an 18.5kg lamb was processed only about 59% ended up in saleable retail packs, and the percentage fell to 31% when cuts were boned out.
The situation was not helped because the UK lagged behind other countries in finding better markets for lower-value parts of carcasses.
“Improved utilisation of shoulders has to be a key objective for lamb processors,” she added.
Looking ahead, Ms Rees saw good prospects for lamb provided everyone in the supply chain showed commitment, integrity, a determination to supply consistent quality and willingness to innovate to change with the market.
Heather Jenkins, head of meat buying at Waitrose, agreed, and forecast that the global balance between supply and demand would remain tight for the next five years.
This would provide marketing opportunities for UK farmers.
But they needed to understand market requirements, know the costs and factors influencing better returns, and use feedback from the marketplace to make more informed decisions.
They should try to understand processing, and buyers’ abilities to turn carcasses into meal solutions that provided consumers with consistent quality and value for money.