Britain’s biggest retailers have vowed to throw Britain’s red meat sector a lifeline.

But there is a proviso – farmers must be prepared to focus more on the consumer.

Head buyers from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda told delegates at the Red Meat Industry Forum convention on Wednesday (2 Nov) they admitted that they had to act in a more responsible way after hearing dire predictions on the industry’s future from a range of experts.

NFU vice-president Meurig Raymond said: “If a lot of our members aren’t profitable within 12 months, my guess is that many of them will start to leave.

Everyone in the chain has got to send the right message in the next six months.”

Joanne Denney-Finch, chief executive of the food industry think-tank the IGD, warned that the red meat industry in the UK could be extinct within 30 years.

“It will be dying because your [farmers’] supporters – the people who want to buy British beef and lamb – are dying out.”

For meat to be British alone is not enough, Ms Denney-Finch said, and she urged farmers to instead campaign on seasonality and compete against cheaper imports on freshness, taste, quality, appearance and health.

In a straw poll at the RMIF conference, 94% of producers said they thought the supermarkets could improve their lot, while even 88% of foodservice and supermarket delegates agreed.

The call for supermarket leadership was taken up by Sainsbury’s director for primary agriculture, Karen Schenstrom, who promised to launch an initiative to help farmers within six months.

Producers needed guidance on what the consumer wanted and a premium for hitting quality targets, she said.

Tesco’s director of fresh produce, Steve Murrells, admitted that the retailers had to shoulder some of the blame for falling farm incomes, but said the responsibility did not stop with them alone.

See pages 28-29 for more on the RMIF convention.