By Robert Harris

A RADICAL overhaul of the beef supply chain, from producer to retailer, is needed to safeguard the future of British beef, according to a report released today (Friday).

The report – Beef: Benefiting from best practice – identifies producers as the weakest link in the chain, but notes that all sectors have problems.

The study was carried out by the Beef Action Group, part of the Institute of Grocery Distributions Food Project which aims to improve the competitiveness of UK primary produce.

Members of the group include farmers unions, the Meat and Livestock Commission, multiple retailers, caterers and wholesalers. They spent 18 months quizzing a cross-section of more than 50 beef industry experts, says chairman Richard Sadler. The result is a series of plans, one for each link in the supply chain, to overcome weaknesses.

“In many cases the supply chain is incredibly convoluted and often inefficient. Increased beef production, particularly in the third world, will sooner or later threaten European prices. The stark fact is that this inefficient supply chain is our first handicap.”

Dedicated supply chains and producer groups will help address the problem, says Mr Sadler. “Moving cattle four or five times adds £100 to the cost of each one.”

They will also improve communication, he adds. “They will lead to more trusting and harmonious relationships, and a steady exchange of good ideas.”

Producing what the customer wants is a fundamental, but often ignored, rule, says Mr Sadler. “During 1997, only 35% of British beef achieved average retail specification. This is a clear opportunity for beef producers to improve their returns.”

However, weak market signals do not help. Mr Sadler, who is also head of meat buying for Waitrose, admits the industry probably pays too little for prime beef and too much for poor quality supplies. “This will change. A shorter chain improves feedback and producer response.”

Very few producers know their production costs, making it difficult to focus on suitable production systems and markets, he adds.

Identifying the right market and rearing specifically for it is increasingly important, says Mr Sadler. “Over a quarter of beef is now sold into the catering market.”

A series of regional beef seminars is planned to help producers make the most from beef, he adds.

  • Beef Action Group advice line: 01908 844711
  • Reports, which include examples of best practice, are available free from the IGD on 01923 851925