31 March 2000

Co-operation will give consumers what they want

By James Garner

COMMUNICATION between all sections of the meat industry is the only way to produce beef, lamb and pork that consumers want to eat more of.

That was the consensus from speakers and delegates at a BSAS invited session – Improving Meat Quality from Farm to Plate.

But agreement was not gained without some debate and it was clear that the language spoken by consumers, retailers, processors and producers in describing quality was different, said MLCs beef strategy manager and discussion leader, Simon Mead.

Debate chairman, MLC beef scientist Duncan Pullar, reinforced the point. He said that although other production systems within the meat industry were far removed from poultry – which was a good example of integration within a product chain – there were lessons that could be learned from its example.

"Dialogue is crucial to understanding which product to market and can help produce business partnerships that share the risks of producing meat."

But difficulties in co-ordinating dialogue remained, said Graham Heffer, managing director of Somerset-based Southern Counties Fresh Food. "There needs to be more dialogue between all parties." But, after some improvement in recent years, Mr Heffer sensed it was going backwards.

"I think retailers tried to push communication too fast on farms, seeing it as a quick fix to problems." More recently the supermarkets presence had retreated and it was only through producer groups that dialogue was sustained, he said.

Lack of feedback to producers was where the chain fell down, said Bristol Universitys Jeff Wood. He added that the only way that could happen was through producer clubs, where there was real integration.

That point was echoed by Mr Mead, who believed that retailers, caterers and others should work in long-term relationships.

Communication is also key to improving lamb quality and consumption. Charollais sheep breeder and breed chief executive, Jonathan Barber told the session: "We need breeders and commercial sheep producers to work closer together, so the benefits offered from using improved pedigree stock are learned."

He also believed that sheep breeders should be involved in talks with retailers and abattoirs, so that they know what is happening in the market, but that did not happen at present.

"There is no short-term solutions; the industry must communicate and we need more consumer feedback."

But, he said, it was unfair to compare the sheep industry with the closely integrated poultry industry, because of its stratified nature. "It would be better to concentrate on marketing lamb as a natural, healthy product."

Despite these concerns, the secret to increasing meat consumption in the UK is to improve product quality and safety. The MLCs meat scientist, Kim Matthews said that was already happening in many abattoirs, with technology such as aitch-bone hanging and electrical stimulation being adopted to improve meat maturation.

Nevertheless, Mr Matthews added that even if producers and processors adopted new technology and followed the MLCs blueprint, eating quality could be spoiled by consumers over-cooking meat.

But he reckoned that, even in this case, when best practice had been followed throughout the chain, producers would notice an improvement in meat eating quality. &#42

MEATQUALITY

&#8226 Communication vital.

&#8226 Must be throughout chain.

&#8226 Long-term relationships.

Charollais breeder Jonathan Barber believes sheep breeders and commercial flock owners need to work closer together.