26 July 2002

Farmers First adds value with Meat Strip venture

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

FARMERS First has made its initial step into processing by making a £1m investment in a former chicken-processing plant at Blaenavon, in south Wales, which will produce Meat Strips, its new value-added product.

The firms announcement, which was made at the Royal Welsh Show, will be welcomed by its 3000 farmer shareholders after foot-and-mouth knocked last years trading. It also confirmed the companys intention to increase its influence further up the food chain.

Meat Strips were developed in New Zealand, where the product had really taken off, said chairman, Terry Bayliss. They were sold in 98% of New Zealands supermarkets and 1.5t of the product was sold for every 1m people that lived there, he added.

Mike Gooding, managing director of Aria Foods, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Farmers First, claimed the experience in New Zealand indicated that the product had universal appeal. Having won a licence to manufacture and market the product in the whole of the EU, he was hoping for similar success in Europe.

"I view the market as the whole of Europe and that is 420m people. If we can crack this that will be a phenomenal amount of extra forequarter beef and lamb.

"It is very tender, so kids and the elderly love it. It is very convenient and appeals to health conscious consumers. We are already in talks with one large retailer, and there is interest from those who supply the Ministry of Defence and schools."

Mr Gooding added that the versatility and characteristics of the new product placed it at the top end of the market. This fulfilled Farmers Firsts aim of improving returns to its farmer shareholders.

The farmer-owned business received significant help from the Welsh Development Agency, in the form of a £400,000 processing and marketing grant to get the plant up to scratch. He hoped it would be running soon after the Aug 9 sale completion date and added that other products would follow.

The strips, made of reconstituted minced beef, lamb and chicken, contain no added salt, colourings or chemical preservatives, and can be cooked in just six minutes to meet the growing demand for convenience foods.

The announcement was given an enthusiastic welcome by Welsh farming leaders and even rival companies.

Bob Parry, president of the Farmers Union of Wales, said he believed Aria was on to a winner, which could put more money in the pockets of hard-pressed farmers.

Jane James, general manager of the Welsh Meat Company, said the initiative was attempting to increase the value of Welsh lamb and beef carcasses, which was exactly the aim of her own company.

lFor more Royal Welsh Show reports see p21. &#42

Sizzling success… Mike Gooding (right) and Eric Arndt, the Kiwi farmer who developed Meat Strips, cook up a storm at the Royal Welsh Show.