30 November 2001

Marketing to decide future

By Jessica Buss

TRADITIONAL and locally adapted breeds have a role to play in the rural economy, but their future depends on public appeal and marketing.

The public expects to see Highland cattle roaming around castles in Scotland, DEFRAs Mike Roper told a Rare Breeds Survival Trust seminar entitled Traditional breeds as a national resource.

"But we also have an obligation to look after genetic resources and maintain diversity. During foot-and-mouth a need for conserving breeds was identified. That needs co-ordination."

Global discussions on this issue are ongoing and the UK government is keen to preserve these valuable genetic resources in a sustainable way. A UK report on its genetic resource is being pulled together by DEFRA with the aim of identifying what needs doing to maintain this resource, he said.

He also announced that the EU was launching a consultation on the collection and use of genetic resources in agriculture and that it was hoped this would lead to funding for practical conservation of developing breeds.

But economics dictate that we need to eat more of traditional and rare breed animals to avoid them becoming extinct, said David Hughes, of Imperial College at Wye.

He was optimistic that household incomes would continue to increase and the public would spend less of this income on food, becoming less sensitive to food prices.

"Supermarkets have trained consumers to be price driven over 25 years. They wont be ripped off, but their income worries will decline," said Prof Hughes.

"The UK is not the lowest cost producer of anything, so we must look for value driven alternatives. If we cant be cost leaders, we must lead in something else, such as food safety or animal welfare, to differentiate produce from low cost commodity markets." Even supermarkets want to differentiate their produce from each other.

Homing in on growing demand for local and traditional produce was one option for gaining price premiums, he advised. "Consumers seek comfort in the traditional."

But producers need to question whether there are enough of these consumers to make marketing produce to them worthwhile. It is also vital to have enough supply at the right quality to avoid these markets collapsing, said Prof Hughes.

For rare and traditional breeds, the future lies in distancing themselves from the rest of the red meat industry, he said. "It is astonishing that beef consumption in the UK has kept up, following BSE and with a lack of collaboration over the last decade. Lamb is also suffering an ageing consumer profile and its seen as lacking versatility.

"Rare breeds need to distance themselves from this industry in trouble. They are a niche, premium product that could be profitable.

"But they must gain marketplace support, although this may be outside supermarkets with farmers markets and traditional butchers." Their biggest problem is lack of supply and educating consumers on what this meat has to offer."

Supply relationships are important, said Heather Jenkins, central buyer for Waitrose, which has 3.5% of the retail market, focussing on the high disposable income consumer.

In the supermarkets attempt to differentiate its meat from its competitors, it set up an Aberdeen Angus beef line 10 years ago. It now also sells branded Hereford Beef, Dorset Lamb and organic meat.

For this, it has developed close relationships with producers, which it hopes to maintain, she said. But it has been vital to overcome the variation in what producers delivered in the past.

"Quality is the biggest challenge and we have spent time with producers to improve it. Holstein breeding has caused inconsistency and there are also feeding and husbandry problems. Traditional breeds need more time to build frame and flesh out to achieve better quality." &#42

Consumers seek comfort in the tradtional, says David Hughes.

BREEDSURVIVAL

&#8226 Government supported.

&#8226 Eat more of them.

&#8226 Supply challenge.