28 February 1997

Convenience key

to lambs future

Winner of the category for smaller businesses in the Marks & Spencer/farmers weekly Added Value Awards is Lean and Easy – a Northern Irish company run by three farmers adding value to lamb. Philip Clarke reports

LAMB has had a buoyant year, riding high on the back of the BSE crisis with consumers seeking an alternative to beef for their Sunday roasts.

But lamb has not always been so high up the shopping list. For years it has suffered from an image problem: "Too much fat, too little convenience". "We never bought much lamb at home, primarily because it was so wasteful," confides Ulster farmer, Ian Mark. "My father spent 20 years trying to teach me to carve. We soon found we were better buying boneless joints, so at least we got a hot lunch!"

It was the realisation that things could be better, together with a sense of frustration at the way lamb was being marketed in Northern Ireland, that prompted Mr Mark, with fellow sheep producers Robert Moore and Desmond Fulton, to set up their own processing firm, Lean and Easy.

"The traditional outlet for lamb is the export market, with 85% going overseas – mainly as primal cuts to the UK and France," explains Mr Moore. "But export abattoirs were only paying up to a maximum 20kg deadweight. We were able to get to 23kg with no loss of quality, but were not getting paid for it. And the 15% of lamb that remained for the home market was the lower quality stuff, mainly sold as loins or chops."

As such, the three producers decided to investigate setting up their own processing plant. Market research was carried out by a Belfast agency, funded in part by a Local Enterprise Development Unit grant. That convinced them there was a gap in the market for consistent, high quality, convenient lamb products, that consumers would pay more for.

Further grant aid was sought from the Department of Agricul-ture for Northern Ireland and a suitable building found at Garvagh, Co Londonderry. Over £100,000 was spent buying the site and transforming it to EU standards for food processing. Prod-uction started in Oct 1994.

Carcasses are bought in at heavier weights to those traditionally used in Northern Ireland. "We take them in up to 27kg, though more typically they come in at about 23kg," says Mr Fulton, who is responsible for procurement. "Unlike export abattoirs, we pay full rate for Es and Us up to 22kg, plus a bonus of 100p/kg for anything heavier, up to a maximum £5."

Last financial year the factory generated a turnover of £478,000 from just over 6000 carcasses, half from the directors own sheep flocks. The aim this year is to build up to 10,000, with just 30% supplied from the three home farms at Londonderry, Limavady and Ballymoney.

Taking in heavier lambs gives Lean and Easy scope to butcher the meat in more innovative ways. Many of the products are boned out, presenting legs and shoulders not only as roasts, but also as steaks, escallops, stir-fry and casserole pieces. Mince is produced in various shapes and forms, using herbs and spices to add flavour. Kebabs, meat balls and grill sticks also feature, while a range of marinaded lamb is currently being developed.

Sales of Lean and Easy products have grown rapidly in the past two years. "We started off cold-calling on restaurants and corner shops," says Mr Moore. "This gave us limited throughput, but instant feedback."

But the big break came when Northern Irelands leading supermarket group, Stewarts, showed an interest at the provinces primary food exhibition, NIFEX. The companys lamb went on sale initially in stores in Londonderry and Belfast, but in May 1996 Stewarts decided to sell it nationwide.

"I think we caught their imagination," says Mr Moore. "A lot of our products require seam butchery – techniques requiring a high input of skill and time."

Sales through Stewarts account for over half the companys turnover. But the three farmers are not too concerned. "There are not many supermarket groups in Northern Ireland and you have to hitch your wagon to one of them. So long as we maintain quality and service, we should be able to continue our good relationship."

In terms of pricing, it has been a bit of a learning process for all involved, says Mr Moore. "These are new lines we are producing. Retailers understand that, by going for convenience, there is also a lot of weight loss, which has to be accounted for.

"The retailers did not know how it would sell, but we have all been surprised by just how much the consumer is prepared to pay." For example, racks of lamb and fillets are retailing at £14.99/kg – double the price of legs. "They sell like hot cakes!" says Mr Moore.

Selection is the key, starting with top quality breeding stock to produce a lamb of correct conformation and leanness, capable of reaching a higher carcass weight. "The most important aspect on farm is selecting lambs for slaughter at the right time. Overfat lambs are wasteful and unpopular with consumers, while under-finished lambs lack taste and tenderness and do not give sufficient meat yield," says Mr Fulton.

Quality assurance is also paramount and all three directors are members of Northern Irelands Farm Quality Assurance Scheme. Wherever possible, bought-in lambs also come from quality assured flocks. The company plans to develop its own scheme as it expands.

The past 12 months have been positive for lamb producers. But the high price of raw materials has put a squeeze on processor margins as Lean and Easys prices have not risen in line. "This has hurt us a bit," admits Mr Moore. "But similarly, as lamb starts to weaken, we should not have to cut our sale prices proportionately."

As such, Mr Moore, Mr Mark and Mr Fulton are looking forward with optimism – convinced that adding value to their lambs is the route to continued prosperity. "The viability of the factory will depend on throughput, producing consistent quality and achieving a premium price. So far the signs are encouraging." &#42

Adding value to lamb is the name of the game. Ian Mark (above) inspects the ewes while Robert Moore shows off the product.