4 August 1995

WORKING TOGETHER TO BEEF UP SALES

Co-operation can work. Sainsburys, Anglo Beef Processors and 580 farmers have worked together to supply traditional beef to the supermarket giants stores for the past seven years. Jeremy Hunt looks at how the scheme works and what benefits it brings to farmer members

A FEW years ago if you had asked any self-respecting beef producer what the consumer wanted from a piece of beef his answer would definitely have included the word lean and probably flavour and texture. One word – now very much the key to successful beef marketing – would not have been part of that reply. The word is integrity.

Integrity has become the by-word for winning consumer confidence and custom. And its become a real winner for supermarket giant Sainsburys. Sales of the companys Traditional Beef, which meets on-farm production criteria as well as following strict slaughter and hanging procedures, are steadily rising.

Nor is it just the supermarket giant that benefits. Farmers, too, gain from the image-building process that seeks to win consumer confidence by initially highlighting the integrity of those who feed and butcher the beef; how it looks, cooks and tastes is a natural progression.

Deep in the heart of the Shropshire countryside, just outside Ellesmere, is Anglo Beef Processors. Over the past seven years ABP has worked closely with Sainsburys, building up to the 580 farmer-members now involved in the Traditional Beef Partnership, which has been grant-aided by MAFFs Marketing Development Scheme.

This formal producer group has fulfilled its role in ensuring a consistent supply of beef – currently several hundred cattle a week – from systems meeting predetermined codes of welfare and production. The Traditional Beef Partnership has "bridged the gap" between farmer, processor and consumer.

It has been the crucial link in the chain designed to build confidence back into consumers perception of beef production. It has, and continues to be, very successful in terms of sales of Sainsburys Traditional Beef, but whats in it for beef producers?

Bill Sinker farms just a few miles from the ABP plant. With sons Brian and John he runs 70 suckler cows alongside a flock of breeding ewes producing 450 Texel-crosses as well as arable cropping. The Traditional Beef Partnership group could have no better man as its chairman. Mr Sinker has an infectious enthusiasm for the Traditional Beef scheme.

No wonder; he was the first member of the group and echoes the thoughts of every beef producer when he says: "Like any beef producer I keep a close eye on the cash in my pockets. This scheme has proved beyond any doubt, apart from its aims to provide top quality beef for the consumer, that it consistently leaves more profit than we could achieve by selling the same cattle through the live market."

Mr Sinker has a direct, no-nonsense approach to business, typical of his Lancastrian roots. He moved to Winston Farm, Tetchill, Ellesmere over 30 years ago.

"Im £26 a head better off by selling direct to the Trad-Beef scheme. Im saving £20 a head on auction mart commission and if our cattle meet the ABP/Sainsburys specification there is a £6 a head premium."

The Charolais-sired sucklers produce a spring-born crop of calves by the Limousin. After two summers on grass they are finished in yards to a 340-350kg deadweight target at around 20 months.

The Traditional Beef scheme specification is for cattle falling into the 280-376kg deadweight range, with carcass classifications: O+3, O+4L, R3, R4L, R4H, U3, U4L, U4H, E3, E4L and E4H.

Mr Sinker was already producing to FABBL (Farm-Assured British Beef and Lamb) standards before becoming involved with ABP. Most members of the producer group – about 40% of cattle come from the surrounding area – belong to FABBL, but all members of the Traditional Beef Partnership have to have their holdings formally "approved" to ensure they meet the on-farm criteria of the Traditional Beef concept.

"On only two occasions have we had farms referred following an inspection prior to joining. The vast majority of beef producers are following high standards of welfare and management, but that is not to say that we do not carry out official on-farm assessments of every potential member," says Mr Sinker.

So while beef producers involved in the scheme are enjoying the convenience of deadweight marketing plus the headage bonus, consumer confidence continues to build in a meat product that has been sympathetically reared in terms of management and welfare. Theres no doubt that integrity, in terms of production, has been achieved, but to expect consumers to pay more there has also to be a guarantee of superior quality.

"To maintain the high standards demanded by Sainsbury it is crucial that we have the total commitment of our group members. By complementing top quality cattle with the skilled handling and maturing process undertaken by ABP we have created a successful marketing union," says Mr Sinker.

Reduced stress through minimal handling and avoidance of bruising is essential.

"We are dealing with superior beef animals; we handle them quickly and efficiently and hang our sides for an extended period," says ABP commercial manager Michael Lees.

When producers deliver their own cattle, he likes nothing better for them to stay to see them hung-up.

"Todays most successful beef producers are those who maintain an interest in their cattle even on to the hook. Thats what we aim to foster through the Traditional Beef scheme," says Mr Lees.

Mal Roberts from Bodlith, Llansilin, Oswestry, Shropshire, is another long-standing supplier to ABP. He buys-in strong stores each autumn at 15-18 months old and sells through the winter and into late spring after finishing on maize, beet pulp and hay.

"Seeing cattle on the hook and being able to relate the quality of the carcasses to what I knew they looked like on the hoof is the only way to make sure you keep on the right track," says Mr Roberts.

"Theres so much variation in price when youre selling liveweight. You can have a bunch of cattle that are all similar and yet some can make 8p/kg less for no valid or even apparent reason thats discernible to the producer standing with his cattle in the ring."

Mr Roberts says he can have cattle booked in at ABP for 8.30am, be looking at them hanging up within 40 minutes and be on his way home armed with the grade sheets by 9.30am. And in three days he will have been paid.

The philosophy of the ABP/Traditional Beef Partnership/

Sainsburys association has been to create a genuine relationship between the three sectors. ABPs handling of the beef plays a critical role in ensuring that quality is maintained, sales continue to increase and a stable business base is created for farmers involved.