28 November 1997

Working together to boost the public image of meat

The meat industry must co-operate to counter negative

publicity, explains the Winter Fairs lamb carcass judge

LAMB carcass judge Bryan George is quite sanguine about the fact that his decisions will be questioned by some.

The second generation traditional high street retailer, who still runs a small abattoir adjacent to his shop at Talgarth, Powys, will be more than happy to explain his reasons. The opportunity to do so is, in his opinion, one of the real benefits of carcass competitions.

He values every contact with producers, and is convinced that all sectors of the meat industry must co-operate more to counter negative publicity. Customers he says must be persuaded that meat is an essential component of a healthy diet, and good value for money.

Mr George, who joined his father Billy in the business in 1954, has already accepted that the supreme champion carcass will have less finish than many of the lambs he sells across the counter and to catering outlets.

His customers believe lamb, beef and pork with a little more fat cover cooks better and has more flavour. He is also sure that eating quality suffers as a result of inevitable extra animal stress at high through-put abattoirs, and because most carcasses are not hung long enough for fat and lean to set properly.

"Because we still buy on the hoof and kill through our own abattoir we control the whole process. This is not possible when a retailer buys from a wholesaler. Some customers travel very long distances to buy from our shop because they know the sort of quality meat we sell."

Growing pressures

But he and his son, Christopher, are worried about the growing pressures on small abattoir operators. They can slaughter up to 30 units/week, but seldom do. Maintenance, veterinary inspections and Meat Hygiene Service charges mean fixed costs on each animal processed are high in their low throughput plant.

At peak 40 lambs a week are bought at Talgarth Market, which Mr George says attracts some of the best quality lambs produced in Wales. Females are preferred, and no entire males are taken after July.

"My ideal lamb is an E3H classified female Texel cross, but I will have to judge according to the specifications of the majority of retailers, so the winner will likely classify E3L," Mr George predicts. "However, I will be very surprised if it does not have some Continental blood."

Producers who talk to him at the Winter Fair will hear about the importance he attaches to quality assurance, and farmers helping retail butchers provide what customers demand. Because he already knows the source of all the livestock he buys the success of farm assurance schemes is not particularly important. But he accepts that it will become increasingly essential for the supply of livestock to supermarkets.

"We all have to work together to defend the red meat market. To stay in business we must supply whatever the customer wants, and that includes reassurance about every aspect of production, and food safety. Even though we operate in a rural market town and have the chance to talk to many of our customers we suffered a 25% drop in sales when the BSE crisis started."

While his lamb sales have stayed steady, Mr George feels that much more must be done to persuade younger consumers to eat it. In his shop that means providing good advice and convenient products rather than traditional joints.

Bryan George values contact with producers and says co-operation is vital.