Optimism over plans to improve transparency in sheep market

The sheep sector looks to be moving closer to a “big win” on carcass classification and price reporting rules in England, which will help farmers make more informed marketing decisions, according to the NFU.

Defra recently closed a 12-week consultation on introducing a mandatory standard carcass classification and price reporting system for sheep in England, to improve fairness and price transparency in the supply chain.

If the proposals are given the green light, they will improve transparency about how much farmers are paid and allow a meaningful comparison between different market outlets.

See also: Farming union calls for sheep processor code

At present, this is difficult because companies typically work to their own dressing specification, with some, for example, paying a higher headline price but trimming the carcass harder.

Richard Findlay, NFU livestock board chairman, said he was optimistic that changes were on the way.

The consultation was a very positive step forward on an issue the NFU had been lobbying on for a long time.

“Speaking with industry and government on this, it feels like we are now overall in a similar place,” he said.

“It’s great news that Defra are consulting and proactively addressing the transparency issues within the sheep sector.”

Single dressing specification

The consultation proposes a single dressing specification as well as a requirement to pay to the nearest 100g in weight rather than, as happens with some processors, rounding down to the nearest 500g.

The NFU points out that multiple dressing specifications can cause confusion and misunderstandings and, assuming a base price of £4/kg dw, rounding down to the nearest 500g equates on average to £1 per lamb sold.

In its official response to the government, the NFU said it saw the consultation as a “major step in enhancing a more productive, market-focused sheep industry that realises a fair return from an open and transparent marketplace.”

Improving the clarity and transparency of information supplied to producers would help to drive productivity, profitability and product quality.

The NFU also said it supported the proposed change to the EUROP grid system which would see an additional ‘S’ (superior) confirmation class added for double-muscled carcass types.

However, it added that the industry would need 12 months to adapt to any changes so its introduction should be done over a transitional period.

Price reporting

On the issue of price reporting, the union agreed with the government’s proposal to make it mandatory for abattoirs to report prices to AHDB on a weekly basis – although it said this should be the case across the industry.

It has also called for the details of all slaughter charges to be publicly available on each processor’s website, along with details of any other possible price alterations such as farm assurance or breed-specific deductions or premiums.

‘We want to make sure that any charges that affect the overall value of the carcass are fair and equitable,” Mr Findlay said.

“We want to see it all in the open so the farmer can make the most informed decision they can about where’s best and most suitable to send their stock to.”

Wales is currently consulting on similar proposals and a consultation in Scotland has already concluded, opening the way for consistency between the devolved regions.

Meat processors say devil in the detail

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), which represents many UK abattoirs and other businesses in the meat supply chain said that industry is broadly supportive of the proposed changes, including paying to the nearest 100g of weight.

He said standardising weight and specification data would be possible providing it could be done without making structural changes to mechanised production lines, some of which are operating at speeds of up to 600 animals per hour.

Instead, the BMPA is proposing the industry work with the AHDB to come up with a formula which would standardise the comparison of carcasses accurately between different companies regardless of when offal, such as kidney fat, was removed.

However, Mr Allen warned that requiring more abattoirs to classify according to the grid would increase costs as they would need a person trained in classification present on the slaughter line at all times.

This in practice would mean at least two members of staff would require training in order to provide cover for each other during holidays and sickness.

The consultation document proposes an exemption to mandatory classification for abattoirs slaughtering less than 1,000 sheep each week.

This would cover around 90% of the annual deadweight throughput in England.