Retailers buy British to stave off UKlamb crisis
By James Garner
INDUSTRY pressure to stave off meltdown in the sheep sector later this year is paying off, with several retailers now backing British lamb.
And the government is being pushed to introduce a range of measures to help prop up the market.
The move follows the Meat and Livestock Commissions recent estimate of 1.5m surplus lambs overhanging the market. Half of these are light lambs, under 14kg carcass weight, after the loss of export markets because of foot-and-mouth.
The proposed measures include private storage aid (PSA) and a buy-out welfare scheme for light lambs. More retailers will also be put under pressure to lower their minimum weight.
Meanwhile, prices continue to fall as large volumes of spring-born lambs start to come on-stream. This weeks average price for R3L grade lambs slipped further with quotes ranging from 130p-150p/kg dw. So far three of the big retailers – Sainsbury, Tesco and Safeway – have all made commitments to buy more British light lamb, a move greeted across the industry.
Safeway has launched a new initiative to pay all its UK sheep farmers who supply the retailer within 48 hours. It will also be selling Scottish and Welsh light hill lamb in store for the first time.
Sainsbury is considering buying and freezing 25% more British lamb to be used in the first quarter of 2001 when it would normally stock frozen New Zealand product.
And Tesco has lowered its weight spec from 16-22kg to a bottom end of 15kg. "This should allow some of the top end light weight lambs to enter the mainstream market," said a spokesman.
For the lighter 10-14kg carcass lambs there will be special product promotions.
John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, welcomed these initiatives and hoped they would establish new markets. Tim Bennett, vice-president of the NFU, has called for the government to commit to measures to take more lambs off the market.
"We have already been assured by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it has applied for private storage aids. We have also discussed an unmarketable stock scheme with them."
Earlier this week, DEFRA minister, Margaret Beckett, signalled that she would consider all options to help the sheep sector, including a buy-out scheme and PSA. Other government bodies, like the Ministry of Defence, schools and hospitals would also be asked to back British lamb.
Rumours are that payments under a buy-out scheme will be pegged at £10 a light lamb. According to the Farmers Union of Wales, setting the level at this rate will drag the rest of the market down.
"We think it should be set at £20-£25 a lamb, the going rate for light lamb this time last year," said an FUW spokesman. *