Executive moving into new markets for lamb exports

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ANIMAL health and conformation are priorities in the development of red meat exports, industry representatives were told at the first northern Eblex conference.

The conference, at Wetherby, was one of a series designed to spread the word on what the English Beef & Lamb Executive is doing with its levies on farm sales.

Chairman John Cross said exports were now accounting for 22 per cent of lamb production. France was the biggest customer but Eblex had opened 40 new markets outside the EU as a hedge against eurozone risks. China could be an important new market for the ‘fifth quarter’ of carcases in a couple of years. But if offal was going to become a profit-maker again, it had to be good.

At home, a steady rise in lamb prices had been interrupted by a surplus of overweight hoggets hitting the markets this April. And the halal market was increasingly important.

Peter Morris, livestock development manager for meat processing giant Vion, said he was not sure farmers were yet thinking hard enough about the eating quality of their products. Over-fat carcases were “an absolute nightmare”.

He suggested EID might be more popular if farmers got feedback on the butchering of their stock – including the surprisingly high number of livers which had to be condemned. An Eblex regional manager, Phil Hadley, said a quarter of all beef livers inspected in 2011 were ruined by fluke – representing a loss of £2.2m at petfood value alone but suggesting £15m in lost productivity of prime beef.

Eddie Punch, general secretary of the Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers’ Association, sketched the world picture in beef. He said the South American challenge had temporarily faded for various reasons, including droughts; but the USA was on the verge of settling a 20-year argument with the EU over hormones and Canada was also looking for more trade.

Russia had been buying a lot of live cattle, but was nervous about Schmallenberg Virus – “and always seems to be more nervous about diseases than anybody else”.

Finally, Mr Punch warned that a dip in calf exports from Ireland two years ago meant his country had a glut of matured beef “coming your way soon”. Laura Bishop, marketing manager for Eblex quality schemes, explained the developing Quality Standard Mark, which adds gourmet criteria to the basic health and welfare standards of Red Tractor accreditation. She said Eblex was pushing lamb mince and a range of cuts designed for the newly fashionable ‘sous vide’ slow-cooking method.

Peter Mitchell, purchasing manager for OSI Food Solutions, which supplies McDonald’s from Scunthorpe, said they were committed to UK and Irish beef but it meant “our costs are head and shoulders above the rest of Europe”.

He explained how he kept suppliers loyal by evening out the ups and downs of market prices.

And the farmers in the audience wanted to know if supermarket buyers could learn from the model. But nobody held out much hope they would.

North York Moors farmer Richard Findlay related that a promising arrangement with Asda to supply locally branded lamb under the Seven Hill Farmers label had been scuppered by a buyer suddenly cutting the price.

“But it let us off the hook,” he said. “If we had taken the price, we would be in trouble now.”