Innovation remains the key to the future

TWO SPEECHES made by representatives from opposite ends of the food chain honed in on the same message - innovation is the key to the future - at a special lecture organised by the Worshipful Company of Butchers Guild (WCBG).

Both the former general manager for meat, poultry and bacon at Asda Wal-Mart, Brian Haigh and Rob Harrison, chairman of the NFYFC agricultural and rural affairs steering group said that, despite the challenges facing the meat industry and their own industries, new product development was the way forward.

WCBG members, British meat processors, butchers and representatives from meat industry organisations were given an insight into the workings of Asda's meat department, its development, its future and what the supermarket required from the British meat industry.

Mr Haigh, who worked at Asda for 34 years, briefed members on what today's consumer want when buying meat from Asda. He said research showed that 24 per cent of consumers wanted visible fat trimmed which was more vital to them than price - only 15 per cent said price was important.

Quality was another important considertion (13 per cent), while visible appeal mattered to 10 per cent. Freshness and taste both received eight per cent, convenience, three per cent, shelf life and choice, two per cent and availability just one per cent of consumers.

Describing new product development as the future "life-blood" of the meat sector at Asda, Mr Haigh said it paved the way for developing raw, added value products, quick cook added-value products, organic, free range,

hallal and children's products and outlined how the store was endeavouring to support British farmers with supplier initiatives.

The opportunities for innovation in farming were outlined by Mr Harrison who said farmers could create niche, branded products which could be sold by them locally, nationally, through farmers' markets or on the internet.

He spoke about issues that had originated in the dairy sector but which also affected the beef sector. For example, he said, low milk prices and a decline in dairy cattle over recent years had affected the beef sector because around half of beef originated from the dairy industry.

The ending of the OTMS had affected the dairy sector as well as the beef industry because it allowed dairy farmers to fatten up their livestock. Calf prices in the dairy industry also affected the beef industry.

"At the minute there's a lot of Holstein dairy-bred calves getting shot - they have very little or no value whatsoever and a lot of farmers are actually paying for them to get taken away," he said. "Hopefully, with the resumption of beef exports across Europe, this may well lead to, in the next couple of months, live exports which would provide a market for some of these calves," he continued. "The problem with beef, by its sheer nature, is a long cycle - it takes three years to get to a mature animal, and if beef farmers aren't buying dairy-bred calves today, there may well be a shortage of beef in three years time."

Mr Harrison said beef farmers were having to source a second income to survive and there were issues that threatened the industry, such as further CAP reforms and low commodity prices. However, he said, there were opportunities for farmers who were supported by schemes such as The Fresh Start initiative (of which NFYFC is a stake-holder) which aims to provide training, mentoring and links between new entrants into the industry and retiring farmers.

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