Welsh lamb certainly seemed to dominate proceedings at the Royal Welsh Show last week, although it came close to being knocked off its position of top talking point by one unidentified farmer who scaled the NFU Cymru's building to launch a one-man protest. James Powell, of Llangynidr, brandished a banner declaring the organisation to be "No F'ing Use".
Everyone seemed keen to make use of Welsh lamb however. Despite the distractions and the soaring temperatures of up to 37ºC, attention was firmly
focused on the lamb, as you might expect at Wales's premier agricultural show, with both Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer among the big-name retailers announcing new product lines featuring Welsh lamb and beef.
But perhaps the biggest news was left to Welsh Assembly rural
affairs minister Carwyn Jones, who announced that the United Arab Emirates had lifted the ban on imports of Welsh lamb. This follows months of negotiation between Jones, promotional body for Welsh meat Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) and the Dubai authorities.
"This is great news for the Welsh lamb industry and presents a massive opportunity for our suppliers," said Jones.
At the moment, the UAE is only 25% self-sufficient when it comes to red meat, most of which is goat, so it is heavily reliant on imports. The move opens up a valuable new market for the Welsh sector, one which, importantly, is not price-driven. It also opens up at a time when supplies from Wales are hitting a peak.
The preference for smaller to medium carcasses - the animals that are harder to sell on the home market - is also a bonus for the industry. Gwyn Howells, chief executive of HCC, points out that the opportunity does not end there, as the UAE could easily prove to be the gateway into other countries in the region. Moreover, the Middle East is not the only place showing an increasing passion for Welsh lamb; Italy is rapidly becoming a strong market for the Welsh, particularly with the help of some influential figures.
Dott Giacinto Fusetti, an import agent in Italy, is a fan and highlights the opportunity his country has for the Welsh meat industry. "Italy is a very big market. We eat around 1m tonnes of beef a year, and import 400,000t, making it the biggest market in Europe. Lamb is a real success story," he says. With consumption at 80,000t, Welsh exports to Italy have risen by 58%. "Around 80% of lamb imports into Italy now come from Wales," added Fusetti.
Rees Roberts, chairman of HCC, said: "Italy is a key market and we've concentrated a lot of effort there, which has shown a great deal of success. We intend to build on this, particularly for Welsh lamb, but also for Welsh beef."
Michelin-starred chef Carlo Cracco is a fan of Welsh lamb, which he discovered during a lunch organised by HCC to promote the meat to Italian journalists. Cracco is now regularly featuring the meat on the menu at his Milan restaurant Cracco Peck. He said it is a totally different product to home-grown lamb. "Welsh lamb is bigger and much more versatile - it can be used in many different ways,"
A key factor in Wales's success, particularly in Europe, has been its acquisition of protected geographical indication (PGI) status. Fusetti said: "Italian consumers demand high-quality beef; they want to know production is of a high standard. Having the PGI status gives them that."
Consumer confidence in Italy has been rocked in recent years over disease issues, but Fusetti said the situation was now improving, although it remained fragile. "The answer is to carry on with what we're doing, and concentrate on the unique characteristics of Welsh meat and its PGI status," he said.
The popularity of Welsh lamb abroad means that one in three lambs produced in Wales is now sold overseas. With the growing interest in Welsh meat around the world, Roberts urged everyone in the industry to exploit the opportunity and visit the Sial trade fair in Paris this October.