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Game has gone from backyard pursuit to front page news, which has been money in the bank for Rick Bestwick and his company

The day the Prince of Wales stepped in to champion wild game as a marketable, safe and traceable product for Sainsbury's is a day that Rick Bestwick, the managing director of Europe's biggest wild game processor of the same name, will never forget. In fact, the Chesterfield-based businessman makes no secret of the fact that the Prince's influence with the Sainsbury's contract initiated the success he and his business partner (and wife) Pam, have enjoyed with the rest of the major multiples over the past five years.

Bestwick says: "Without the introduction, it would have been difficult to go forward with wild game. At that time it accelerated the interest because His Royal Highness wrote to the then chairman of Sainsbury's saying they needed to look at wild venison and, within 48 hours, we were down there in discussions about it with Sainsbury's.

"From then on, all the retailers wan-ted venison and wild game because they believed it to be safe and traceable and their confidence in the product grew."

The products started filling Sainsbury's shelves, starting off with 50 stores and within three weeks, that figure had increased to 353 stores.

The Game-to-Eat campaign has undoubtedly contributed to sales of game in the UK, but Bestwick has a thirst for more game-related publicity. He says a celebrity chef who could give their devoted support to game, similar to the kind of publicity created by Clarissa Dickson-Wright and the late Jennifer Paterson (aka the Two Fat Ladies) would be ideal in raising the profile of game even further.

Bestwick adds that prior to marketing by Game-to-Eat, launched five years ago, game had always been back page news.

FASHIONABLE

Now, he says, food has become

"extremely fashionable" and the marketplace for game is changing, with ready-meals and specific cuts such as venison steaks at the forefront of supermarket sales. "If you break the product down into certain cuts, label it and market it correctly, it works. That's what we've done, because people don't want whole feathered birds or meat with bones in any more. One of the biggest problems was that people were frightened of game - even butchers were wary. But, as a country, we have become more aware that game food is wild and natural...and now we can guarantee full traceability from egg to plate."

As well as becoming more aware of game's origins, consumers are also becoming more savvy about its health benefits and this has been highlighted by Game-to-Eat. The most recent information from independent food research organisation, Leatherhead Food International, reveals that wild game contains selenium, a nutrient thought to be a good mood-enhancer and beneficial for boosting the immune system and preventing damage to cells and tissues.

In 1990 the well-established and increasingly successful Rick Bestwick empire was relocated to a site spanning eight acres on an industrial estate and here the business has remained. It now employs 200 people, or 230 in the run-up to Christmas, and turnover has increased by approximately £1m every year since. Further sites are based in Inveraray and Perth.

The cold storage business is managed by Bestwick's son, Neil, who is answerable to the company's general manager Kevin Hancock. The cold store has a capacity for 35,000 pallets, blast-freezing facilities and up-tempering using the latest in technology. With its improved publicity, Bestwick's enthusiasm and the backing of the Prince of Wales, the popularity of game has soared. The company's UK customers have expanded from the independent butcher to the shelves of more than 1,000 retail outlets, including Tesco and Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

HELPING HAND

The Rick Bestwick joint packaging venture with the Forestry Commission (FC), which manages and sustains the land where venison roams, has also helped the products fill supermarket shelves. Clear advertising that his venison is sourced in this way allows Bestwick to guarantee standards required by the supermarkets, including traceability, animal welfare and supply.

The partnership between the game processor and the FC allows Bestwick to source 70-80% of what the commission culls each year.

Bestwick explains: "The commission has to cull a third of the deer every year to keep the remaining stock healthy. That would become a serious issue if it didn't happen; if they weren't culled, they would over-breed, get very thin and die."

The first supermarket to carry the new FC branding was Sainsbury's. However, it now also features on Tesco Finest range packaging for Beef and Game Casserole Pie. In addition, a unique agreement was reached between Rick Bestwick and the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), to credit his venison products with the FSC mark - a world first for the accreditation to be given to a meat product. The FSC logo was carried on packs of Sainsbury's wild venison and has been recognised by the Prince of Wales.

Rick Bestwick uses 600 suppliers, who provide different species of game from all over the UK, with venison sourced from the islands off the West Coast of Scotland. Bestwick says he expects venison, historically the most popular supermarket product, to increase sales of game in the UK. This year alone Rick Bestwick has launched five new products into the major multiples. One of those is a venison dish in Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range and more new ready-meals are planned to hit the stores before Christmas this year. The two most recent dishes to be introduced into the supermarkets are a Pheasant with Pancetta and Calvados in the Tesco Finest range and Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Venison Casserole, with roasted root vegetables in a Shiraz jus.

Also, there are two new pheasant dishes available in Marks & Spencer.

It may seem somewhat simplistic to attribute a large proportion of a businesses' continued success to packaging but Bestwick insists it is his experience and vision for packaging that has helped foster interest from supermarkets in wild game.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Bestwick began business in the game industry 35 years ago, by shooting rabbits and pigeons for a farmer and then forking out £65 for a second-hand chest freezer in order to store and sell his wares to the public. From humble beginnings, he has created an international multi-million pound business. He points out that selling game from an unregulated premises is no longer acceptable by today's hygiene standards. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is endeavouring to track down unregulated game processors or the 'Freds in their sheds' who avoid compliance with the new game regulations, which came into force this year. Bestwick says this process is not happening fast enough because most of these businesses are not registered making them difficult for the FSA to trace.

However, he stresses shoots are becoming more professional: "They are waking up fast to the fact that if they don't get their act together then they will not have a marketable product...I think more shoots will put their hand up and say 'I can demonstrate traceability and welfare standards', because I think they will want to be able to say to themselves that their birds are going into the food chain."

OPTIMISTIC

Bestwick is optimistic about the future of game and, although the product is still seen as a specialist market in the UK, it for this very reason it is selling, as consumers look to explore seasonal, niche-type products.

Undoubtedly, game is received more readily in Europe; 50% of the one million game birds processed each year at Rick Bestwick are exported there, but Bestwick says he sees a shift in the preferences demonstrated by the UK consumer, adding: "The potential for wild game in the UK is enormous. When other supermarkets see how well game sells, they have to have a piece of the action... confidence is growing and game is becoming more available and

more acceptable."

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