Lamb supply chain findings

Further improvements are possible even in some well run, efficient supply chains, according to the latest research carried out by the Food Chain Centre and the Red Meat Industry Forum.

The conclusions follow a study of two linked chains involving the supply of lamb to a major retailer.

The study, of Marks & Spencer, Dawn Meats and two farmers supplying organic and conventional lamb, is the latest in a series funded by the DTI that looks at operational efficiencies. In each case the team has looked at the chain as a whole following product from the farm to the point of sale.

For the study involving M&S and Dawn researchers compared organic lamb production with conventional, noting marked differences and opportunities where best practice could be transferred from one system to the other.

While emphasising that the supply chains were efficient and well-run three key findings leading to a better understanding of the chain were identified - the proportion of the organic lamb carcase that is actually sold as organic, mortality rates in lamb, and the value of better on-pack information detailing the provenance of the product.

Stuart Hyslop, an organic farmer in Northumberland, and James Dobie, a conventional farmer from Berwick, produced lambs that were followed from their respective farms to Dawn Meat's plant at Carnaby in East Yorkshire. After slaughter and butchery the lamb was transferred to a second Dawn plant at Cardington in Bedfordshire where it was packed and delivered to Mark's and Spencer's chilled depots, and subsequently to its stores.

The aim was to obtain a true picture of the chain as it operated in practice, comparing the organic and conventional systems.

The study found that the average volume of resources required to breed the organic lambs - including replacements, tups and scans - was 20 per cent higher than that needed for conventional lambs. Throughput time was 15 per cent longer, though less intervention in treating the animals was needed. Mortality rates were found to be lower in this organic system.

While higher value products, such as chops, were sold as organic, lower value cuts - shoulders, breast and trim - were sold as conventional; in general this amounted to a third of the carcase being sold as conventional lamb, suggesting that there might be room for improvement in utilising the status of organic and in the benefit of additional product development. Where product is sold as organic a price premium, ranging from 8 to 12 per cent, is possible.

No discernable differences between the slaughter, butchery and packaging of the two types of lamb was found.

Perhaps not surprisingly, organic sheep living on hilly and exposed land produced fewer lambs while the fact that there were more lambs to look after in the conventional setting meant mortality rates there were higher.

The study also found that meeting specified target weights affected returns along the chain. From a sample of 1,794 lambs delivered in a week, 82 per cent were at optimum conformation and fat levels but only 67 per cent were at the desired weight, the assumption being that farmers were holding back supplies in anticipation of a better price later.

Lambs from this sample were, on average, overweight by 1.3 per cent while the producers targeted weights of 16kg and 21.5kg, against a mid-point of 18.75kg set by Dawn. As such there is a mis-match between rewards paid to farmers and the specifications required by retailers, the report concludes.

Collection of lambs from the farm and delivery to the abattoir was efficient and reliable, the study found. Other areas of good practice noted included an excellent, modern and easily cleaned lairage, good feedback between the retail packing line and cutting plant, and efficient maintenance of the pack line.

In addition to putting the farmer's name on packs M&S also put the county of origin on organic lamb packs with a view to giving shoppers greater reassurance over provenance. The results of this are still being evaluated.

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