So where have all the nutrients gone?

A campaign begun in 2004 by HRH The Prince of Wales to restore the popularity of mutton - with the aim of helping farmers improve their income by selling their older sheep - has taken a step forward with the formation of a 'Club'.

The Mutton Renaissance Club, launched last week by the Prince who becomes its first Patron, brings together all in the supply chain. It will operate as a sub-committee of the National Sheep Association (NSA) and undertake a range of activities including practical sessions across the chain to promote a better understanding of best practice. This will include farm and abattoir visits, butchery and cooking demonstrations, and tastings.

Among the aims is to establish a thriving niche market for mutton, likely to be among top-end restaurants and independent butchers.

Launching the Club at the Ritz Hotel in London the Prince reminded guests that he started the campaign to create a new market of real value to boost the incomes of struggling sheep farmers. Farming was tough and getting tougher, he said, with incomes having dropped 11 per cent last year. Yet family farms were vital to the remaining delicate fabric of Britain's "utterly unique" countryside. "A renaissance of mutton won't change the world, but it just might make the difference between survival and disappearance, and that is enough for me" he said.

Since launching the campaign a specification for Renaissance Mutton had been agreed - "no mean feat, let me tell you!" as he put it - a website and telephone information line set up, and, with the launch of the Club, a booklet published providing information for the entire supply chain. Some farmers, although not yet enough, were beginning to do well from the campaign, the Prince said. "And we need to involve more butchers, particularly the remaining independent firms who often serve a more discerning clientele, and more abattoirs and processors." Links in the supply chain were weak, he warned, and the Club would provide a permanent forum to share knowledge.

A comprehensive specification for Renaissance Mutton has been produced that covers on farm and abattoir requirements. Farm assured females or castrates over two years old must reach a classification of E,U,R or O for conformation, and 2,3L or 3H for fat. Carcases or cuts must be matured, either on the bone or in vacuum packs for at least two weeks.

John Thorley of the NSA said a great deal of research had been done to ensure the best possible standard of mutton production using modern farming and processing systems, and taking into account modern consumer tastes.

Club membership costs £45 a year, and is open to any organisation or business in the supply chain committed to promoting high quality mutton.

? On Monday The Prince visited Tebay, Cumbria to officially open a meat processing plant built and run by a farmers' co-operative.

The Junction 38 Partnership Meat Processing Facility is based near Tebay Service Station on the M6.

The pioneering £1 million project was initially started in 2000 by 48 farmers who donated £2,000 each. The project, which processes local beef, lamb and pork, then attracted public funding.

The facility was built so that farmers can sell their meat produce direct to customers - and gain a better price than supermarkets are paying.

The Prince toured the facility and was given a 10-minute demonstration of butchery of a lamb carcase in the boning room.

He described the project as a "real beacon of hope" for farmers struggling to keep afloat.

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