Focus on the MIDLANDS

The Midlands boasts a vibrant meat industry from traditional breed producers to a thriving processing and retail sector.

Centrally located for easy distribution and offering a wide and varied swath of rural land, the Midlands boasts a vibrant meat industry, from its traditional breed producers to a thriving secondary processing sector, and butchers' and farm shops.

Hard hit, along with the rest of the country, post BSE and FMD outbreaks, the region is recovering with the help of organisations such as the West Midlands Food Partnership, Heart of England Fine Foods and East Midlands Fine Foods.

The West Midlands, comprising Shropshire, Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, is home to seven metropolitan districts including Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, and has a reputation for the manufacture of multi-cultural cuisine. Statistics from regional development agency Advantage West Midlands (AWM) estimate 59,400 work in the food and drink sector and a further 46,000 in agriculture accounting for, respectively, 2.3% and 1.8% of the regional workforce.

Trend spotting

The number of food and drink businesses rose 9% between 1995 and 2002 to about 2,600, generating turnover of £6.5bn. "In terms of regional food, we're doing well in spotting trends, such as healthy eating and public procurement initiatives," says Karen Wright, interim food and drink cluster manager for AWM's Food and Farming Team.

AWM funded the £1.6m Food & Drink Information Centre, established in Hereford in 2003, and created the West Midlands Food Partnership in March this year in partnership with the Learning and Skills Council, Business Link, UK Trade and Investment and Heart of England Fine Foods (HEFF). Development of the region's red meat supply chain is one of 11 key activities identified by AWM as the focus of its support.

In its Food Future Project, identifying food and drink trends up to 2010, the development body recommends directing new product development on chilled cabinet products such as ready-to-cook meat in sauces and adding flavours to sausages.

Also advocated is a 'focus on promoting fresher, more natural, more flavoursome meat (e.g. Sainsbury's Taste the Difference brand)'. AWM's Food and Farming Team has been working hand-in-hand with the region's producers to improve efficiencies and find markets for their meat. Having represented Defra in the region for some years, Jamie Inglis, of AWM, has been instrumental in forming a Red Meat Forum there to put into action many of the Curry Report's recommendations.

The forum brings together representatives from throughout the supply chain to "give us guidance on where we should be directing our activities", he says. "It's very important that our activities have a direct effect on their businesses."

The team also works with the Red Meat Industry Forum and on a variety of initiatives, for example the Better Returns West Midlands knowledge transfer programme, aimed at beef and sheep producers in the region. Eblex is managing a grant of about £100,000 over three years to implement the programme.

Further services offered to West Midlands producers include a £495 grant towards the £1,100 cost of purchasing electronic weight cells, which sit under weight crates to monitor liveweight gain. Eblex research identified 64% of stock as failing to hit specification, says Inglis.

And the team is working with producer groups, encouraging members to tap into its knowledge programmes.

Challenges faced by meat producers in the West Midlands are fairly reflective of those reported across the country, says Inglis. However, although the overall slaughter capacity of the region is boosted by the presence of big players such as ABP, "smaller producers are finding it difficult to organise smaller kills", according to Inglis.

Defra has sought to address this problem through offering grants for the upgrade of small abattoirs, he adds.

Further activities co-ordinated through his team include establishing a network of regional hubs to act as idea forums; notably, the Staffordshire hub has made progress with quality meat initiatives. Public procurement is another focus, with, for example, a programme underway to get less popular meat cuts on school menus, minimising wastage.

Coates Quality Meats

Four years ago, Inglis worked with Coates Quality Meats of Airewas in Burton on Trent and Borrowash in Derby to assist the business via a £52,000 Defra processing and marketing grant. Run by father and son team Peter and Antony Coates, the family business was established in 1898 with the Airewas shop while the Derby shop was bought from a cousin 15 years ago.

The grant contributed towards the £300,000 upgrade of its small abattoir and two cold stores at Airewas. As well as its own walk-in customers, it supplies three farm shops with gas-flushed, pre-packed meats and has about 30 catering customers including pubs and restaurants.

A member of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers and employer of 18 staff members including Peter and Anthony, Coates Quality Meats cures its own bacon, makes its own pies and conducts contract pig killing for a local producer, totalling about 80 head a week. "He's the only farmer I know with his own refrigerated transport," says Anthony. "He collects the pigs and it suits me really well. From a little sideline, it's proved a good thing."

Coates slaughters 30 pigs a week for its own shops, as well as about 10 head of cattle and 40 sheep.

"The retail shops are mega busy," he says, with turn-over for both shops two Saturdays ago bringing in a record £12,000. Being in the height of the barbecue season, products such as kebabs, burgers and marinated meats are leading trade. Coates is busy planning its next phase, and is shortly to approach local planning officials with outlines for a two-storey plant extension. One floor would add a separate pork and bacon production room, game larder and refrigerated store for by-products, with a bakery, staff offices and canteen upstairs.

Current office space would be transformed into a deli under the plans, and a chef employed to create products such as pates and terrines. "We're in a rural area that's very desirable to live in," he says. "House prices are high and people have money to spend but we're also just down the road from Birmingham." Many of Coates' Saturday regulars travel significant distances to shop there.


Also flying the flag for the West Midlands region is HEFF, which was established in 1998 with the aim of helping businesses to 'develop, expand and create profitable and sustainable markets for their products'. The promotional body has created a Red Meat & Game Forum, confirmed participants of which include Richard Ali and Hugh Judd of Eblex, Richard Lutwyche of Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing, John Holden of British Meat Training & Marketing and Dean Tracey of Lehman Brothers.

Last week, HEFF hosted a half-day red meat masterclass on traditional Hereford beef reared in the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Held in Much Birch, Herefordshire, it attracted 23 chefs, restaurateurs, B&B proprietors, butchers, producers and retailers from across the region. Through the event HEFF aimed to raise awareness of traditional meat production and its role in the sustainability of the area, as well as reconnecting the food service industry with quality, locally sourced meats. Delegates visited Peter and Jane Symonds' 700-acre Llandinabo Farm, where the couple rear traditional Hereford cattle and free range poultry for sale through their Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Company.

A butchery presentation by Eblex's Viv Harvey followed, with the master butcher recommending foodservice businesses develop detailed meat specifications for their suppliers to minimise waste and save money. His practical demonstration on seam butchery matched the right meat cuts to recipes, while offering tips on maximising usage from each meat order. Pure breed Herefords have been reared at Llandinabo Farm since 1947. The Symonds' stock comprises 200 head of cattle, including their own bred bulls, raised to maturity on sloping pastures before being slaughtered locally at 18-20 months and hung in their converted grain store chiller unit for 21 days.

The farm is also home to 200 Cotswold Brown chickens, bought at one day old, fed on pellets and pure wheat. Offered the freedom of a one-acre, fox-proof pen, the birds are able to build muscle, thus producing a better quality bird, according to the Symonds.

The couple supply beef to 47 regional butchers through the Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Company, and own a shop in Ledbury. Future plans include converting several Grade II listed buildings on the farm into cold stores and commercial kitchens for a new ready meal and pie-making business. "When the avian flu scare started, our chicken sales plummeted from 20 a week to zero in a matter of days," says Peter. "But when we turned the meat into chicken and mushroom pies they flew off the shelves.

"Opening our own butcher's shop and diversifying into food production has been essential for the farm. I don't wish to supply the supermarkets. We are only interested in marketing pure breed Hereford beef which has become justifiably famous around the world."

Following the farm visit, delegates arrived at The Pilgrim Hotel in Much Birch for Eblex's 'back to basics' demonstration on meat procurement and preparation, taking in the perspective of a butcher, chef, restaurateur and consumer. Using a rump of Llandinabo beef, Viv offered advice on eliminating 'plate waste' through cutting along natural muscle lines, trimming bone sheath, removing excess fat and slicing evenly along the grain. "Butchers used to sell consumers what they had in the shop," he says. "Today, they sell what the consumer demands."

After the class, a lunch featuring Llandinabo brisket, was served. Among delegates were Keith Boxley, whose shop is a Guild of Q member, and has garnered many awards over the years for its regional-sourced meats and handmade pies and sausages. "I never go to market for my meat," says Keith. "I'm only interested in selling low mileage, traditional meats and wanted to find out more about the Symonds' Hereford cattle. Customers are demanding traceability and price isn't the barrier it used to be. I'm all for Eblex promoting seamed cuts but a better quality product needs a recognised classification - one rump steak will vary greatly from another. In my shop, I clearly mark out the cheaper cuts from the select cuts and help customers with their choice by suggesting recipes or cooking methods for each type of meat."

Also attending was Susie Keenan, manager of the Taste of the Country store on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire borders, who wanted to expand her knowledge of the meat trade and local meat sourcing.

And two chef lecturers from Hereford College have proposed a joint project with Eblex, through which students will develop pie recipes for Llandinabo Farm using its beef along with ale from nearby Marches Brewery.

Welcoming positive feedback from the event, HEFF's Jon May - co-ordinator of the red-meat masterclass - says: "The more relationships we can establish between local producers and the retail and foodservice sector as a result of events like this, the better." Wye Valley AONB unit, part funded by The Countryside Agency, was also a partner in the masterclass.

Let's go East

The East Midlands encompasses Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland, and has been represented by East Midlands Fine Foods since 2003. Created to help regional businesses grow and raise the profile of their produce, the body offers a package of marketing and business development tools to retailers, wholesalers and caterers. A division of The Food & Drink Forum, it is partly funded by Food from Britain, as is AWM.

Noted for Lincoln Red cattle and Melton Mowbray pies, the region is also home to a thriving secondary meat processing industry. One such business is W&J Parker, which operates chilled division Parker Fine Food Services in Leicester and frozen division Parker Fine Foods in Corby.

MTJ visited the Leicester site back in 2001, when a £2m investment in the plant design pre-empted the January 2006 EC directive requiring catering butchers to fall into line with hygiene requirements applied across the processing industry. Since then, turnover at the Leicester site has doubled to £8m and weekly throughput has increased from 13-15t to a current 35t of beef, pork, lamb, poultry and game products including sausages.

With a workforce numbering 50, Parker Fine Food Services supplies to caterers from hotels, pubs and restaurants to institutions and industrial clients. Its customer profile has changed somewhat, with more third party distributors now among the clientele, says Andrew Parker, managing director.

Advantages of the Leicester location include it hitting a cross section of the major motorway network, offering access to 90% of England's population within two hours via its own transport fleet.

The site is operational six days per week but is planning to increase to seven by the end of June once a new contract, still under wraps, comes on stream.

Future plans include new product lines and packaging formats, and a continuing drive to improve efficiencies across the business.

"We do want to look into more competitively priced regional product," says Andrew. "A lot of our customers are now looking for provenance." EC licenses were granted for both EFSIS-accredited sites three years ago and, when the January 2006 regulations came in, "we were already there," says Andrew. "The foresight we had in terms of catering butchers having to come into line was rewarded."

The Corby plant processes 50-60t of frozen beef, pork and lamb weekly for retail customers such as Aldi and Morrisons. Plans there also include investment in new product lines and packaging formats, while a lot of attention has also gone into improving efficiency, he says. Andrew's cousin James Parker is commercial director at Corby, and Jeff Calder serves as managing director across W&J Parker.

Up for sale

AN ESTABLISHED, award-winning Shropshire beef, lamb and mutton business comprising an on-site butchery and shop, as well as arable and pastureland, has been placed on the market. Clare and Arthur Ratcliff are planning to retire following the sale of Detton Beef & Lamb of Little Detton, Cleobury Mortimer.

Included in the deal is Little Detton Farmhouse, a range of modern and traditional farm buildings and 78.14 acres of productive arable and pastureland.

Detton Beef & Lamb butchery and shop are housed in a converted garage adjacent to the house, and come complete with a delivery van, vacuum packer, sausage maker, two chillers, fridges, serving counters and stainless steel tables.

Set up in 1992, the business now boasts a turnover of over £100,000, selling quality beef, lamb and mutton reared on Detton Hall Farm to the public from its own shop, at farmers' markets in Bromsgrove, Bewdley, Kidderminster and Stourbridge and regional farm shops.

The deal also includes an established website promoting the business, which is certified by Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb and is a member of HEFF. Current stock includes fresh cuts, freezer packs and a range of award winning, handmade speciality sausages and burgers. Accolades include designation as a 'Food Hero' by TV chef Rick Stein, and runner up awards in the Producer of the Year category of both the 2005 and 2006 Deliciously Shropshire Awards.

Among its customers is The Fighting Cocks at Stottesdon, twice named Shropshire Pub of the Year.

Clare Ratcliff said: "From modest beginnings the business has grown at a steady pace and we are proud to have an excellent reputation.

However, there are many more opportunities for growth, especially now demand for locally produced, traceable meat has rocketed.

"The connection between the farm and the meat has been pivotal to our sales and marketing and I feel this is ripe for development."

Nock Deighton Agricultural of Bridgnorth is handling the sale.

Show and sell

DISCUSSION GROUPS, featuring representation from Eblex and the House of Fraser and a showcase for produce, are among opportunities offered at next month's FIND - Food, Information, Networking, Drink - event. Organised by regional group Heart of England Fine Foods (HEFF), the event for food and drink producers, manufacturers and growers from the West Midlands will be held at Aston Villa Football Club from 8.30am-5pm on 18 July. Delegates from Staffordshire, Shropshire, Hereford, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Birmingham and the Black Country are all invited to attend.

Also supported by Advantage West Midlands, FIND is geared towards bringing prospecting food and drink companies and start-up businesses together with sector buyers, multiple and independent retailers, industry experts and influential figures. Producers are invited to submit products to a Savour the Flavour Showcase Store, where buyers can browse specific food and drink categories, including advance previews of 2006 Christmas lines.

Further features of the networking event include sampling opportunities, a HEFF advisory service and a programme of workshops, seminars and forums.

A 'Dragon's Den' style panel of business professionals - including Jonathan Bayne of Budgens, Dean Tracy of Lehman Brothers and Lucy Ryan of Mind Spring - will analyse and critique product presentations, offering feedback and constructive advice.

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