Tönnies Fleisch's naked ambition

Meet the German processor with ambitious plans to tackle the UK market. Becca Wilkins reports.

Europe's third-largest meat processor is aiming to make a major impact in the UK retail market over the next five years with its range of fresh and frozen pork and beef products, its ready-meal range and a sausage blend aimed at manufacturers.

As well as its ambitions to become a major supplier and partner to the main UK manufacturers, the German processor Tönnies Fleisch aims to be a recognised partner of a number of UK supermarkets through its Tillmans ready-meal range.

At present, Tönnies Fleisch is perhaps best-known in the UK and in the rest of Europe for its spare ribs and loin ribs, but the business is keen to spread awareness of a wider product range, which goes hand-in-hand with its impressive traceability and animal welfare systems.

The core of processing operations takes place at the firm's biggest and newest plant in Rheda-Wiedenbrück near Dortmund.


A key strength is the plant's computerised traceability system, which keeps track of each pig as it passes through the processing plant. This system enhances communication with pig producers and an on-line system allows farmers, who supply the plant with their herds, to access information about the specification of their pigs after slaughter.

Dr Wilhelm Jaeger, livestock manager at Tönnies Fleisch, says the extra means of communication is what sets the company apart from its competitors. He adds it has proved invaluable to farmers, who can immediately identify where they need to improve production methods.

Brothers Berndt and Clemens Tönnies set up the company 35 years ago, and the business now has plants in three locations: in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Weißenfels and Sögel. Capacity is expected to grow at all three locations.

The plant in Rheda encompasses processing, further processing and packaging operations and is believed to be the largest private meat facility in Europe that produces the most product from one site.

The company slaughters pigs, sows and cattle and manufactures a growing number of high-quality convenience foods at the plant in Rheda.


Speaking for Tönnies Fleisch UK,

Colin Ward, says: "We have just had an inspection and had a large number of farms approved for European welfare and this will enable us to extend our offer to our UK processing partners who supply the UK supermarkets. We recognise that our UK partners are specialists in supply and work with them to improve our offer based upon the UK's requirements."

Sales offices are based throughout Europe, including the UK, and the company's export share currently comes to approximately 35% with annual turnover standing at €3.2bn. Tönnies Fleisch started out with 20 employees and, today, more than 5,000 employees work for the company all over Europe - 3,000 of these are based at the Rheda plant.

Partner in the business, Josef Tillman, says: "When the company started 35 years ago, we were conducting the slaughtering and

de-boning of sows for the production industry - no other companies were working in this way back then. After 10 years (in 1982) we started with a small slaughterhouse for pigs but the quantities we processed were very small - just 1,500 a day."

During 2005, a total of 8.2m pigs were slaughtered within the company's three plants.

In 1990 a new slaughterhouse was built in Weißenfels, incorporating a de-boning department. Today the plant also manufactures a proportion of the Tillmans ready meals. In 1992 the plant in Rheda was reconstructed and completed in 1997, incorporating a new de-boning department for sows and pigs. The cattle slaughterhouse is located 80km away. In 1996 a new slaughterhouse was built at Rheda, which now has a capacity to process 20,000 pigs a day. A further 8,000 a day are slaughtered at the Weißenfels plant and 7,000 a day are killed at the plant in Sögel, which opened in 1999.

Jaeger co-ordinates the 16,000 farmers for Tönnies Fleisch. "More and more German pig producers are switching to finishing farms while others are entering the divided system - where piglets are produced and then sent to be finished elsewhere," he says.


Traceability and animal welfare are at the forefront of the company's thinking. Jaeger adds: "Traceability is very important to us. We know each pig's exact history and we can trace it right the way through the production line."

He says there are two main issues which have to be specifically considered with welfare: handling of pigs when moving them; and transporting and unloading of pigs from trucks when arriving at the slaughterhouse. Quality control measures are implemented to help achieve high standards. For example, a video recording is taken of the pigs arriving at the plant to check procedures and official veterinarians are also present at the plant.

Jaeger says that when it comes to housing, by law, all sows have to be free to roam at certain periods, except during the time after insemination and for a short time after the sow has had her litter. He explains that it is different to the UK system but the company believes the German system offers protection for the piglets. Most pigs are sourced from farms within a 120km radius of the plant in Rheda and have a maximum journey from farm to plant of four hours, in fully-air conditioned trucks.

When it comes to slaughtering, Jaeger is keen to point out that animal welfare has improved immensely since the company adopted the 'group stunning' system three years ago. The pigs can rest before slaughter and are kept as comfortable as possible with showers for keeping them cool in summer and heated flooring in the winter.

Jaeger says: "The group stunning has been the biggest part of animal welfare improvements here. It was a big project in the beginning of the 1990s, when they built the slaughterhouse. A scientific study was carried out by the University of Hannover and this was the first time that such a stable in a slaughterhouse was built."

Jaeger says Tönnies Fleisch is ahead of the game on animal welfare because of the intense involvement with the farmers in establishing the regulations. He adds: "Animal welfare and meat quality go together. It's all about a better end-product."

An effective system is in place at the plant in order to monitor and detect salmonella, says quality assurance manager, Josef Trilling. After slaughter, a microbiological test called the Quality Monitoring System is carried out, which aims to ensure zero salmonella.

Categorising each pig is used to monitor their individual specifications, using a system called Autofam, which detects the weight and fat content of each pig and individual parts. Trilling says: "We classify all the raw materials with our selection system, which sorts out the pigs in the cold store into the type of product they are best suited to. Around 90% of the meat we are de-boning and cutting is already sold. We de-bone to the customer's requirements and this is only possible through using the selection system."


With convenience foods playing an increasing role in the company, a new building with two production lines for this area was developed two years ago, one for fresh and one for frozen meat. There is capacity for 48,000 pallets of frozen meat and 25,000 pallets of fresh meat. The 24 different products are sold through 50 retail packaging lines, mainly produced for Germany, but are also shipped all over Europe.

Trilling says: "One of the biggest production areas is the minced beef meat, which mainly goes to Germany. That's about 120t per day or 250,000 packs per day."

A growing product is the ready-made sausage blend and Tonnies Fleisch is currently in discussions with a number of major UK manufactures regarding this product. Ward says: "Tonnies is offering a dedicated mixing and blending system to UK sausage manufacturers based on our ability to deliver a consistent meat product and knowledge of UK sausage-making. In the UK, one of the account managers is a butcher, a regional sausage champion and finalist in the UK championships so has an understanding of what is required." l

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