2015: A year in review

Our month-by-month look at what has happened in the meat industry over the past year.

The New Year started off with a bang with the appointment of Jane King as chief executive of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). The former editor of Farmers’ Weekly oversaw a tough year for the levy board with resignations over marketing (see August) and protests over farm prices (see July). AHDB chairman Sir Peter Kendall cited her communication skills and experience of leading a well-known agricultural service brand through a period of change as key reasons for her appointment, which have certainly been put to the test over the past year.

Animal welfare was under the spotlight in February as hidden camera footage emerged of animals being mistreated at two abattoirs in the UK. The incidents at Bowood Lamb and S Bagshaw and Sons showed botched stunning and slaughtering taking place and led to a call for the introduction of legislation to make CCTV mandatory in abattoirs. So far the appeals to introduce it have been unsuccessful, but many abattoir operators decided to introduce it anyway to pre-empt any future introduction of CCTV legislation and help create more transparency in the meat industry.

AHDB continued its overhaul as it made sector chair appointments for its Beef & Lamb and Pork divisions. Meryl Ward took over as sector chair for Pork while Stuart Roberts took over at Beef & Lamb although it wouldn’t be the last we heard from the latter. This month also saw a pre-emptive strike against campylobacter as the industry prepared for some high incidence rates of the superbug (see May). Industry bodies launched campaigns to raise awareness of campylobacter as it was expected to be found in almost three-quarters of whole fresh chickens surveyed.

This month marked the introduction of country-of-origin labelling (COOL) as per a European Union diktat. The law requires all packaged unprocessed meat products to be labelled where the animal was reared and slaughtered. Research conducted by the European Commission suggested that more than 90% of consumers thought it was important that meat products were labelled. However, the legislation does not apply to processed meats. Despite pressure from the European Parliament to introduce similar mandatory labelling for meat used as an ingredient in processed foods. It was also rejected by members of the British meat industry as being too difficult and costly to impose.

Campylobacter was on everyone’s lips as the results of the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) year-long survey of the superbug were revealed. It found that campylobacter was present in 73% of fresh chickens from major retailers, with Asda having the highest rate of incidences. For a change, Tesco was in the good books as it had the lowest rate of campylobacter incidences. The results led to all major retailers embarking on plans to cut incidences of the bug, with some introducing new technology and others working with new suppliers. The FSA is currently on its second year-long survey and has broadened its reach to include discount retailers Aldi and Lidl.

The Republic of Ireland returned to ‘controlled risk’ status following the confirmation of BSE on a farm in Co Louth. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine investigated following a positive result in a rapid screening test earlier this month. It was confirmed as an isolated case after all 63 cohort animals and four progeny involved in the probe tested negative for BSE as well as the grand-dam of the infected animal. It was the first confirmed case of BSE in Ireland since 2013 and meant the country returned to having a ban on the feeding of meat and bone meat, undergoing systematic testing of feed supplies, active and passive animal testing and checks conducted on all animals prior to slaughter by vets.

Plummeting lamb prices paid to farmers and static supermarket prices led to some Welsh and English farmers protesting over the behaviour of some major retailers. Hybu Cig Cymru - Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) figures during July revealed that Welsh farmers received between £25 and £30 less per lamb than a year ago, due to a strong pound and increased red meat imports, prompting farmers to refuse to sell their prime lambs. The protest, operating under the #nolambweek hashtag, gained a lot of mainstream support. However, prices only increased slightly the week after and are still seeing declines.

After less than six months in the job, Stuart Roberts resigned from his role as chairman of AHDB Beef & Lamb. Citing disapproval over how the levy money was being spent, he tendered his resignation following a meeting in which questions were asked about promotional activity for lamb. At the time, he told Meat Trades Journal: “After the General Election I have seen an increasing desire by government to exert more influence than I believe was in place previously over the way in which AHDB levy payers’ money should be spent.” His resignation sparked an outpouring of support for Roberts and lamb farmers, with several waves of promotional activity for the lamb sector being approved.

One of the bigger news stories this month turned out to be the appointment of Kerry McCarthy as shadow environment minister. While her skills were not in question for the job, the fact she is a vegan and would have to spend a lot of time dealing with the meat and dairy industry was a sticking point for some. Her appointment attracted a lot of attention on social media and she has insisted that her personal views wouldn’t impact her role. While this has certainly been the case so far, it could be down to the fact that she hasn’t done much in the role at all.

Meat went mainstream as the combination of a slow news day and overzealous headline writers meant that a World Health Organisation report into red and processed meat and its carcinogenic properties was all over TV, radio and newspapers. The report, which utilised data from over the past 15 years, placed processed meat into the same category as tobacco and asbestos in terms of potentially causing cancer while red meat was labelled as “potentially carcinogenic”. Processed meat was reported to have suffered a 10% drop in sales in the wake of the report, but butchers didn’t seem to experience a dip in sales.

The meat industry and government were at loggerheads this month over the implementation of regulations on the welfare of animals during slaughter. The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (WATOK) regulation, which came from the European Commission, included a requirement for all abattoirs to have a Certificate of Competence. This was labelled as “bureaucratic nonsense” by the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers which had “serious concerns over the quality of veterinary advice”. Although the deadline for applications for a Certificate of Competence has now passed, the debate is expected to continue into the New Year.

Finally, global warming was placed at the feet of the meat industry following yet another report criticising the sector. Changing Climate, Changing Diets, from Chatham House revealed that the agricultural sector was responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. The report suggested a tax on meat in an effort to reduce consumption. This was quickly dismissed by key parties in the industry as “unrealistic” and that beef and lamb consumption per capita had actually reduced over the past quarter century. Again, the Chatham House report made national headlines for all the wrong reasons with many outlets targeting meat as the cause of all the world’s woes.

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