Thriving meat exports to France

An atrociously wet week has added to the misery across the country, with high winds to boot! Any activity on the land has been brought to an abrupt halt, as the slightly dryer conditions were brought to a swift end. The leaves have taken a real pounding, with most on the ground, or mixing in with the running water if the roads between Plaistow and Tillington are anything to go by. Yet the grass is growing due to reasonable temperatures, and our farms look very green indeed for the time of year, but the clay is completely saturated, whilst we are grazing bulling heifers quite happily at Tillington.

I bought a new Aberdeen Angus bull from a farmer in Surrey (we are very close to the border but keep it quiet), and he seems to be settling in very well with the heifers at Tillington. Aberdeen Angus cross calves sell very well these days as many of the retailers now have followed Waitrose (who have paid a premium for many years), creating demand. Angus cross calves are easier for heifers to deliver at calving, are also hardy and are easy to rear; some of that original hardiness from the Scottish hills still in the genes.

The meat and food industry Dutch-based giant Vion has announced its withdrawal from the UK, concentrating on its core pork and beef activities in the Netherlands and Germany. The UK arm of Vion had been struggling for some time, and it was inevitable that they would withdraw if the position could not be turned around. With 13,000 people employed at 38 sites dealing with lamb, beef, pork and chicken; sales of £2.35 billion, Vion privately owned by ‘Dutch Southern Farmers Union’ has been operating in the UK since the late 1990s.

The scale of Vion’s operation will completely shake up the slaughtering and processing industry as other players will undoubtedly look to take over some of the plants. Vion supply all major retailers as well as food manufacturers and food service sectors, and their withdrawal will restrict choice to both farmers and retailers, as other big players will undoubtedly take over some of the plants. This could herald a shift in power between supermarkets and meat processors according to some analysts.

l As a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), I have been to various abattoirs of late ranging from the only deer slaughterhouse in the country, to a large lamb plant where they killed 4000 lambs a day, fish farms in Scotland and England rearing salmon and trout in the main, to a large chicken plant where 10,000 chicken went through every hour. Not the greatest series of visits I hear you say, and you are right, but when you go shopping, it is important that when you buy British, you can be sure that everything has been done properly and to a high standard.

At FAWC, we are charged with looking into various issues of welfare as requested by government, and ‘welfare at killing’ is one of the issues we have been asked to look into.This consists of taking evidence from people involved, looking at the science and welfare, new emerging technology which could improve welfare, and visiting some plants to see for ourselves what it entails, so that we are not isolated from the reality of this very competitive, high pressure business; by no means an easy enterprise to run. The common theme throughout has been the power of major retailers, and the extremely thin margins, which can easily tip a plant from profit to loss. On the whole we have been impressed by the standards and care taken of livestock throughout the process, and the dedication of those involved. It is important that when an animal has been reared on farm, that it not only has a good life, but a ‘good death’ as well.

l It is pleasing to report that exports of red meat from this country to France is thriving, contrary to what most people would imagine to be an impossible task. Over the last 10 years sales of lamb and mutton to France have increased by 141% in volume, and a quarter of all sheep meat in France comes from the UK. Sales of beef are also on the increase from a lower base, as we sold virtually no beef in France 10 years ago following our problems with foot and mouth disease and BSE which hugely damaged our reputation. English Beef and Lamb (EBLEX) the levy body which promotes red meat in this country and abroad, has certainly done a very good job of getting both lamb and beef well established in supermarkets and the high end butchers in France.

Some of the country’s leading butchers are selling beef from the UK to their customers at a premium, advertising its quality and tender, consistent sophisticated flavour. British lamb has the advantage of being slightly cheaper than French lamb, and shoppers are attracted by the ‘green meadow’ image and quality assurance. The French market is extremely important to British farmers, competing with buyers at home for the product, which delivers a better price at the farm gate. We have moved a long way from the position we were in 10 years ago, when angry French farmers were slashing tyres and burning lorries transporting red meat over to France.

l On the subject of food, and Christmas fast approaching (Aaaargh!), I see that a war of words has broken out between ladies who resist the odd ‘cup-cake’ and those who chose not to. Julie Burchill writing in the ‘Daily Mail’ last week vented her spleen on Joanna Lumley, who had apparently called those who indulge in the odd cup-cake or three, undisciplined ‘fools’. Julie retorted that Joanna had starved herself to the point of rage; apparently there is a new word for this - ‘Hangry’ (I must pick up the Daily Mail more often to improve my vocabulary). ‘Gluttony and idleness are two of life’s great joys, but they are not honourable; any more than their opposite, dieting and exercise’ wrote Burchill. She quotes an amusing slogan ‘eat well, exercise often – die anyway’.

It does seem to me that there must be a ‘Tony Blair’ here (slang for a third way). There is no doubt that obesity and the problems caused by being overweight in the western world are real, but they are very well publicised, and those who struggle with their weight feel stigmatised and under attack. The growing problems associated with dieting and starvation (bulimia, anorexia, osteoporosis) are not given the same coverage, and Burchill finds that unfair. ‘We get fat because we choose pleasure over self-denial; but we are not fools. It could simply mean that we have realised that all roads lead to infirmity and extinction, and we have decided to have as much fun as possible on the way’. Most people find themselves somewhere in the middle of all this arguing, enjoying their food, eating a healthy diet, but just keeping one eye on the imaginary weigh-scales in one’s head.

Gwyn Jones