Regional beef

by Barbara Baker

'Eat The View', the Countryside Agency's campaigning slogan designed to encourage consumers to buy local and regional food, was never more apt than at Goulds farm in the heart of the unspoilt Vale of Blackmoor. This Dorset landscape seems barely to have changed since the Vincent family began farming here back in 1937; and with its lush meadow grass and comforting tapestry of hedgerows still as beautiful as Thomas Hardy described it in his novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

CowRonnie Vincent, 41, has recently taken over the 250 acre farm from his parents Ronald and Doreen. Ronnie runs a small beef suckler herd as well as buying 'store' calves which he grows on. Like many local beef farmers, and perhaps contrary to popular misconception, no sprays are used - just one application of fertiliser in the spring 'to get the grass going' while the miles of hedgerows are managed for maximum benefit to wildlife. Cattle are put out to grass in the spring and only brought in for the winter, or during bad weather, to light, airy sheds. Even to an untrained eye, it is obvious that the cattle are content and beautifully cared for, though Doreen's penchant for giving her favourites names like 'Snowy' is an added giveaway! With a herd of around 240, the Vincents produce three superb crossbreed cattle every week, 52 weeks of the year; and Ronnie still insists on taking his own cattle to the local abattoir, just a few miles away, and settling them into the lairage before slaughter.


West Country Beef

In a climate where supermarkets are so often berated for only wanting the deal with the biggest producers, it may surprise some to know that Ronnie Vincent is one of the producers of Somerfield's new 'West Country Beef' Brand, launched on 23rd October 2002. Ronnie belongs to the Southern Counties Producers Club, set up by Southern Counties Fresh Foods (SCFF), the procurement and abattoir division of the RWM Food Group, based at Langport, Somerset, now 1500 members strong. All cattle must be reared to FABBL (Farm Assured Beef and Lamb) industry standards. RWM is the deboning, processing and retail packing operation within the Hilton Food Group. In partnership with SCFF and RWM, Somerfield are now able to offer the West Country brand, which will be worth £8 million of turnover, in up to 140 of its South West Region stores. According to Andy Johnson, Project Manager at Somerfield, one of the factors which distinguishes this particular product from similar regional branding exercises within other multiples, is that it offers full integrity. 'The livestock are born, bred, reared, slaughtered and packaged in the West Country.'

Packing Hall

In addition, the West Country range will not be an 'add on' or premium product - but will replace Somerfield's own label products as the standard range. SCFF had to ensure they could source sufficient supply to meet demand across the entire spectrum of products and provide the kind of consistency of quality, traceability and sustainability Somerfield were looking for. 'The nature of Somerfield's business and its emphasis on High Street locations means that it will be rolled out to a greater number of stores compared to anything similar operated by the other multiples.'

Up to 2,000 cattle a week are slaughtered at the Langport site in Somerset. According to Robert Heffer, RWM's Managing Director there has never been a better time for beef farmers in the South West region to make their mark. 'Even before BSE, sales of red meat were on the decline . Now confidence in red meat is back and consumption is going up, but production, post Foot and Mouth, is going down.'

According to the NFU, in 2001, 763,000 animals (7 per cent of the national herd) were culled because of foot and mouth - inevitably this will have a major impact on beef production in the coming years. At present, the UK is only 70 per cent self sufficient in beef, but this year the industry faces the highest levels of imports since the 1960s and self sufficiency is likely to fall to 65 per cent. 'The fact that consumers are now interested in regional food is a golden marketing opportunity for farmers,' says Robert Heffer. The NFU recently said that whilst niche, regional, local and speciality foods will not be a panacea for the farming industry, they do provide an extremely valuable business contribution to many farmers and benefits to consumers and believes the Government should develop clear policy to ensure consistency in the delivery and funding strategy for regional foods. Meanwhile, Robert Heffer is clear: 'In the past, we have seen too many calves raised in the South West being sold to dealers and being transported to the Midlands and to Scotland. Yet demand is now sufficiently high for regional products to allow us to retain stock in the South West, and work with farmers in the supply chain to ensure the product remains here.'

According to Andy Johnson, this new initiative is not simply a PR exercise. 'Our track record speaks for itself - we absolutely support the idea of increasing local and regional foods. But at the same time it's a commercial decision based on the fact we know it will help us to sell more beef. We could continue to increase sales with price promotions but our experience with Cotswold lamb, one of our first regional products, proves there is a demand.' Cotswold lamb was the catalyst for Somerfield's regional drive launched in 1999 with Scottish beef, lamb and poultry and later that year Welsh beef and lamb. Recognising a genuine demand for locally produced foods, Somerfield went on to launch a range of regional brands during 2000 including Cotswold Quality Lamb and Northumbria Beef and Lamb in partnership with farming co-operatives. Cotswold lamb replaced its own label fresh meat in the relevant regional stores and resulted in increased sales of 27 per cent.

Richard Phelps, Andy Johnson, Robert Heffer
Richard Phelps   Andy Johnson   Robert Heffer


Breaking down barriers

Richard Phelps, Managing Director of SCFF, procures livestock either from the members of their own Southern Counties Producer Club, farmer-owned market co-operatives, or larger independent farmers. 'We have worked hard to help farmers realise the tremendous opportunities available. In 1996, before BSE, farmers had very little understanding of supermarkets or what their customers were looking for; there were so many market opportunities - primarily buying and selling from dealers or livestock markets - that quality was less of an issue even though trading in this way meant some of their profit was reduced. There was a huge barrier between farmer and retailer and it suited dealers and livestock markets to keep it that way. Post BSE, we have spent a lot of time with farmers, suggesting ways of adding value to their businesses without putting extra costs on the supply chain. We started the Best Beef Scheme in partnership with a number of our customers and suppliers, in accordance with the philosophy of both the producers club and the RWM food group.

The Best Beef Scheme encourages the use of superior quality bull semen to enhance the quality of calves used to replenish the supply. The Best Beef scheme also delivers premium quality calves to farmers within our Producer Club with full traceability. We also started, an interactive website which allowed farmers who couldn't trade during Foot and Mouth to go on line, put their animals up for sale and trade direct with other farmers instead of dealers. We give farmers in-depth feedback on their animals, paying a bonus at slaughter for animals that exceed average benchmarks in terms of weight and confirmation etc. We have also invested heavily in transport - instead of paying a haulier we will collect animals at cost - and that, in turn adds value to a farmer's business.'

Seventy five per cent of Southern Counties Fresh Foods' existing business already came from the West Country but Richard Phelps says the Somerfield initiative has given them the confidence to expand - they expect to take on up to 40 people at their Yetminster site. 'I think it offers greater job security and it boosts employees' morale to know we have gained a big contract with a large retailer.' The company also expects to increase the percentage of contracted farmers, from five per cent to 25 per cent over the next few years. 'Contracts between farms and abattoirs are rare but the expected increase is because we have worked so hard at building up individual relationships and this will help secure the future of Somerfield's South West brand.'


Sophisticated tracing

SlaughterhouseFull traceability is another key part of the initiative. Southern Counties' Langport site offers the most sophisticated and advanced operation in the country with stringent cross checking procedures in place at every stage, from the moment an animal arrives at the lairage, through the slaughterhouse, in the boning hall, on the packing lines and beyond. Batch numbers are allocated per every 30 'quarters' (to a maximum of 5 farmers) and this together with animal passports, ear tags and computerisation of all relevant information including the animal's weight, feeding regime, farm details, FABBL number, destination etc ensures all Somerfield's traceability specifications are met. Animal welfare standards are very high to ensure minimum stress. It all adds up to an attractive package and Somerfield are so enthusiastic about the project they plan to develop the brand and in conjunction again with RWM and SCFF will launch West Country Lamb in April 2003.

Meanwhile, Somerfield is launching its own definitions of 'local' and 'regional' foods at the same time of the West Country Beef launch. Says Stephen Ridge: 'A Somerfield local product is likely to be sourced within a 30 mile radius of the store in which it is sold. To us 'local' means products that our customers would identify as being sourced close to home. Products that are defined in this way will be clearly labelled in stores with our new 'Local Life' logo. These products may be traditional foods from the locality, such as Cheddar cheese, or products that have established a local reputation for quality, freshness and flavour - Emma's cakes in Gloucester for example. In the majority of cases local products are likely to be produced by small family businesses or local producers.

'Many of our local life products are delivered directly to store so that the freshness and quality our customers associate with such products is never compromised. By clearly labelling and merchandising our local products we will give our customers the means to support their neighbourhood and enjoy both the new and the traditional tastes of the place where they live.'

Stephen Ridge says that local life products are unlikely to carry Somerfield's own label. However, where supply and demand permit, these lines will have the opportunity to gain a national listing. Hence it will offer local producers access to a wider regional and national market while retaining their local identity.

Somerfield define a 'regional' product as coming from any part of the United Kingdom with a traditional geographical, historical or cultural identity. It might be an area characterised by its landscape, or defined by national boundaries. It might also be identified in the popular imagination as a distinct region such as the Peak District or Wessex.

Ridge says: 'Many of our customers have an identifiable attachment to the region where they live, or associate particular products with particular regions. They wish to support the traditional forms of production that have developed in the various regions of our country, in response to the landscape, climate and demand for fresh quality food produced close to home. Our regional products may be dual branded, so as to be sold locally under the Local Life label, or further afield as regional products. They are likely to be Somerfield own label as with our Cotswold and Celtic Pride lamb ranges. They may be sold at a premium on the understanding that traditional methods of producing food often result in a higher price. As with our local sourcing strategy regional ranging will allow producers to market their products to a sympathetic consumer through the conveniently located multiple outlets that Somerfield can offer.


Posted: 25-Nov-2003

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