Sainsbury’s boss says British beef sector needs improved consumer focus

Sainsbury’s boss says British beef sector needs improved consumer focus

Consumer focus could be the key to developing and improving British beef quality and sustainability within the farming sector, according to a major UK retailer.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference this month, Gavin Hodgson, buying manager for meat, fish and poultry at Sainsbury’s, said: “Top businesses live and breathe their customer – everything they do leads back to the customer.”

Convoluted supply chains make that difficult in agriculture; something which greater collaboration could tackle. “We need a customer-obsessed supply web so we can deliver what we need going forward,” added Hodgson.

The panel also discussed other issues within the sector and according to Phil Bicknell, market intelligence director at AHDB, there is also £50,000 difference in profit between the top and bottom quartile of producers, which demonstrates the scope for improvement. “That is not down to scale or resources – most of it is down to business decisions and actions,” he said.

“If we’re going to compete with other meat products or vegetarian dishes then we need to ensure consistently good eating quality.”

As the Basic Payment Scheme is phased out in England, the average lowland livestock farmer will receive £17,928 in support payments in 2020, dropping to £8,964 in 2024 and zero in 2028. “In the long run, the big challenge is around preparing for a future with no direct payments,” said Bicknell. “Only the changes we make on farm will give us the resilience we need for the future. We need to be more customer and market focused, rather than just producing a product and hoping to sell it.”

Ian Sturmer of Sturmer Farms, East Sussex, also featured in the session to give a first-hand insight into the issues facing his farm and how he resolved them.

According to Sturmer, his farm finishes 600 head of beef cattle and has completely changed his system to improve the consistency and eating quality of his stock. “We used to buy in store cattle to finish within 30-90 days of arrival, but the finished product and physical performance was very variable,” he said.

Having spoken with chefs, supermarkets and abattoirs, he decided to focus on smaller carcasses with better eating quality and consistency. He invested in new buildings to increase the time on farm to 90 days – to better control the final feeding regime – and started working with dedicated calf rearers and dairy calf producers.

“It was a great opportunity to work together and create a financially and environmentally sustainable model,” explained Sturmer. “We created welfare and feeding protocols so all of the rearers were doing the same thing, and we did a lot of work on ventilation and building design.”

Monitoring growth rates helped to identify the impact of those changes, as well as the best genetics to use. “If you’re not measuring it you can’t manage it,” he added. “If we’re going to compete with other meat products or vegetarian dishes then we need to ensure consistently good eating quality.”

Photograph: Gavin Hodgson, buying manager for meat, fish and poultry at Sainsbury’s.

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