FEEDBACK from retailers in the United Kingdom to international processor JBS shows meat from unmulesed sheep is an emerging demand from consumers supplied with Australian lamb.
Speaking at last month’s LambEx 2012 conference in Bendigo, JBS UK managing director Marcus O’Sullivan outlined challenges for Australian lamb in the UK and European Union.
Mr O’Sullivan said while there would be a move toward unmulesed product, most retailers had been measured in their view on the practice.
“Initially their view was not educated and the practice contravened what they thought was welfare standards,” he said.
“With a bit of education and a lot of work by JBS, they - and even groups like the RSPCA - have recognised that mulesing can be a very welfare friendly aspect to production as long as it is done correctly with anaesthetic.”
Naturally produced and grass-fed continued to be key elements that UK retailers believed consumers demanded from Australian lamb.
“Primary requirements are consistency, availability, quality, and best commercial value.
"Australia does set the bar high in assurance standards and welfare. These are core values of the retail chain and an intrinsic requirement of the British consumer,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
New Zealand had faltered on filling its EU quota last year, while Argentina and Uruguay, both with similar quota sizes to Australia at 19,000 tonnes, had not filled their quotas over a number of years.
Australia’s quota is less than one-tenth of New Zealand’s.
Mr O’Sullivan said there needed to be more intensive pressure from Australian authorities for an increase to its quota even though this year, Australia was behind at only 36 per cent filled from January to June.
“If quota is not being used (by other countries) then we need to be able to get access to that, it should be ‘use it or lose it’,” he said.
Challenges to marketing Australian lamb from a retailer’s perspective included the size of lambs – the bigger they were, the harder to sell - and Australian lambs were getting too big.
Mr O’Sullivan said JBS had been restricted in supplying bone-in, single-piece cuts to retailers because lamb legs were too big.
To sidestep the issue, JBS had focused on supplying part-boned legs and smaller portion sizes.
UK specifications for lamb from its own producers was from 15 kilograms to 21.5kg carcaseweight, with no incentives for turning out heavier lambs.
The country slaughters about 13 million lambs last year, down from 18m in previous years.
“The size of (Australian) lambs is a big challenge to retailers.
"There have been bigger lambs over the past two years when there have been good growing conditions that have allowed producers to feed lambs on, rightly or wrongly.
"I would say wrongly.”
Mr O’Sullivan said while competition was still fierce with other sources of protein, such as beef, pork and chicken, Australian lamb was still not truly established on UK supermarket shelves.
He said comments made by retailers included that Australian lamb could have an established place on UK shelves and would complement the British and NZ offering.
However, the problem was NZ lamb was instantly recognised, but not Australian lamb.
“NZ lamb is a big competitor in the marketplace - when many consumers are asked where lamb comes from, many in the UK will say NZ, it is intrinsically linked with NZ,” he said.
“When Australian lamb is put on the shelf in the same degree, we’ve found there’s no negative consumer reaction but there’s also no high awareness of Australia as a lamb producing country.”
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