Pork Supply Chain: a revolution in the making

UK - There is a mini revolution unfolding in the countryside, involving the pork supply chain. As with any power struggle, the question will be who, if anyone, will gain the upper hand?
calendar icon 27 February 2006
clock icon 6 minute read
JSR Genetics

To me, as Chairman of JSR Genetics, one of the world's leading pig breeding companies, it is a question of paramount importance and in a series of articles I will be investigating the many challenges that face the pork supply chain.

The current upheaval surrounds primary producers who, having long been disconnected from the consumer, are finding that getting closer to the money is a good business model. Whereas previously most would have received a 'D for effort and attainment' in supply chain management and retailing, now the achievements of many are exemplary.

I have visited two such good examples in the last three weeks. Firstly, the Balloon Tree Farm Shop at Stamford Bridge in East Yorkshire, run by the Machin family. Also Moorsfresh, based in Pickering, North Yorkshire - a regional food hub managed by the farming entrepreneur Tony Cook. Both businesses are less than three years old, yet now have turnovers in excess of £1m. Both are also getting used to their new role as price makers rather than price takers and are learning to cope with that very unusual phenomenon for primary producers - putting the price up if they feel it is justified.

What amazes me about these two examples, and many more around the country, is the speed at which they have developed new skills formerly missing from primary producers. Tony Cook, a farmer, of Moorsfresh realised straight away that matching high quality food customers with local regional food producers needed logistics expertise; hence his business partner is a former logistics director for W.H. Smith. The Machin family, meanwhile, have transformed their local vegetable selling business into an award winning farm shop.

What also makes them stand out is how enthusiastic they are about their businesses and the future. They are open to new ideas and very keen to improve on what they have. My aunt informed me, after a rewarding visit to the Balloon Tree, that they had too many currants in their scones (she is an acknowledged expert on these matters). If that is the worst customer complaint, they haven't got too many problems. Certainly they are far too busy helping customers open their wallets to moan about the power of the supermarkets or the ineptitude of DEFRA.

But what about the other 95% of primary producers? If you produce 100,000 pigs a year or 16,000 lambs, there are only so many you can channel through a farm shop. Some producers are gaining a premium by marketing to good local butchers. However, the vast majority are linked into supply chains that are tough and competitive, continually demanding more quality for the same or less money.

Concerned by a globalised food supply chain, a growing number of consumers are putting food provenance to the top of their list. Not surprisingly, supermarkets have reacted to this interest in 'regionally produced food with a convincing story to tell' and are beginning to adapt their supply chains to meet this new demand. Admittedly the premium supermarkets have been doing this for some time, but it is now becoming more mainstream. The danger in this approach is twofold. Firstly, given the supermarkets desire to create points of difference, there is pressure to reintroduce unimproved rare breeds that may confer an eating quality distinction but introduce inefficiencies in terms of performance within the supply chain. Secondly, even if this were the case, it would be unusual for the supermarkets to pay much of a premium, if any, for these unimproved animals. After all, they have become rare breeds because they are uneconomic without a considerable premium.

Here then is the fundamental difference for farm shops; their consumers will happily pay a considerable premium for meat produced from the lower performing traditional breeds. Price competition between supermarkets does not allow this to happen as a point of difference only remains for a short time before copycat products arrive on rival supermarket shelves and an intense price war ensues.

In terms of responding to demand, production cycles within the supply chain have been out of kilter. The longer production cycle for the pig producer is only surpassed by the even longer cycle of the genetic improvement breeding programme. A television programme by Rick Stein or Jamie Oliver may cause a huge demand in a product or line that hitherto had been largely forgotten. Huge demands are then placed on the supply chain to provide a quick fix, which may prove unsustainable. Breeding companies can provide Berkshire or Gloucester Old Spot breeding pigs, but convincing commercial producers, focussed on production costs, to move to a higher cost animal for a premium may be possible for small volume farm shops, but impossible for high volume supermarkets.

However the solution to the competitive supply chain problem, I believe, lies with new breeding technology. Our improved populations can now be selected for better eating quality using new techniques such as marker assisted BLUP (Best Linear Unbiased Prediction). Genetic improvement is primarily about numbers and, with optimum populations of the improved lines already in place, vast progress can be made on improving meat quality without any negative effects on performance. Add to this, schemes such as the JSR Patented Vitapork Programme(PUP) that increases the level of Omega 3 fatty acids in the lean portion of the pork, then we can confidently respond to demand by offering great eating quality pork with a real health benefit.

T S Rymer is Chairman of JSR Genetics

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