Fewer people are eating out these days due to the economic climate, choosing instead to buy good quality food to take home to cook. This has been good news for UK meat producers as it has kept sales of lamb and beef products in particular, very buoyant.
One such producer is Welsh Country Foods which is part of Vion UK, sitting within the Vion Food Group Ltd. This division produces and processes high quality beef, lamb, pork, bacon and chicken as well as a wide range of convenience products such as sausages, cooked meats and added value cooked chicken. The business is primarily focused on the UK retail market, some of the key customers being supermarkets such as Asda Some people think that the finest food to emerge from Wales is its lamb. Indeed the unique heritage, character and reputation of Welsh lamb and Welsh beef have been recognised by the European Commission (EC) and have been awarded the coveted status of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). PGI puts Welsh lamb and Welsh beef on a par with other excellent regional European products like Parma ham, from Italy.
This protected food name scheme was developed by the EC to encourage diverse agricultural production; protect product names from misuse and imitation, and to help consumers by giving them information concerning the specific character of the products. PGI is one of the protected designation within this scheme.
Welsh Country Foods, as well as the site in Gaerwen Anglesey, where the slaughtering and primal butchery takes place, also has a state-of-the-art retail packing and distribution plant in Cheshire. Probably the most automated of its kind in Europe, primal meat arrives in RFID tagged crates from which point almost everything associated with handling the meat is done by robots. Orders are picked and packed automatically, boxed and held in a high bay warehouse capable of holding approximately 3000 pallets before they are despatched to regional distribution centres. The factory has one of the fastest line speeds in the world.
However whilst over the years, engineers have tried to automate every stage of the slaughter process, there are still limitations to what is achievable. For example, the variety of breeds and size of sheep in the UK makes it very difficult to automate the stunning phase. On the other hand, for quite some time removing the skin from the carcass has been done by machine.
With a supermarket as a principle customer, a product where at least a third of the weight has to be thrown away with no value whatsoever and major factors such as fuel costs all out of its control, the only way to remain competitive for Welsh Country Foods is to improve productivity and eliminate waste inside the plant. For example, the company undertook one initiative which involved working with the University of Cardiff and the Red Meat Industry Forum on a value chain analysis from farm to plate.
The company has taken a step by step approach to achieving a ‘bottom to top and top to bottom’ buy in to change, to ensure delivery of considerable efficiency savings, investment in both in new plant and machinery, whilst also recognising the importance of the work force. To this end, the site has worked hard to improve working conditions to make the workplace more competitive within the recruitment market.
Health and safety has also been on the agenda – working alongside engineering, production and HR to create a better working environment. Factory operatives have been trained to do every job on the line with regular rotation to vary the work involved.
These and other equally important initiatives, has enable Welsh Country Foods to deliver continuity of service and a consistent quality product to their customers.