Monday, January 14, 2013


On Friday, the news broke that 350 jobs were at risk at Welsh Country Foods on Anglesey. This follows a decision by Asda, its major customer, to use another supplier for its lamb.

With the supermarket chain accounting for half of the business at the Gaerwen site, this means that Vion, the owner of the business, has no option but to place its workers on redundancy notice.

The response from Asda was typically vague, suggesting the decision had been taken because of the changing needs of customers, but that they ‘remain committed to sourcing lamb from Wales”.

This commitment to local sourcing would probably be questioned by Scottish farmers, who recently found through a ‘secret shopper’ survey that Asda and its main rival Tesco still give significant shelf space to imported lamb during the peak season in the UK.

Yet, only fifteen years ago, Asda made the momentous decision to cancel all orders for New Zealand lamb to support the UK’s sheep industry, citing the quality of British meat as a key factor.

Where has this commitment gone since then?

Indeed, farmers and consumers alike will wonder why Asda, on its website, is promoting New Zealand lamb under the heading “What Makes Butchers Selection New Zealand Lamb So Good?” when there is no similar advertising campaign for either British or Welsh lamb.

Remember, this is a supermarket that has been given planning permission to build superstores across North Wales with the expectation from councillors that it would try and source locally where possible.

Certainly, if the Gaerwen plant shuts down, where will the twelve Asda stores in North Wales be getting their lamb from? Not from local suppliers if the planned closure goes ahead.

But if Asda cannot be persuaded to buy lamb to keep the plant open, then there must be due consideration as to whether it requires government support as a vital strategic site for farming in North Wales.

As the only major abattoir in the region with over 640,000 lambs are processed annually through the site, its closure would have a significant impact on both the farming and food industry locally as facilities such as slaughtering, boning and retail packaging, all of which add value to the final product, would disappear.

Of course, some would say that this is merely market forces in operation and that if there is not enough demand for Welsh lamb, then why keep the plant open?

That would be short sighted in the extreme. Only last year, the UK became a net exporter of lamb for the first time in 17 years, selling 98,500 tonnes overseas, with France, Ireland and Germany showing strong growth in demand.

Not only that, estimates from the World Bank show that demand for meat production will increase by 80 per cent between 2000 and 2030 mainly due to rising meat consumption in Asia, giving North Wales farmers further potential for exports but only if they have the right plant in place to process their meat.

The fact that, despite this strong growth in overseas sales, the UK still imports over 88,000 tonnes of lamb means that there are also opportunities to sell to British markets, if only some buyers would reconsider their purchasing strategies.

Perhaps Asda, owned by the American giant Wal-Mart, believes that people no longer care about where they buy their products from as long as it is cheap.

But I believe that we in Wales have an enormous pride in our country and what we produce.

And when our farming industry is under threat because of some vague explanation regarding the decision to buy its lamb elsewhere, then hopefully customers across Wales will vote with their feet and buy from those supermarkets and butchers that are proud of having Welsh meat on their shelves.