New season lamb at lowest price in years

Scotland’s sheep farmers will be taking to the streets in the coming weeks to extol the virtues of Scotch lamb following a collapse in the price of new season lamb which has fallen to its lowest level for five years.

However, many supermarkets have not been playing the game with producers and have been slow to make the switch from imported lamb to home supplies. With the marketing season for Scotch lamb reaching its peak, product from Australia and New Zealand can still be found on supermarket shelves which makes retailers’ oft-stated commitment to home-produced lamb sound extremely hollow.

Even worse, a survey by the NFU in England has demonstrated that while the price of lamb in the shop is down compared to a year ago, the retail price hasn’t fallen nearly as much as the farmer’s share of that retail price which has dropped from 60% to 50% over the past year.

That begs the obvious question? Who’s profiting – or profiteering – from lamb? NFU livestock board chairman, Charles Sercombe, makes the point that both producers and consumers are the victims.

“The farmgate price of lamb is reaching critically low levels this spring,” Mr Sercombe warns. “Farmers are galled to find that while their share of the retail price is falling, that fall-off is not being fully reflected in the price on supermarket shelves.

“Everyone in the supply chains needs to make a sustainable margin, but it looks like both ends of the supply chain – farmers and consumers – are getting a raw deal at the moment.”

Mr Sercombe is calling on supermarkets to give pride of place to British lamb on their shelves during the peak marketing season when home-produced lamb is at its best.

Last year at this time, Scotland’s sheep farmers backed up Quality Meat Scotland’s promotional activities by hitting the streets to give out samples of tasty Scotch lamb in supermarkets, high street, restaurants and other major events and that exercise is to be repeated in the coming weeks. Last year, it helped boost consumption of Scotch lamb by 11%.

“Scottish consumers want Scotch lamb and no one can speak with as much passion and authenticity about the quality and taste of Scotch lamb than farmers who have spent seven days a week in all weathers to produce it,” says NFU Scotland livestock committee chairman, Charlie Adam, who farms at Cushnie, Alford.

“Persuading supermarkets to switch to Scotch must help build demand and that will manifest itself in higher farmgate prices for our sheep farmers.”

The union’s ScotchWatch investigation of supermarket shelves has found that only Morrisons, Lidl and Aldi have been demonstrating full committed to Scotch lamb. Other retailers, such as Asda, Marks and Spencer and Tesco, are now shifting away from New Zealand imports to home-produced and Sainsbury’s have indicated that New Zealand product on shelves will be used up and not replaced. It is hoped that the Co-op will follow suit.

Waitrose is offering exclusively British or Welsh lamb but the union would like to see their Scottish stores give Scottish consumers the opportunity of buying clearly identified Scotch lamb.

With sheep farmers currently receiving £20/head less for their lambs compared to last year – the price of live lambs at auction has fallen by 20-25p/kg in recent weeks – Mr Adam has made a strong plea to all supermarkets to switch to home-produced lamb immediately.

“There can be no excuses as supplies are now plentiful with Scotch lambs coming to market in greater numbers each week as we head towards the traditional peak in August,” he said.

New Zealand imports have been a traditional part of the offering at certain times of the year for more than a century but Mr Adam would like to see retailers extend the season for home-produced lamb by coming into the home market two weeks earlier in the summer and extending the season for home lamb by two weeks in the winter.

“When you consider the spread of lambing dates between Cornwall and Shetland, there is no reason for supermarkets to insist on filling shelves with New Zealand or Australian product for so many months of the year,” he says.

But the first immediate step will be for supermarkets to stop pulling the wool over the eyes of consumers and offer shoppers the full benefit of the lower prices they are currently paying for lambs at market.