Cut above the rest

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Cut above the rest
Me & My Factory: Rick Wiles, fresh foods controller, Budgen Meat Plant

Our operation is totally unique. It's the only meat cutting plant owned and run by a UK supermarket group. We produce solely for Budgens, working six days a week, Sunday to Friday, and supply 165 stores with fresh meat -- beef, lamb, pork, turkey, duck, free range chicken and offal. The only thing we don't do is conventional chicken as we couldn't handle the volume.

We produce about 60,000 packs a week so it's quite small as meat plants go -- in fact, our processing and packing room isn't that much bigger than the conference room upstairs. But everything is made to a store order, right down to single packs. If a store only wants two packs of pork chops on a Tuesday, they only have two packs.

The kind of stores we have -- mostly in smaller towns and villages -- lend themselves to this type of operation. An average store takes about 50 packs of meat a day. The reason we can work to single-pack orders is that we're based at Budgens' central distribution depot in Wellingborough. It's operated for us by Gist, who are distributing daily to every store in the country. So the logistics are already in place.

The depot is huge and we're just like a little postage stamp stuck on the side. Every pack that comes out of this plant is given a store number. It's stacked out in the warehouse and manually picked, then goes straight into Gist's chilled distribution stream along with everything else. We only work a day operation. I have to have everything ready by 5.30pm because that's when they start marshalling products together by store, ready to leave at midnight.

Our beef comes in from Kepak of Preston in retail packs, so we only have to quality-check it and label it. Everything else is cut and packed here. We don't do much boning out nowadays -- we mainly cut primals. So strictly speaking our people are cutters, and not full-blown butchers.

Getting butchers is very difficult. We provide in-house training in the specific cutting skills we need but we're not trying to produce all-rounders. There has been some talk in the trade about reintroducing the old apprenticeship system for butchers. That's got to be a good thing.

I trained as butcher with Dewhurst, starting when I was 16, then went to Safeway. But you don't see many high street butchers any more, and trying to introduce young men and women to butchery isn't easy. Not everyone wants to do it. There's even pressure not to show pictures of animals at point-of-sale because people don't want to know where their meat has come from.

Most of our cutters have come from retail, so they know how to cut meat for retail presentation. With all respect to processing people, it's not like being a boner on a production line.

This plant was set up 10 years ago because there was a lack of butchery skills in Budgens stores. In those days, every store was still having daily deliveries of primals. Centralising things gave us better control, but the unique benefit was that we could give stores what they required instead of forcing them to take 12s or 6s. Shelf-life is supposed to benefit the customer, not the store.

This summer we started handling a new range of ready-to-cook beef joints, lamb joints and pork loin steaks that come to us pre-packed by the supplier. Those had been in the business for six months but they were only available in 12s, and stores weren't ordering for fear of getting stuck with them. So we had a rethink and the supplier is now delivering them to me as singles. Now, stores can just take one or two packs and sales have gone up five-fold. Following on from that, we've just launched free-range whole chicken, free-range chicken portions and free-range duck, all in singles.

I have a meat plant manager here, Nigel Taylor, who looks after operations on a daily basis: production planning, organising the staff and so on. Then we have a supervisor and a QA, five butcher/cutters, seven packers, four machine persons, four scalers, two goods-in people and five admin and general assistants.

Each packer is buddied with a butcher. The butcher does the cutting, the packer arranges the meat in a pre-formed tray, then the machine person runs it through the modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) unit. We introduced MAP about seven years ago and now the only things left in film wrap are a couple of turkey portion packs.

We've got three main suppliers -- all English -- and we negotiate with them on an annual basis, using our historical data to plan through the year, including promotions. Kepak supplies all our beef and lamb, George Adams of Spalding supplies our pork and Bernard Matthews supplies our turkey. They all work for other multiples too, so they can make sure we're not all promoting liver or lamb chops in the same week. And because everything's planned, there's nothing that's going to come out of the woodwork to frighten us. If pig's liver is going to go through the roof we'll already have got the staff ready for it.

We're pretty loyal to our suppliers, even if the air gets hot occasionally. We only changed beef supplier when the previous one went out of business, and choosing a new one was a very protracted process. Broad Oak ,who supplies all our pork sausages, has worked with us for 30 years.

The type of business we're in, it does make you rather aggressive, otherwise you'd get stamped on. But we work to very tight specifications, so our suppliers know exactly what the rules are and they stick to them.

Like all meat plants we've got a hell of a lot of regulation to deal with, and it's got tighter over the last few years. We get daily visits from a Meat Hygiene Service vet, who comes in at random times with her daily diary to complete. She does a walk-round with the plant manager, then makes enquiries with our QA person, like "have you done the checks on your steriliser" and so on. You can't afford to leave things because it's an open door and the vet can come in at any time. But we do it day in, day out, so it's just part of everyone's daily routine.

In the early days the MHS vets were a bit inconsistent. One would be interested in hygiene, another would be more concerned about labelling. There were also language difficulties as most of them seemed to come from Italy or Spain. But it has got a lot better.

We have a monthly audit of our traceability systems by MS Laboratories, and Efsis audits us for British Quality Assured Pork and for the British Farm Standard 'Red Tractor' mark. Again, there are some little inconsistencies in the auditing requirements. For example, the Red Tractor rules insist that no butchery knives or scabbards can be left in personal lockers, even when they're not in use. Knives are a butcher's personal property, so we've had to find a place in the plant where they can be kept sterilised but are still clearly an individual's set. It probably seems like a minor thing to the outside world, but to a butcher there's nothing worse than having someone walk off with one of your own knives. I'm not really saying it's wrong, but if all the audits used the same rules life would be easier.

We're a very manual operation, and that means QA can look at every product that goes through the plant, not just sample a pack or two from each case. In fact we have four ongoing quality checks: the butcher and packers, the machine operators, the scalers and the order-pickers will all look at the pack before the consumer gets it.

Nine times out of 10 it's not foreign bodies they need to worry about, it's appearance. We reject packs on a daily basis for poor presentation or poor packaging. You've probably heard of WIBIT: 'Would I buy it?' That's the method we use. Will the pack look right to the customer when it's on the shelf?

personal

Name: Rick Wiles (pictured right)

Age: 52

Career highlights: Joined Dewhurst at 16 to train as a butcher, then spent 17 years with Safeway, first as a butcher and then in industrial engineering. Joined Budgens in 1989 as distribution manager at Wellingborough depot and moved over to the meat plant in 1995.

Domestics: Lives in Raunds, Northamptonshire. Has two daughters, Claire and Nina, "and a beautiful granddaughter named Lacey, plus Mylo, the Bernese mountain dog"

Outside work: Gardening, walking the dog -- and golf. "I play off 15 -- or 14.6, to be precise. At last year's Budgens' golf day I came second; about four years ago I won it. So I have a bit of a reputation."

factory facts

Location: Budgens Meat Plant, 11-29 Booth Drive, Park Farm South, Wellingborough, Northants NN8 6GR.Tel: 01933 408395.

Main products: Gas-flushed pre-packs of all-English beef, lamb, pork, turkey and offal.

Employees: 30.

Throughput: 60,000 retail packs a week, equivalent to 20t of meat.

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