My beef with you

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Related tags: Ready meals, Quality control, Meal

My beef with you
Dunbia’s Sawley plant is the source of meat for many a pie and ready meal, John McAvoy tells Rod Addy

John McAvoy, factory manager

I have a farming background. I started working in my uncle's butchers when I was 11 years old. I joined Dunbia formerly Dungannon Meats as a butcher in its Northern Ireland retail plant. For six months I was a line leader, then, within two years, a boning hall manager. After that I travelled around sites managing boning halls. I came to Sawley in Lancashire for a two-week stint seven years ago, and I'm still here!

The Sawley plant began life as a small abattoir in the 1960s and was acquired by Dunbia from Rose Country Foods in 1998. When I first came to Sawley we were killing 180 cattle a day; now we're killing 360-400.

Before opening the added value room (AVR) a multi-million pound investment in 2006, the last major project here had been doubling boning hall's size in 2003-2004, roughly costing £3M. In the next three years we are looking at doubling the size of the AVR, for which planning permission has already been granted.

We have British Retail Consortium (BRC) Grade A accreditation, retailer approval for many major retailers, for example Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer, and are working with other retailers to meet their requirements.

All beef slaughtered and boned at Dunbia (Sawley) is sourced from UK farmers. However, where a customer specifies we have access to Republic of Ireland beef primals for processing within the added value room, and our farm-to-plate traceability systems provide full records from source for customers. Dunbia has a fully integrated factory floor IT system that allows reporting efficiencies and traceability recording, as well as complementing the production planning.

Country of Origin labelling

With regard to legislation, there have been developments in country of origin labelling, which is of paramount importance to Dunbia and our customers, who are more interested than ever in the origin of their meat.

The AVR has two main lines: a mincing line and a dicing and slicing line, with added capability for hand-dicing and slicing for smallers manufacturers and bespoke customer requests. We supply minced, diced and sliced fresh and tempered beef for onward supply to producers of ready meals and pies for retail and foodservice customers. For ready meals the meat we supply is predominantly chilled. However, we have the ability to accommodate requests for frozen and tempered beef.

By having direct access to the material required via our own livestock management/slaughter and boning facility we are able to quickly react to any shift in consumer trend. Predominantly we have seen a greater focus on meat that is leaner with less gristle. Retailers' complaints targets have driven this.

No retailer wants a complaint from a consumer who didn't enjoy their eating experience. With the time and money invested in machinery, and team focus on 'positive release testing', Dunbia (Sawley) has been able to support customers' requirements to achieve the correct visible lean (VL) levels by using extraction sizes of 4-5mm thickness.

As part of the Carnitech mincing facility we use on final extraction of mince, 'feeler pins' sense the texture and fire out every seven seconds to catch gristly, fatty meat. This is then used in other processes, such as pet food.

We use a Foss Analyser to measure fat content. Major retailers require us to take random mince samples for a cooking and frying test, measuring the drained weight of fat, and conduct finger tests to identify gristle. Some customers want at most 1% gristle. Others want higher fat content for flavour.

The Carnitech mincing machine uses CO2 injection, which inhibits heat during the second stage of the mincing process and we are therefore confident that we can release chilled mince to customers with day of production plus six days of shelf life with a maximum temperature of two degrees Celsius.

Sliced and diced beef ready meal manufacturers require the meat to be mature before processing and, on the whole, the average requirement is 14 days. We also have the ability to accommodate other maturation periods depending on the criteria of the different products we offer.

We have seen a shift in the market towards more entry-level products in recent years, although consumers still require quality. Retailers are fighting for an edge in premium, top-tier products. We will see a lot more development in that. I don't see the consumer swapping back. The days of low quality ready meals are gone.

Gastro-pub style meals have entered the ready meals sector. We are leading the way in the use of alternative cuts such as beef cheek, which was traditionally classed as a delicacy in Europe. I think we will see a swing back to more traditional cuts, presented in a different manner. Offal has come back into vogue and people are purchasing liver more frequently. Meal components will continue to grow.

Growth opportunities

Our order books have been pretty full with the big pie manufacturers. It's where added value is going for us. They have had a purge on quality not just eating quality, but fill level. If you go to a supermarket now and pick any pie, they will all be pretty full. There are significant opportunities for pie makers in retail, with many already well-established in foodservice.

We have developed strong relationships with the UK's biggest ready meal processors, but there are still more niche players out there. With some capacity still to fill, developing new business forms part of our strategy for 2010.

I am also interested in the environment. Dunbia has a responsibility to care for it and we're proud of our environmental credentials.

We have created a wetlands environment, sustaining a range of wildlife and use a network of ponds to purify waste water, so we don't artificially treat it. We produce 1,600t of effluent weekly. The ponds can handle 5,000t. A new water reuse system also benefits from the wetlands treated effluent is used to wash lorries, saving about 5,000m3 of water a year.

The flora and fauna in the water naturally act to break down impurities. A one-mile pipe carries the water from the final stage to the River Ribble. In the event of flooding, we have a pumping station that can control overspill from earlier stages. Facilities like this are not widely used; I guess we are fortunate we have had the land available to develop in this way.

Water quality is checked weekly, showing it is well within tolerance levels for contaminants such as ammonia. Monthly samples go to Severn Trent Water and the Environment Agency monitor us regularly. The system cost about £500,000, including some EU funding.

We recently successfully passed our fifth surveillance visit by the Lloyds Register Quality Assurance for the environmental certification ISO 14001. This is a fantastic achievement and will be followed by a complex five-day audit in October with a view to gain full re-certification of this environmental management standard.

Interview by Rod Addy

Factory Facts

Location: Dunbia Meats, Castill Laithe Abattoir, Sawley, Lancashire, BB7 4LH. Tel: 01200 415000

Staff: 350 in total; 40 from production, quality control and sales for Sawley's added value room (AVR)

Size: Total plant: 2,400m2; AVR: 200m2

Operating hours: Five days a week

Products: minced, diced and sliced fresh and tempered beef, plus lamb from our sister site in Preston for ready meal and pie manufacturers supplying the major food retailers. The meat features in branded and retailers' own-label products, rather than being produced under Dunbia's brands.

Output: 150t a week, with capacity for 220t


Name: John McAvoy

Age: 47

Career highlights: "Creating the AVR and doubling the boning hall's size. We went from boning 700 quarters a day to up to 1,400."

Domestics: "Married, with three children, two boys aged 15 and 22 and a two-year-old daughter."

Outside work: "I enjoy property renovation and gardening, and, of course, spending time with my family."

Related topics: Meat, poultry & seafood, People & Skills

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