Natural casings manufacturers are appealing to processors to take more care of delicate sheep intestines, saying some operators may even have to slow down their lines a little to achieve better quality. The manufacturers are looking for better value-for-money as costs rise, more training of gut room staff in the handling, cleaning and storage of the product, and a minimum quality standard.
Although many premium sausage manufacturers value natural casings, the delicacy of the raw material, combined with any poor handling or storage, can lead to breaks, tears and degradation of the material. There are also issues over the cleaning of the material and the different sizes and availability of sheep at different times of the year can lead to huge variations in quality, even though casings firms pay a set price to the abattoir.
James Harder, director of Harder Bros, says: "The abattoir industry needs to take some responsibility for the raw material it produces. Seasonality is an issue. Pigs are all uniform, but there is more variety with sheep. So it's about the handling of sheep intestines at the abattoirs.
"We staff some of the abattoirs ourselves to maintain good quality, but we cannot do that in every case and a lot of our competitors prefer not to do that. However, what we all cry out for as casings people is some management of a minimum standard when removing the small intestine, which is the casing, from the rest of the abdominal mass in the gut room. There needs to be a minimum standard in control procedures to prepare it for collection, and in making sure that it goes into a refrigerated store.
"We are trying to get the full length of the intestine. The intestine is quite a tender piece of the anatomy and a sheep casing can be an average of 24 metres long. It runs from narrow to wide and can break. Spring lamb is so delicate, that the intestine can break over and over again. We pay an agreed standard price with the abattoirs, but there's no reflection in the quality. There's a considerable difference between, say, lamb for the English market and small, young lambs for the Italian market. The size of the intestine can be considerably different. Even if we manage to get the whole intestine from a smaller animal, it is going to be narrower, shorter and weaker by default. The yield will be automatically be less than from a hogget."
Taking out the heat
Refrigeration is necessary to take the heat out of the material and to cool it before it is released to the casings trade. Without this, the natural enzymes in the intestine will start to break down the walls of the intestine and weaken it.
"We have to encourage training," says Harder. "The vets on site should also be assisting us to positively release the material to a minimum standard."
Brian Johnstone, chairman of the 15-member Natural Sausage Casing Association, says: "It's even more pertinent now, because of the cost of the material, particularly sheep casing costs. It is imperative that care is taken and that the product arrives in the right condition.
"When dealing with abattoirs, a price is set for intestine that is used for sausage skins, but because it is a natural product, you never know what you are going to get it could be long, it could be short, it could be wide or it could be narrow. All these factors affect the value of the finished product after it has been cleaned."
He adds: "The price of sheep casings in particular has risen considerably in the past couple of years. We are paying a lot more for the product and it is essential that it be delivered in good condition. If plants have to slow down their processing a bit to ensure this, then fair enough."
Ian Hamilton, managing director of DeWied UK, says his company collects large volumes of material in the US, where standards are better than in British abattoirs. American processors are more diligent in the processing and separation of material, maximising the length of usable intestine, he says.
"They are far ahead of us and, in America, the management of the abattoir are as familiar with the requirements of the gut room as they are with the requirements of the carcase. In the UK, you can have a strong manager, who will talk to you at length about sheep carcases but you start talking to him about the gut room and expectations, and his face goes blank."
DAT-Schaub is one of the world's largest casings companies. Managing director Bengt Landquist says it deploys its own staff in gut rooms.
"The gut room is not a waste room and as long as slaughterhouses regard it as such, you will have this problem," he says. "It is a question of management."
Rob Weschenfelder, a director of his UK-based family business W Weschenfelder & Sons, agrees that some processors need to take more care. "With the high price we pay, a little more care could be taken. The quality varies between abattoirs and is partly driven by the type of animal."
Weschenfelder admits it is difficult for the sector to innovate. "We're sticking to British product, with full traceability from high-quality sheep, and looking for niche markets, speciality markets, salami, charcuterie, that sort of thing. There's a good demand from British manufacturers it's a small, but growing market."