ABP’s new meat processing plant: a look inside

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

ABP claims its Ellesmere facility is the ‘home of dry-aged beef’
ABP claims its Ellesmere facility is the ‘home of dry-aged beef’
ABP’s new Ellesmere processing plant is leading the way in beef production. Rick Pendrous spoke to the people behind the £30M investment.

Tom Kirwan, chief executive of ABP Food Group’s UK operations, places great faith in the loyalty of British consumers and their willingness to pay a premium for home-produced beef, with good provenance and produced to highest environmental and animal welfare standards.

Despite the huge uncertainties surrounding what the future might hold for the UK politically and economically after it leaves the EU, Kirwan is confident that by focusing on ensuring ABP operates to the highest efficiencies and standards it will prosper in the years ahead.

“We are very lucky in that the British consumer is very, very loyal to us and we work very hard to ensure the quality of the product we supply them is consistent,”​ Kirwan told Food Manufacture ​during a visit to its new beef abattoir and processing factory at Ellesmere in Shropshire.

In 2015, the Ellesmere factory received an investment of £30M to bring it up the very latest production and welfare standards.

Kirwan recognises that, compared with beef produced in low-cost parts of the world, such as the Americas, ABP’s products are more expensive.

But he is convinced British shoppers will continue to pay a premium for high-quality products, in the knowledge that every effort has been made to ensure the grass-fed animals that go into producing them have had a better life than those in huge “feedlots”​ in North and South America.

To ensure these high animal welfare standards are maintained, UK farmers are well rewarded, Kirwan states.

However, given the higher prices for UK beef already sold in supermarkets, and despite what he claims are fairly slim margins made by both processors and retailers, he is reluctant to call for even higher premiums.

“Within the supply chain you see the efforts we are taking to ensure we are as efficient as we can be,”​ he remarks. “But it’s a fine line. It’s the consumer who allows the supply chain price that ends up with the British farmer for his cattle, which is right up at the top end of prices.”

Kirwan says retailers have “certainly eroded their margins in the past two or three years”.​ Processor margins, as an industry norm, are “in very low single digit percentages”, ​he adds. “So there is not a pot of gold sitting with processors, I can assure you.”

ABP claims its site is the home of dry-aged matured beef, which is produced with the latest processing and maturation techniques at up to 28 weeks’ duration in controlled chilled stores to achieve tenderness and taste.

Home of dry-aged matured beef (back to top)

The costs involved in tying up capital in this way, together with the fact that ABP pays its farmers for the stock they deliver on the day of slaughter, explains the higher price its products need to command, explains Kirwan.

ABP Beef makes use of a patented Ultra-Tender process for stretching and chilling carcases to ensure consistency of high-quality beef cuts that meet the tenderness and taste required by its customers and consumers.

Ultra-Tender involves a number of stages, starting with the electro-stimulation of carcases to enhance muscle breakdown.

Carcases are then suspended and stretched followed by part-chilling at carefully controlled temperatures to encourage enzymes to assist muscle breakdown, which enhances tenderness. Carcases are also hung with the legs ‘hyperstretched’ to enhance muscle breakdown, after which they are matured for seven, 14, 21 or 28 days.

ABP chefs are currently also investigating the effects of much longer maturation times on eating quality.

“Holding the beef for longer into the maturation processes is intensive in its use of working capital,”​ claims Kirwan.

“The average price per animal is about £1,250 and we pay the farmer on the day of slaughter – that is unique to us, we are the only one in the UK doing that. We see it as a cornerstone of our operation.”

ABP Food Group is a 2.5bn turnover privately-owned business operating from 46 sites in eight countries with about 10,000 employees.

Its operations are divided into a four separate divisions covering: beef and lamb processing; petfood manufacture; cooking oil and waste food recycling; and proteins, grinding bones from slaughtered animals to produce gelatine for encapsulating products such as cod liver oil.

“The backbone of our operation is primary agriculture, beef and lamb,”​ says Kirwan. “Our beef operations are here in the UK, in Ireland and in Poland.

Producing for retailers and discounters in the UK (back to top)

In the UK and in Ireland we slaughter at the moment about 1M cattle and we slaughter about 1M sheep. And our main business is producing for retailers and discounters in the UK.”

The UK operation, whose mainstay is beef and lamb processing, employs around 6,000 staff and has a turnover of about £1.2bn, says Kirwan. However, it also has a sausage business in Tunbridge Wells, Kent and a meat-free business in Liverpool.

He explains that the £30M spent at Ellesmere, which employs 800 people processing more than 1,000 cattle a week, was needed to bring the facility up the latest welfare standards in the animal lairage and slaughter areas, together with methods of production to ensure high efficiency.

It has also adopted the latest waste and effluent treatment technologies, while installing a combined heat and power (CHP) system to supply the factory’s steam for cleaning and electricity requirements.

Furthermore, the CHP plant makes use in part of tallow produced as a by-product of beef processing.

The company is also currently awaiting planning permission for a £2030M expansion of retail packing facilities at its factory in Shrewsbury.

Provided the go-ahead is granted by the local planning authority, this facility, which currently employs around 800 staff, will increase its headcount by 300. “Sustainability has been a key part of our focus for the past three or four years,”​ explains Kirwan.

Dean Holroyd, ABP Food’s group technical and sustainability director, expands on these activities. “In our sector, we take sustainability really seriously,”​ says Holroyd, who describes the work ABP has done with the Carbon Trust on accreditation of its activities.

“Particularly against our 2008 baseline on water, our reductions would be around 30%, our carbon dioxide would be around 20% and our electricity about similar,”​ he claims.

The plan is to roll out the approaches and technologies used at the Ellesmere site across the rest of the group’s facilities.

As well as supplying retailers with prime beef cuts, minced products and other beef products, which represents around 85% of its sales in total, ABP Beef also serves wholesalers and foodservice outlets, and takes great pride in sending its beef to more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants.

Working closely with Amazon (back to top)

It is also working closely with Amazon on online sales of its Herdsman branded products across London.

ABP prides itself on its adoption of the latest innovative techniques to enhance production efficiency.

This ranges from work in collaboration with Genus, the world’s largest livestock genetics company, to the use of visual inspection analysis (VIA) of carcases, which provides an electronic method of carcase classification and grading.

ABP has also developed a research farm near to Harper Adams University near Newport in Shropshire. Working closely with academics from Harper Adams and using the results from genetic research and the research farm, ABP hopes to optimise animal feeding regimes.

“It’s about animal breed and developing those more superior genetics, which can get an animal to its target weight in, say, 20 months instead of 24 months,”​ says Holroyd.

“Clearly, that has a significant environmental benefit – four months’ less methane emissions and also has a significant economic benefit to the farming community: four months’ less feed; better stocking densities, etc.”

The research farm will work in close collaboration with ABP Beef’s Blade Farming initiative, led by Richard Phelps, who pioneered this approach to rearing male dairy calves under carefully-controlled conditions to optimise their development and consistency for subsequent meat production. “The key to the whole business model is consistency,”​ says Phelps.

Currently, only around 20,000 cattle are reared this way by ABP Beef, but Phelps admits ambitions to increase this to around 50,000 a year in the future.

All of this genetic and animal development work is underpinned by sophisticated analysis of the data generated to optimise production and product quality from farm to plate.

“At the heart of our activities is DNA,”​ remarks Holroyd. “We are the first organisation to take a DNA swab of all of the cattle that we process. Originally, that would have been for more defensive reasons, for food traceability, etc.

“The future potential for DNA is one in which animals will have the most efficient genes – specific tenderness genes, for example.”

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