Given the past six months in the meat industry, you’d forgive Nick Allen if he was jaded, disillusioned or even plain fed up.
He has been in his role as CEO of the British Meat Processors Association for just over a year, and in that time there have been date-label changing allegations against 2 Sisters Food Group, a recall from Russell Hume that sent shockwaves through the sector (and that’s before all the gory details come out), and an escalation in the war on meat from anti-industry lobby groups, media outlets and vegans who have been given a platform on social media.
Yet despite this, he remains pretty upbeat about the general state of the sector – and not because it’s his job.
“I think the health of the British meat industry is a lot better than the press it’s currently getting,” Allen suggests. “We get bad press because it’s such an emotive industry – there are animal rights groups chipping away the whole time, vegans chipping away at it the whole time – and it’s amazing how it creates such bad press.
“The industry is working on a tight margin and have to play what’s in front of them. It would be nice to see the industry have a bit more of breathing space in terms of margins, as it’s very competitive. A lot of this stems from the consumer expecting food at a certain price and this puts the pressure on the retailers, which moves on to the processors.”
Discussion inevitably turns towards the numerous cases of enforcement action that have taken place recently. Allen believes the industry should take a leading role in this.
Cases of enforcement action (Back to top)
“We need to weed out the bad people in the industry and this needs to be intelligence-led. It’s got to be a carefully managed intelligence project.”
While praising the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for the work already done, Allen calls on it to do more. “I’ve been impressed with the relationship with the FSA,” he says.
“Talking will get things done and there has been a new approach to the relationship. If anything, I’d like to see the FSA have more control over local enforcement agencies.
“I don’t know how it got to the stage where you had a load of disparate agencies, each doing things their way. We would get more from a consistent approach if it was led by the FSA.”
As well as the pressures created inside the industry, the broader issue of the UK leaving the EU looms ever larger. Allen is less enthusiastic about this prospect.
“I find this really difficult – to say what is better about being outside the EU. I don’t really think there are markets out there that we’ve been denied because we’re in Europe.”
The UK’s fate after Brexit (Back to top)
Name: Nick Allen
Position: Chief executive
Organisation: British Meat Processors Association
Years in role: One
Represents: The abattoir, wholesaling and processing sectors of the meat industry
He expects not much to change in terms of production standards, but rather the say that the UK has in its fate once it leaves the EU.
“I expect we will have the European standards for a long time – what people forget is that the EU is one of the most complicated legal systems in the world and that will affect us even after we’ve left,” Allen says.
“There are another 27 countries, and everything has to be translated into 27 different languages – and if a change is made, that has to run through those 27 languages. In some cases there aren’t even appropriate words to match. It’s a lot of work that they’re not going to do just to suit us.”
The reality, Allen suggests, is that we’re going to be stuck with European legislation for the foreseeable future, but not at the table to influence it.
He also believes Brexit has put off investment in the sector and hindered innovation. “I’m encouraged when I hear that people are investing in plants, but you do sense that one or two are holding back just to see what’s happening,” he warns.
“However, you can’t do that for too long. The worry is that the overseas businesses decide to look elsewhere when investing in facilities and decide to sell a more finished product to Britain rather than set up here.”
Great technology (Back to top)
According to Allen, there’s some “great technology” coming down the track, plus greater variation in cooking such as sous vide, which together are providing businesses with great new ideas. “Meat is a bit like music, people seem to keep coming up with new ways of presenting it,” Allen says.
“Even in the plants, we will come up with new automation technology. It’s getting better and better all the time and we will overcome labour issues.
“It’ll be like a new industrial revolution, this technology sweeping through the industry. I’m convinced we’re on the brink of this, and if Brexit hadn’t come along, it would have already started.”
Even when innovation in the sector crops up, it can be packaged as a negative. He cites the recent “anti-millennial” press surrounding touch-free packaging launched into Sainsbury’s as an example.
“There was a story about Sainsbury’s developing packaging that means you don’t have to touch it [meat], I don’t really have a problem with this as at least it means that people are buying the meat, they just don’t want to handle it. I think we can deal with that.”