It’s unusual to come across a company that employs getting on for 10,000 people but remains comparatively unheard of among consumers in the UK – but that’s the reality for the ABP Food Group.
It’s a situation John Murphy, the general manager of ABP UK’s Guildford plant, is keen to change, particularly when it comes to getting the message out to local cattle and sheep farmers looking for a competitive, welfare-focused outlet for their animals.
ABP Food Group is one of Europe’s leading privately owned agribusiness companies and the largest beef processor in the UK, employing more than 9,000 people in 41 manufacturing plants across Europe.
The Guildford plant alone slaughters more than 500 cattle a week and is determined to source as many as possible directly from local livestock farmers.
“We have a strong commitment to the highest possible standards of animal welfare, and our clients demand the same, and so we try hard to buy cattle and sheep as close as possible to the slaughterhouse,” explained John.
“Here at Guildford we buy 60% of our animals from farms within a 50-mile radius of the abattoir and we are always looking for new suppliers of quality, in-spec cattle to help us keep up with demand.”
The company supplies major supermarkets as well as Smithfield Market, from where ABP meat finds its way to Michelin-starred restaurants via catering butchers. ABP also supplies meat direct to customers under the Surrey Farm brand, which was launched in 2011.
The modern, purpose-built slaughterhouse de-bones the carcasses and produces primary cuts that are then sold to one of ABP’s sister companies to be sliced, packed, labelled and sent on to their retail destinations.
Making sure there are enough animals reaching the abattoir each week is the job of Nigel Bond and James Dickson, who are in charge of livestock procurement for the Guildford branch and spend most of their working weeks touring local farms.
While Nigel focuses on the north side of the patch, including the Midlands, James looks after the south and south east of the Guildford zone.
As well as looking for cattle to buy, they advise livestock farmers on their animals, the best time to sell and how to make sure they are ready for market and in the best condition to fetch a good price.
“The other advantage of selling to ABP is that our slogan is ‘weigh day, pay day, same day’,” explained John. “We pay on the day, which can make a big difference to a farmer’s cash flow.”
While ABP likes to work direct with local farmers, the company also sources cattle from local agents and is also increasingly sourcing sheep for the company’s Yetminster plant, as well as beef.
“We have a good relationship with a number of agents and we are happy to continue working with them,” John said.
“ABP has moved on considerably since its foundation more than 60 years ago,” said John. “It now has a range of business interests including fresh and frozen foods, renewable energy and pet food.”
Around 4,000 work in the UK in plants that are strategically spread to provide a range of convenient locations for beef farmers.
The modern Guildford plant employs 140 people on a two-and-a-half acre site that includes lairage, offices and the slaughterhouse and processing facilities. The ‘business end’ of the operation is only accessible via a high-tech, automated entrance that ensures staff follow hygiene procedures before it allows them through.
“We take pride in building long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with our suppliers, and work with them to deliver premium beef and lamb to customers. It’s these close links with our suppliers that help us fulfil our customers’ requirements regarding traceability and quality assurance,” explained John.
The cattle are weighed and graded independently and the farmer paid on the result of that process. “Top quality cattle can always be used further down the chain, but we can’t use lower quality meat for our premium clients,” John explained. “That’s why we are always keen to help farmers produce cattle of the best possible quality.
James provides an extensive selection service for farmers as he meets the challenge of ensuring that the production line keeps running at full capacity, even in the seasons when finished cattle tend to be thin on the ground.
Coming from a family with close links with the beef industry, James finished his two-year National Diploma at Plumpton Agricultural College in 2000 and then helped his father John with a small suckler herd.
James helped to grow the J H Dickson and Son business, which moved into finishing store cattle, and he and his father now have a 100-strong herd.
“I still help with the cattle at home but about three years ago I was asked to join ABP and help to source cattle,” he explained. “My background means I am well placed to help and advise farmers on what the company is looking for in the animals it buys.
“Keeping a plant of this size running at full capacity can be a bit of a challenge, but it means there is a good market for local farmers who are producing quality animals,” he said. “It’s those farmers I am keen to get to know.”