Allen key to Eblex

In his new role at Eblex, Nick Allen is insistent that more meaningful levels of communication are key to defending the industry and effecting change. Fred A'Court finds out more.

Nick Allen might well have ended up as a senior lecturer at an agricultural college. Instead, he is embarking on what is arguably his most challenging job yet in a 30-year career in farming and the meat industry, as the new head of Eblex, the marketing, information and trade development body for English beef and lamb.

Although he is only weeks into his new role, Allen has a clear vision of what the organisation should be doing with its 12m-a-year budget, generated from levy payments.

But his life could have been so different. He started out as a dairy farmer, then went into pig farming before joining the Meat & Livestock Commission (MLC) as an industry relations manager for the south-east of England. At the same time as he was offered the MLC job, though, he was also offered a post as lecturer at an agricultural college, so he had a choice. "I'd got both jobs, but the MLC one appealed, because it seemed to offer more excitement," he says.

He had come to the post after a triple whammy of personal and industry issues hit the family farm in Hampshire. At the time, his wife, Kate, was diagnosed with cancer (from which she has thankfully recovered); his thriving pig business of producing gilts for producers in commercial units suffered, in common with many similar businesses, from the aftermath of BSE in 1997, over-expansion of the national herd and the competitive restrictions of the meat and bonemeal, and stalls and tethers bans; and his parents decided to retire from the business. "We had two teenage children and I needed to take stock. So we got in a consultant, because, sometimes, you want an outsider to give you a different perspective."

The advice was to sell off the pigs and some of the farm equipment, then find something else to do a daunting prospect after 20 years of self-employment. "The MLC job was advertised in the paper. I was used to speaking to the industry in my role as a representative on the NFU's national pigs committee. The consultant said it seemed the perfect job for me."

Allen says the MLC took a huge leap of faith in appointing a pig farmer to the industry relations role. "There was a sweepstake in the MLC on how long I'd last. Not many were betting on me lasting 12 months!"

But last he did. "I'm amazed at the sheer amount of information available that came out of MLC and now comes out of Eblex," he says. "Not a day goes by without learning something."

This statement is at the heart of his vision for the role Eblex is likely to play under his leadership. Getting more of the information that Eblex gathers out into the industry will be a key aim, he says, and 'Beefy and Lamby' are in the past. "The days of being able to have an impact in terms of major TV advertising have gone really," he says. "We have to be a bit cuter in how we spend levy money a bit cleverer, a bit more strategic."

Most of Eblex's 12m budget is spent on research and development and market information, as well as trade development. "I put huge store by communication," he says. "A lot of my aspirations, going forward, are to put out more information and ensure information gets around. There is a lot of background information we get that we don't make available."

Much of that communication will be used to help the industry understand issues that affect it and help it make informed decisions on how to plan ahead. "We can be as effective going down that route as we can by advertising on TV, which eats up money big time," he says.

Helping the industry understand opportunities in the export and domestic markets is a key aim. The two markets are not always separate, Allen says. For example, work being done on better use of the fifth-quarter offals is an area where both exporters and those operating in the domestic market can benefit, he notes.

Allen also cites climate change as an issue on which Eblex should be providing the industry with informed information, so that it has "ammunition to defend itself". Speaking a few days before The Times published comments on the relationship between climate change and meat production, he says: "It's up to us to defend the industry from nave, badly informed argument."

A climate change 'roadmap', setting out information and the way forward for the industry, is due to be published later this month and will be based on science that is defendable, rather than on propaganda. It is this need for authoritative accuracy and scientific verification of the stance taken by the industry that has delayed any response so far. But climate change will be in the full glare of the media spotlight next month, during the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, and the need to publish has clearly moved up the Eblex agenda.

Asked what the broad thrust of the roadmap is likely to be, Allen says: "The industry needs to get more efficient; it's a great win-win situation." The roadmap is likely to look at the best ways of achieving faster and better cattle and lamb growth rates and, with that, more efficient breeding of animals. Alongside faster production of animals will be the goal of better, more digestible feeds. All these factors will mean less methane generated by livestock, and less energy used in producing and processing livestock on farms and in abattoirs.

Although there has been talk, and action, to improve efficiency in the farming and processing sectors for many years the current Better Returns Programme and the recent Red Meat Industry Forum initiatives are good examples of where much progress has been made Allen estimates that actual efficiency in the sector is only about half of what it could be. Some 50% of cattle presented for slaughter arrive at the abattoir overfed and overfat, he says. Consequently, the animals produce more methane and, at the abattoir, efficiency is reduced and more energy is used in trimming excess fat from carcases.

The Better Returns Programme currently has 23,000 farmer members, about one-third of England's 80,000 livestock farmers. Many would argue these are the top-third in terms of efficiency and use of modern farming practices and Allen knows his challenge is to get to the next third, the middle tier. He argues Better Returns has helped the farmers that have joined the programme so far become more efficient, but, to some extent, it is preaching to the converted those who already have the drive to improve. Commenting on the middle-tier farmers he needs to reach, he says: "They won't come to meetings, but they will read about what we do and talk to other farmers about it. They'll learn from the other farmers." And that, in a nutshell, is why he places so much emphasis on communication.

The drive to get more and better information into the meat marketplace will also extend into the rest of the supply chain. The Red Meat Industry Forum may be no more, but Allen insists Eblex will pick up where it left off on some of its more successful initiatives. The Young Leaders Course is something that could be further developed, for example.

Keeping the industry informed about new industry techniques and equipment also needs to form part of the way forward, as one of Eblex's trade development remits, he argues. He cites two examples of developments from abroad that have yet to make an appearance in this country. While video image analysis equipment is used in the UK to assess carcases, it simply takes a photograph of the outside of the carcase. In New Zealand, X-ray equipment is being used to give a very accurate assessment of meat yield inside the carcase. In the US, the taste and tenderness characteristics of steak are now being assessed on the production line itself, so that product can be designated for value, standard or quality range. These are the sort of up-and-coming developments that Allen sees Eblex bringing to the industry's attention.

Allen says he will bring a consultative approach to his new role. In his first few weeks, he has taken more telephone calls about the halal sector than on anything else. "I've had some conflicting messages about what to do about the sector," he says. Muslims are about 3% of the population, but consume one-fifth of the lamb in this country, making halal an important, but emotive business area. "With it come all sorts of complexities that we have to understand and it would be easy to rush in and do lots of things, but it might not be the right thing to do in that sector." So he is setting up a halal steering group "specialists from the industry who know the halal sector and understand it".

On the retail front, in 2005, Eblex established the Quality Standard for English beef and lamb, only to see the focus shifting now towards the Red Tractor scheme. Plotting a way through that particular challenge is also likely to be on the Allen agenda.

As for Allen's 500-acre family farm, now an arable enterprise these days, he is at pains to point out that he does not have two jobs. "All I do is write the cheques. Kate, my wife, is a teacher. She works out how much I have to pay."