The British pork processor currently has 13,000 sows that are raised without the use of antibiotics and it plans to add 4000 more over the course of 2017 and 2018. In June this year it trademarked its antibiotic-free logo with the Intellectual Property Office.
Yet despite this confidence in a growing segment, it is aware of the challenges both from a marketing and production side.
FoodNavigator caught up with the firm's director of business development and agriculture, William de Klein, in SIAL in Paris last week.
“It’s difficult [to market it] and that’s where retailers in general struggle," he said. "In the States it’s on the shelves mainly in supermarkets where there’s only this type of [product], such as organic. Here [in Europe] it has to be mixed on the products on the same shelf with other products that are not guaranteed antibiotic-free.
“We would love to change the world but it’s a very different way of producing meat and it’s a challenge to convince consumers that the meat next to the antibiotic-free meat is still good meat. There’s nothing wrong with it, we’ve always eaten it, however this is something different for a different customer base.”
Karro currently has several customers in the US and China and is looking for customers in Europe and the UK. De Klein said that while the firm does see
opportunities in the UK and Europe, it is a niche market in these regions, and it will take a few years for the European market to mature and reach the same stage as the US.
Karro is currently mulling a potential marketing strategy that could work in Europe but for the moment it is mainly focusing on export markets in order to avoid the issue.
Cambridge University scientists recently analysed 189 samples of fresh pork and chicken from UK supermarkets, including whole meat cuts and lightly processed meat such as minced pork and sausages, and found E.coli bacteria in 98% of the samples.
According to a Mintel survey, nearly half (47%) of British people are either extremely or moderately concerned about antibiotics in farming.
Currently around 30% of Karro’s animals are raised to certified high welfare standards, and of this, 30% is antibiotic-free, putting it at around 10% of the company’s whole processing capacity.
There is no certification system for antibiotic-free meat so the company uses an appropriate animal welfare certification depending on the country (RSPA assured in the UK; Global Animal Partnership in the US)
and conducts audits to demonstrate to customers its meat is antibiotic free.
Another challenge is dealing with sickness in herds.
“It can’t be that we don’t give these animals treatment because we would lose the [premium] value of the product. So to my farmers, even if they only get 85% of the animals antibiotic-free, I pay the premium for all pigs. There is no incentive to not treat the animal.”
However it also has to be prepared for the possibility that the entire flock is affected.
“Luckily this hasn’t happened yet but you can imagine that if the whole flock gets sick or gets wiped out with a disease, we can’t supply. For the export market the majority if sold frozen so we can keep stock [and] if there’s a little glitch in the supply chain we can cover for a couple of weeks. But that’s one of the big challenges in this kind of supply chain. We don’t want to take any shortcuts so we have to be able to say to the consumer ‘No it’s not available at the minute.’”
Although this is the kind of situation any supplier wants to avoid, 'saying no' worked well for US fast food chain Chipotle. It suspended a contract with one of its leading pork suppliers that was violating its animal welfare policy, and was forced to stop selling pork 'carnita' products in around one third of its 1,700 stores. The move was a success for the company in terms of its social responsibility reputation.
Incidentally, following the carnita crisis, Karro was taken on as one of its suppliers.
Logo / No logo
However not everyone believes the rise of antibiotic-free logos are the solution to stemming the over dependence of antibiotics in animal husbandry.
Emma Rose from the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, told FoodNavigator last year: “Introducing labels risks allowing the continuation of such practices, whilst turning meat products from animals raised without antibiotics into premium products - rather than the absolute norm.”
According to De Klein, the absence of an antibiotic-free logo is not necessarily synonymous with irresponsible farming.
“We are all for responsible farming, we are just tailoring it to a niche market [with this logo]. We also sell a lot of very healthy pigs that don’t fit in this scheme so I think it can be done both ways.”
De Klein said he believed a widespread reduction in antibiotic use in farms across the board would be “difficult” due to the intensity of modern farming methods. “It’s all about responsible usage,” he added.
When asked if there should be government limits on antibiotic use on farms, he said responsibility lay mostly with farmers but that increased consumer attention on the issue would encourage farmers to cut use.