A cut of SILERE alpino origin merino lamb won this year’s KPMG Export Innovation category of the 2014 NZ Food Awards. MeatExportNZ finds out about its development from the South Island’s high country to plates in Shanghai and elsewhere.
The Alpine Origin Merino (AOM) product, targeting chefs and distributors in the foodservice arena, was developed through a joint venture by the New Zealand Merino Company Ltd and Silver Fern Farms as part of the $30 million New Zealand Sheep Industry Transformation programme: a recipient of Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) funding.
Producing award-winning cuts of merino lamb is a smaller part of the overall activity for the project, which aims to create new opportunities and value for New Zealand’s sheep industry through the merino sheep breed. Other areas are looking at fibre, leather and production science.
AOM business development manager Wayne Cameron says the award win and recognition reinforces the focus that has been applied in-market through trade events, sampling and sponsorship with key chefs and distributors.
“It is a further seal of approval for the chef and distributor customers who come and experience the beauty and passion of the high country and SILERE alpine origin merino.”
Idea sparked at a high country meal
According to AOM communications manager, Olivia Egerton (pictured left receiving the award from KPMG’s Ian Proudfoot), the idea of creating a premium branded meat product was sparked after hosting international wool clients on a high country station who were served merino lamb as the evening meal.
“Comments from the guests about the incredible flavour of the lamb, combined with the conviction of a group of high country farmers, led to the development of AOM,” she says, adding that the product, SILERE Alpine Origin Merino, is inspired by the elements in which it is grown.
“The name was chosen to reflect the connection to its source, the pristine high country and the peaceful moment of dusk and dawn in the high country. SILERE comes from the Latin for ‘to be silent’.
“In fact, the inspiration behind the SILERE logo is the intersection of two mountains with the sun rising above this saddle at either dusk or dawn: a time when our growers find the high country at its most tranquil.”
Design Works and Uber Research were commissioned to develop the brand.
Develop the right product for the right market
The team worked with all of the key stakeholders in the supply chain to develop the right product for the right market.
A key component of this was working very closely with chefs, initially Michael Coughlin from Pier 24, to look at the carcase from a chef’s view-point, challenging the traditional way a carcase is broken down, and to create foodservice specific fit-for-purpose cuts, which would maximise returns.
Five high profile chefs – Coughlin plus Benjamin Bayley, Nick Honeyman, Mark Southon and Eugene Hamilton, all of whom have used SILERE merino at various stages on their menus – were invited to Mount Nicholas Station, in the early stages of development. This was to ensure that key messages on physical attributes, provenance and sustainability were clearly articulated and matched the direction and priorities of the chefs and their restaurants.
“The relationships with our chefs and distributors remain key to our business model and we constantly seek feedback to refine and improve our offering.”
The team has worked with the chefs, at trade shows and other events, to expose people to SILERE merino and let them try the product. They constantly get asked ‘what makes this lamb so tasty?’
Egerton tells them it’s because the AOM programme focuses on natural development – the merino supplied into the programme mature naturally.”The merino sheep have a foraging, free-range lifestyle, grazing on natural tussock, grasses and wild herbs for up to 18 months.”
Behind the scenes, extensive benchmarking of merino meat against standard composite breeds was carried out using a trained sensory panel, allowing for the key characteristics: distinct layers of flavour along with mouth-watering succulence, fine-grained texture and an appealing density.
Strict Farm Assurance audits are in place throughout the supply chain. AOM also places a large emphasis on getting its farmers connected to the market, as much as possible.
Contact with growers
The first major initiative for AOM was the creation of contracts with growers which provided price, volume and quality stability throughout the value chain, allowing for accurate planning, forecasting and considered investment.
“This gives great visibility on supply and quality to ensure market requirements are first and foremost in the minds of all stakeholders,” says Egerton.
According to Wayne Cameron, about 125,000 merino lambs are currently supplied into the programme a year, with sales split fairly evenly between here in New Zealand and international markets in the US, China and Hong Kong. More recently, the product has been launched into Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
“The export market is expected to grow significantly in the future as we are only now in our second full season of international trade,” he says.
Targeting foodservice and high-end retail
Nearly all of the product sales – 90 percent, according to Cameron – go into foodservice, but, where appropriate, AOM has partnered with high-end retailers such as Super City’s Shanghai store, which not only helps them to raise awareness of the brand, but also increases the range of cuts they can offer.
“We have found that white table cloth restaurants want traditional items such as racks and loins, whilst upmarket bistros want more so-called secondary cuts, such as shoulder and ribs,” he says.
“While we are doing some very innovative leg cuts specifically for food service, legs naturally lend themselves more towards the retail market.”
Initial sales to the high-end retail establishments have been done as ‘wet’ products, with the shelf or tables branded rather than the product, but new packaging is in the throes of being finalised and will be available in the New Year, translated into Arabic and Mandarin.
Once the product cut – in this award-winning case, the focus was on a bone-in oyster shoulder cut of merino lamb – has been suitably fine-tuned for the specific market, a soft launch is run with the selected brand partner for three to six months to ensure that it has the best possible chance of success when the final green light is given.
“This not only benefits our merino farmers but, as a premium product, also helps New Zealand lamb in general to develop that emotional connection required to protect its new position in markets.”
Product development also includes extensive market research. Egerton gives the example of China where research has been based on the longstanding relationships, over 25 years, that Silver Fern Farms has had in that market. This was further supported by other initiatives including commissioned market research from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. It also took in recommendations from an independent inquiry, led by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), into potential strategies for red meat export into China.
“This specific inquiry wasn’t adopted by the mainstream industry but it did provide a template for AOM to use and also an introduction to Tenderplus, which is now our brand partner and importer in Shanghai,” explains Egerton.
Research continues as the AOM retail range is further developed with high-end supermarket Super City Shanghai. An extensive promotion programme in the store in August/September went very well and was extended. It was also replicated in SILERE’S launch into Dubai, according to Cameron.
“As we move further into speciality retail in 2015, then more budget will be allocated to gourmet butchery branding and in-store consumer sampling and so on.”
According to its PGP report at the end of September, the meat sub-project is on track to meet all of its PGP programme targets in 2013-2014, with international sales exceeding expected volumes.