Intouch: Smart company – Firstlight Foods

It’s fairly long-standing criticism of our primary produce sector that it’s limited itself by being bit too, well, primary in its approach to marketing. Too much scale, not enough value add.
As Firstlight’s marketing manager Jason Ross puts it – the meat industry has habit of “having lot of low-margin widgets” and tendency to be more production than market driven. Having worked in the industry for many years, Firstlight founders concluded it was “little bit dysfunctional” in terms of its priorities.
“We thought there was too much emphasis on the processing plant and too little emphasis on farmer/producer and customer,” explains Ross.
So the company set about creating more direct and transparent supply chain to link farmer shareholders in New Zealand with major international retailers including Tesco, Waitrose, Whole Foods and Marks & Spencer. Focusing on niche products such as venison (which makes up less than one percent of Tesco’s meat cabinet offering) precludes the need for scale and the company has instead worked on leveraging the beauty of small by helping create closer links between the supplier and customer ends of the chain.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of issues like provenance and animal welfare and we are reacting to these signals by designing supply chains to both meet current needs and predicted future trends,” says Ross.
Retailers get to know their suppliers directly and farmers are firmly integrated into the whole farm to market process.
“Typically farmers in New Zealand have, for many years, been taught to say goodbye to their sheep, cattle or deer at the farm gate and if they are not part of the process then they have every right to stand back and throw stones. But farmers are no different from anyone else – they like to be informed decision makers. We help them by being transparent and facilitating communication,” says Ross.
Minimising the number of people in the middle of the supply chain enhances the value at both ends. For instance, Firstlight farmer shareholders pay close attention to genetics that enhance meat quality. The supply chain transparency also fits into retailers’ new focus on safe and sustainable supply sources.
“Sustainability,” says Ross, “is something we’ve observed coming like freight train out of the UK.”
Instead of trying to do sustainability across all aspects of the industry – from farming, to packaging and transportation systems – Firstlight has opted to focus on areas it sees as being increasingly vital to New Zealand’s primary sector: water quality and nitrogen use. It co-sponsors the clean water accord project around Lake Taupo (where one of its shareholders has farm) and is looking at managing farming systems within nitrogen cap.
All this is part of expressing what the company sees as core value – integrity.
“For us that is one of our strongest attributes – the integrity of our supply chain and of our people expressed through our actions. We think it adds value to our offer.”
The company can now boast 400 weeks of 100 percent venison supply to its retail programmes and attributes this to commitment and communication throughout the supply chain. “But when it contemplates growth, the focus is on value-add and the push is into food solutions which is why the company is working with top chef Peter Gordon to develop complementary products like sauces that can be sold with meat in retail environment.
Process, says Ross, is important because people need to know their food is safe and has been grown ethically. “But in the end it’s about what ends up in the middle of the plate.”

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