SELLING Australian lamb and sheep meat into the Middle East is complex, with diverse markets preferring different products for different reasons, a group of Wheatbelt sheep producers has discovered.
The producers this month toured Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with a livestock agent, an agriculture economist and Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) representatives to examine supply opportunities for WA sheep meat.
The week-long study tour was part of a broader flexible farming systems project involving Merredin and District Farm Improvement Group (MADFIG) in collaboration with growers from the Far Eastern Agriculture Research (FEAR) group, to build more resilient businesses with capacity to adapt to change.
The tour aimed to familiarise WA sheep producers with Middle Eastern markets and separate segments for chilled and frozen lamb and mutton and also to explore opportunities for chilled yearling sheep meat.
Helping producers understand the influence of religious and cultural ceremonies on Middle East markets and how they operate during these times, as well as how live sheep supply disruptions to these markets are likely to affect eastern Wheatbelt producers, was also an aim.
The sheep producers included Steve Bolt, Corrigin, who is also a Live Export Advisory committee member, Brad Auld, Moorine Rock, Linda Rose, Mount Hampton, Kim Creagh, Nungarin, Neil Smith, Merredin, Jessie Davis, Narembeen and Tom McCormack, Doodlakine, with Mukinbudin livestock agent Mitchell Clarke and agricultural economist Lucy Anderton.
The tour was led by MLA Perth-based program manager - value chain research, development and adoption David Beatty and DPIRD sheep industry development officer and flexible farming systems project leader Tanya Kilminster.
In Qatar the tour group met with representatives from importers Hassad - which also has Australian-based operations - and Widam Food Company which was formerly the Qatar Company for Meat and Livestock Trading.
In Jordan they visited importer Hijazi Ghosheh Group (HGG) and its feedlot and abattoir - HGG owns Livestock Shipping Services Pty Ltd, and the GAM (Central Amman municipality) abattoir.
In UAE they visited the Emirates Livestock feedlot, a local farmers' market and the Dubai municipality abattoir.
They also visited specialist gourmet meat producer The Meat Master in Jordan and Prime Gourmet in UAE, as well as visiting retail outlets in massive LuLu and Carrefour hypermarkets across the three countries and MegaMart in Qatar to understand how Australian lamb and sheep meat is marketed to customers at various points of sale.
The consensus of opinion at the end of the tour was that the Middle East is a complex and diversified mix of markets that should not be considered as one.
It comprises different countries with different climatic conditions and economies wanting Australian sheep meat across chilled, frozen and live supply chains to meet immense demand, whether for traditional meat for ceremonial purposes, high-end products in retail or food service or a growing demand from middle-income mass markets for trusted quality meats.
Another take-away message from the tour was each market, whether chilled, frozen or live, craved sustainable and consistent supply and building relationships and trust between stakeholders for business transactions is highly regarded.
Reliability is essential to build and maintain that trust and there is competition from other suppliers, including Romania, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Pakistan, to try to take market share from Australia.
Listening to what the markets want and working with governments to achieve it is vital to continuing success in the Middle East, tour group members came away believing.
They discovered "brand Australia" is well regarded and a trusted source of protein but supply will be actively sourced elsewhere if Australia cannot provide reliable and consistent product.
Nuffield scholar Neil Smith, who runs cropping and cross-bred lamb enterprises on 6000 hectares near Merredin, said the study tour raised awareness of significant differences between individual market preferences when many WA sheep producers simply considered them as one Middle East market.
"Everyone wants more live sheep, but in Qatar, where it's very hot and humid this time of year, they are quite happy with our suspension of live trade for three months because they have less losses on their side too," Mr Smith said on Tuesday.
"Also, Qatar is one of our best air-freight chilled lamb customers - something like 2000 (whole carcase) lambs a day leave Australia for Doha.
"This is helped by a (Qatar) government subsidy which fills the gap between the price of Australian lamb (live and chilled carcase), so the consumer pays a reduced set price.
"But in Dubai we saw live sheep being imported from Romania for the Eid Al Adha festival because live sheep from Australia weren't available."
Mr Smith said the promotion of Australian lamb by the MLA in the Middle East using Egyptian master chef and television personality Tarek Ibrahim was "levy money well spent".
"It's brand Australia - there's no regional branding - but our lamb is competing against New Zealand, UK and South Africa at the top end and against lamb from India and Pakistan at a lower level.
"In one of the big retail centres I saw a man buy a vacuum-packed Australian lamb forequarter and take it back into the butcher to be cut up.
"I asked him why he chose Australian lamb and he said because it was good quality, healthy and because of chef Tarek.
"The MLA is doing a terrific job in marketing our lamb.
"The upper echelon of society in these countries eats Australian lamb because of its quality and the middle class aspires to do the same."
Tour leader Ms Kilminster, who also runs cropping and sheep enterprises at Bruce Rock with her husband, said the tour "certainly opened some eyes".
"Brand Australia is trusted for quality, but what our customers in each of the countries we visited want is surety of both regular supply and quality," Ms Kilminster said.
"I spoke to a woman in one of the big retail centres we visited and asked her about what meat she bought and she said she bought Australian lamb and beef because she trusted it, it was safe and would not make her sick.
"In the hypermarkets (massive retail complexes) there is clearly labelled Australian and New Zealand lamb - New Zealand appears to be our main competitor on supermarket shelves at the top end - and some local lamb below that.
"But in each of the countries we visited we were told that Romania is in competition for our live markets, which came as a real surprise.
"We saw Australian sheep in two feedlots and they were well fed, well watered and well managed.
"We saws no signs of animals being mistreated in any of the feedlots or abattoirs we visited which gave the growers strong confidence Australian animals are being well looked after.
"The work that ESCAS (Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System) and the MLA is doing in the Middle East in that regard is having a big effect on attitudes.
"We were surprised at the openness of the abattoirs with the public and families welcome to come in and rate the service, it was unique and the transparency was refreshing," Ms Kilminster said.
The tour was supported by funding from the MLA and a grower group research and development grant through DPIRD.