Small and medium-sized meat processors in the European Union  – how a short supply chain ensures excellent quality

Small and medium-sized meat processors in the European Union – how a short supply chain ensures excellent quality

The European Union is known for its small and medium-sized enterprises, which always look after the customer and ensure high quality of production[1]. This also applies to the agri-food sector – in Europe, the meat processing sector provides employment for 1.2 million workers, giving real support to local communities. It is worth noting that the high level of diversification of producers translates not only into quality, but also into increased security of supply[2]. The efficiency of the European meat sector during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that a dense network of small and medium-sized processors and short supply chains translate into better quality, environmental protection and stable production[3].

The European definition of a supply chain is[4]: The foods origin is identified and traceable to a farmer who produced it. The number of intermediaries between farmer and consumer should be ‘minimal’ or ideally nil[5]. There are many ways to build short supply chains, but the following models are the most common in the EU:[6]

  1. Community-supported farming – the operation of farms is supported by the local community, which co-finances farmers’ activity in exchange for good-quality and affordable products.
  2. Direct sales – the farmer produces, processes and sells meat, being financially independent from other operators.
  3. Agricultural cooperatives – the farming community working together owns further stages of the value chain. Each producer, regardless of the invested capital and the size of the farm, has the same impact on the company’s operations.
  4. Having own local sales networks – local slaughterhouses sell fresh meat in their own shops. This model is particularly popular in Southern and Central-Eastern Europe. Processors deliver products produced by local companies to local specialised shops. A short logistics chain allows for regular deliveries of meat of excellent quality. It is also worth noting that small butcher’s shops offering fresh meat straight from the producer are much more able to resist growing pressure from supermarkets than other regular stores offering a narrow range of products, such as vegetable shops[7].

Such high popularity of short supply chains results from the unique structure of agriculture in the European Union. There are about 5.5 million livestock farms in the EU[8]. Such a vast network of producers means that transport of animals is usually very short, so that they do not get stressed or tired during long journeys. Lower levels of stress providesbetter meat quality due to the right pH level, water holding capacity, colour and juiciness[9].

High quality is one of the main features distinguishing products from short supply chains. Suchmarket structure also translates into a greater variety of meat types[10] – this business model also provides profitability for smaller producers specialising in breeding endangered breeds or producing local products. Smaller concentration of activities also enables easier management of by-products and puts less pressure on the environment. It is worth noting that on such market, the degree of energy recovery through biogas is much higher than in the USA[11].

Short supply chains offer a range of advantages[12]. The most popular ones are higher quality of the product, positive impact on the local community and environment. In this business model, entrepreneurs attach great importance to production standards and animal welfare. Such market structure makes it possible for consumers to monitor the level of production ethics on an ongoing basis – after all, it is the end consumers whose family members work and are co-responsible for the production of food that goes on their tables. Another significant aspect is the social aspect – the diversity of smaller producers means that many local recipes are cultivated and ensures a variety of flavours. This is very apparent in European cuisine, which offers a wide range of different meat dishes and products. What’s more, local producers often support schools, co-finance festivals and promote local culture and customs. The final aspect is environmental protection – the activity of small producers and processors causes less interference with the environment. A short supply chain, full transparency, social involvement, looking after the environment and broadly understood cooperation are the European recipe for high-quality meat products.