The Organic Meat Company

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The Organic Meat Company goes global

With a complement of rural skills, four friends are taking Australian organic meat to the world.

Story + photos Paula Heelan

A crowd has gathered at a trade fair exhibit at Beef Australia 2006, held recently in Rockhampton, Queensland. Alister Ferguson, Peter Gall, David McDonald and Iain Scholes are flat out fielding questions about their relatively new business, The Organic Meat Company. Launched in January 2005, the company supplies products for both the domestic and international markets, and has so far been met with much success.

The four men, all with rural backgrounds, have been firm friends since boarding school. They worked together as young jackaroos for several years in western Queensland’s Blackall district, and it is through this work, combined with their agricultural studies and family beef enterprises (Iain and Peter’s family businesses have been certified as organic livestock operations for more than 10 years), that they have gained knowledge and experience in beef production and an enduring interest in organic beef.

The idea for a joint company started when Peter encouraged Iain and others in the Blackall area to begin accessing more consistent organic foods. “We could see there was a growing market for organic beef both here and overseas,” Peter says. “So we began researching the potential for an organic beef venture.”

After working for Sanger Australia, one of Australia’s largest meat export trading companies, Alister knew the opportunities for marketing reliable, quality organic produce were endless – and something that the industry lacked. “Organic beef was always at the back of my mind and I had been going on and on about it to Sanger management,” he says. “I knew that by addressing both quality and supply issues it was possible to expand the market and help it realise its true potential. Then, at the start of 2005, when the EU [European Union] market for organic cattle dropped due to South America selling cheaper organic products, Pete and I realised new markets were needed.

We sat down with Sanger, explained our idea to begin an organic meat company as a Sanger Australia subsidiary and they agreed to back us. If it didn’t look like taking off in 12 months, I promised never to talk organics again.”

The first step for Peter and Alister was to ensure producers would have access to certified organic meat processors, so they set about approving several processing plants all the way from Victoria through to Queensland. “Our supply began with Iain’s cattle, turning over about 88 head per month, marketed under The Organic Meat Company and basically we have progressed from there,” Alister says.
Today Peter is based in Toowoomba, Queensland, and is responsible for buying cattle, Alister handles the meat marketing form Sydney, David is the company’s south-east Queensland representative and Iain’s family business (which runs 4000 breeders across 60,750 hectares) is the company’s largest supplier. Peter’s wife Louise and Iain’s wife Kathy are also involved in the business.
The new enterprise has managed to open doors into several markets, such as supplying to IGA and David Jones, as well as a wholesale business to butchers. “At the moment 70 percent of our beef is for the export market and 30 percent is domestic,” Alister says.

As well as exporting to Singapore, Hong Kong and Koreas, the company recently secured a lucrative business deal with the world’s largest natural and organic food retailer, Whole Foods Market, in the US. “All of Iain’s meat goes to Whole Foods,” Alister says. “We see the States as one of our biggest opportunities.”
Australian Certified Organic (ACO) has now sanctioned The Organic Meat Company producers (numbering more than 45) as well as their suppliers and processors. By building a strong alliance with these people, trustworthiness, quality and excellence are assured, while the company maintains control over the entire process. The reputation of the brand has benefited from this, with a 30 percent growth being experienced in one year, allowing the company to expand into organic lamb and chicken.

“At the moment demand is outweighing supply, which is great,” Alister says. “While it’s our aim to increase our number of producers, we prefer to talk to those who come to us, rather than us chasing those that may not be genuine about becoming organic.”

According to Alister, their success demonstrates the increasing popularity of organic foods. “More than ever before, consumers are becoming more responsible for what their families are eating,” he says. “They are asking questions about where their food comes from and are keen to know about the processes involved from paddock to plate.”

Alister doesn’t need to worry about his promise Sanger Australia that he’d never mention organics again if his business idea didn’t take off. Thanks to a team of entrepreneurial young businessmen from the bush, The Organic Meat Company has not only taken off, but it seems it is here for the long haul.
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