For Australians, there is nothing as good as a plump, juicy lamb chop or leg steak to get your teeth into, especially if it has been grown locally. Apparently, the people of the Middle East feel no different.
They are of course unable to grow the best sheep meat as they lack the basics – grass, especially, but also water – for prime pasture. So, increasingly, they are turning to Australia to provide the tastiest cuts and keep the kebabs turning.
All of which is great news for Robert Frew of Stawell, Victoria, based Frew Group. This company is a leading producer of lamb and sheep meat and associated products and after establishing good relationships with appropriate allies, has become one of the country’s top exporters, taking Brand Australia to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other places where the produce is highly prized for its flavour and plumpness, as well as its value.
It was Robert’s father, Arch, who established to company back in 1981, having started out as a drovers cook in the late 1940s. Some 250km northwest of Melbourne, Stawell is known as the gateway to the Grampians and the surrounding area is some of the finest arable land in the country, with a plentiful supply of livestock all year round. Importantly, it is also well located between Melbourne and Adelaide, and Frew is able to supply both state capitals on a daily basis with the freshest meats.
Originally, Arch had a small wholesale business with a couple of trucks and half a dozen employees, delivering to local butcher’s shops. “Gradually we started getting bigger and bigger and began to supply some supermarkets,” says Robert, who took over running the business from his father in 1996. One of those supermarkets, and of course a most important client, was Woolworths; more recently, Frew has also started supplying Aldi.
Frew Group effectively maintains two divisions. Frewstal P/L is the main lamb and mutton processing facility, with a factory equipped with the latest technology and world-best in hygiene practices; Frew Trading Wholesales P/L looks after domestic sales, distribution, and warehousing. Transport is a large operation and the group has an impressive fleet of Mack prime movers and trailers that handle movement of all carcass meat, carton meat, offal, and by-products such as skins green or salted, or materials for rendering. The company takes a lot of pride in this fleet, which is renewed frequently and kept spotless as a positive advertisement for the products within the trailers. “Maintaining a modern fleet of vehicles, which meet all the EPA regulations for admissions, is essential for our environmental future.”
Today, around half of Frew Group’s business is domestic and the rest export – mainly, but not exclusively to the Middle East, as that region’s appetite for lamb and sheep meat remains fierce. Global competition is equally fierce, but Australian producers have been helped somewhat by the track taken by New Zealand’s agriculture shifting slightly away from livestock and more towards dairy farming. This has opened the door wider for Australian exports, although that is not a reflection on the relative quality of the products, which remain perhaps the finest quality lamb and sheep meat available anywhere in the world.
Frew’s products are all chilled or frozen – there is no export of live animals in the group and Robert believes that is highly unlikely ever to change; given that processing is the core of Frew Group’s offer, it would hardly make sense to forego this aspect of the business. In fact, a new freezer facility in Melton is being designed and constructed for Frew Group by Texco Construction, specialists in Design & Construct in the Industrial and Commercial sectors. There is, however, a lot of export from Australia of live sheep, which has for some reason received rather less adverse publicity than the cattle-export busies in recent months and Robert suggests that if this were to stop for any reason – sentiment or economics – Australia would be hard pushed to make up the difference because there would not be sufficient processing facilities.
The group developed a close and mutually rewarding relationship with a leading trading house, Dabbagh Trading, which takes care of exports to the Arab countries and also distributes a number of related products including lamb and sheep skins. Dabbagh Trading and the Frew Group have a wholesale facility in UAE to service the whole of the region with quality meat products at competitive prices, supplying products seven days a week.
In September 2014, Frew received tier-two accreditation, enabling it to deal in close to 100 countries, although in many cases individual country negotiations are still needed before actual exports can begin. China is one such country, although Robert says the ‘negotiation’ largely involves a delegation coming to see the group’s facilities, at which point they would be suitably impressed. China is on the group’s horizon not least because Dabbagh has contacts there. Traditionally most of China has not been a big consumer of lamb and sheep meat (except for the poorer Muslim regions of the west), but the taste is catching on together with the general appetite for ‘western’ produce.
As with other industries, Australian agricultural produce has an excellent reputation abroad. “I think we have a good reputation for quality, hygiene, and processing standards. It does help a lot because we don’t have many issues with products exported from here,” says Robert. “We don’t have as much pollution as many other countries either, so we have a more sought-after product.”
There are variations in palate and preference, though, he adds. Arab markets tend to prefer a leaner cut, and if there is noticeable fat it is trimmed off – frequently because the customer will be grinding it for minced lamb to make kofta or other delicacies – although they do like the same quality standard. Chops and cutlets are consumed much as in Australia, but the traditional roast leg or shoulder is not in demand.
Frew does a small amount of ‘further processing’ but Robert says export markets prefer to keep control over these processes (such as mincing). “They like to process their own lamb, but at some times of the year they can’t because it’s too hot through their summer.” Their summer being Australia’s winter when the domestic market is depressed, this rather neatly has the effect of balancing out Frew’s supply-and-demand curve.
The group branched out into beef processing in 1993 with the purchase of an abattoir in Kyneton, but last year divested itself of the facility, preferring the core expertise of lamb and sheep meat and opting for further technological advances at Stawell. A leading Danish food-processing specialist, Atec, came to Victoria to impart some expertise from the pork industry in the boning room, changing the cutting equipment to give a better product with fewer bone chips or dust. Recently, New Zealand industry leader McLaren Stainless has installed a new rotary vacuum system, its first, which is based on conventional designs but has been completely updated and made more reliable. This system has helped reduce labour costs and improve the product’s packaging.
Frew Group runs three main brands, each with its own properties: the Brand 53 is the main export range, while Frewstal is lamb and sheep, six way chilled or frozen and processed daily to order. Top of the menu is the MD range, lamb that is aged for 72 hours before processing to enhance eating quality. Once this product is ready for processing, it is prepared to order and packaged to highest quality standards for a guaranteed tender eating experience.
Unlike the product, there is no fat on the company – quite the reverse. It is lean and mean, poised for profitability despite the still relatively high dollar partly due to burgeoning demand which, according to Robert, is set to continue for some years to come. The markets remain dynamic, but the group is more concerned about getting sufficient supply of stock than of finding enough people to eat it.