The drive for low prices and uniformity has resulted in the closure of numerous butcher’s shops and local abattoirs. Tim Field reports on the current situation – and how to improve it
Huge pressure for low prices and uniformity, alongside bureaucracy, has seen the close of many local butchers and abattoirs. Tim Field considers how the current situation could be improved – for the farmers, high street and consumers’ gain.
For more on farming, read best protein sources: ’tis the season for good intentions for how to get our fix of protein from the modern world of food and farming.
The butcher is a local focal point for any market town or high street. On sussing a new territory, I am always drawn to scope out the butcher. Why go to this trouble? Quite simply, if I wanted some consistently average, nondescript animal protein I’d go to a supermarket; for a cut of meat with interest and flavour, I go to a local butcher. It presents the opportunity for discussion on breeds, aging process, curing recipes, unusual cuts and a bonus shinbone for the dog. Unless buying direct from the farm, this level of provenance is unique to a good butcher’s counter.
Unfortunately, the industry claims that of the 15,000 UK butchers around in 1990, just 6,000 were still in existence by 2015. With shifting consumer habits, cooking a cut of meat in the home is on the demise and ready meals, dining out and falling red meat consumption have taken their toll. And when we do buy, the convenience of supermarkets is overwhelming. Thankfully, there is cause for optimism as farmshops and farmers’ markets are on the rise, with the latter doubling in the past decade and farmshops increasing threefold. However, they still only account for 4,000 outlets.
Whether it’s a good local butcher, farmers’ market, farmshop or maybe you are a family that fills a freezer with your own or a friend’s animal, there is a common link: a reliable abattoir. But like butchers, the rapid rate of closing is of great concern. A third have
disappeared in the past decade. According to the Sustainable Food Trust, in 1971 there were around 1,900 red meat abattoirs and today there are just 249. They are getting fewer in number but larger in size; the small, local abattoirs are disappearing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ABATTOIR
Having grown up with a small abattoir in the village and now working in a food enterprise that runs one on-farm, I understand the critical role they play to provide provenance to quality meat. For a small farm, farmshop or direct-selling enterprise that sends a handful of animals but wants to take back a carcass, going through a large abattoir is virtually impossible – it is not worth risking interruptions to a valuable contract with a demanding supermarket chain. And those wanting to retain their own offal are presented with an even greater challenge.
Quite rightly so, there is a huge pressure to handle and slaughter livestock humanely and hygienically, which involves highly skilled operatives and an on-site vet. Lairage and handling should work to keep animals calm, whilst facilities need to tick requirements for the high-risk food environments of temperature control, segregation and waste. Add the bureaucracy of livestock passports and movement papers, the operating and human capital required is considerable.
The bureaucracy contributed to the demise of Laverstoke Park Farm abattoir in Hampshire. The challenges were apparent in 2015 when it declined to take small numbers of animals from single holdings due to the disproportionately high burden of paperwork. There is no doubt the centralisation of supply chains and efficiency of larger abattoirs has contributed to cheaper meat, but the increasing dominance of supermarkets has caused low and even negative profitability in the sector.
The large-scale abattoir and supermarket drive for uniformity with an over-simplified carcass grading classification does not help farms producing heritage breeds, organic, grass-fed or free-range with local provenance. A long trip to an abattoir with a few animals, only to undersell the true value of the carcass’s worth, is a double hit on the farm. And when the true cost of high quality is added to the other challenges faced by independent high street retailers, the price at a butcher’s counter makes it hard to compete with supermarkets.
The best butchers and small abattoirs survive but there are plenty of voids across the country to be filled. At Daylesford we are fortunate to have reached a critical scale of customers and livestock numbers to justify an on-farm abattoir, but that is a rare situation. For others hoping to strengthen the supply chain for local farms, abattoirs and quality meat, the Sustainable Food Trust is calling for UK legislation to follow the precedent of other European countries, New Zealand and North America, which embrace the concept of mobile abattoirs. With a bit more progressive policy, farmers, the high street and discerning consumers are all set to gain.
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