LIVE AND KICKING - First the supermarkets rang the death knell for small, family-run businesses, then foreign opposition threatened to cut off meat exports. But far from dying, butchers around the country are beginning to fight back, returning to traditional methods and embracing the fashion for all things free-range and organic. Dominic Prince reports.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the UK meat industry has been reduced to a sorry carcass by the European food fight, as blockades and threatened trade wars have kept the focus on exports and the plight of perpetually hard-pressed farmers. But is the industry really in crisis or is it, like so many others in 1990s Britain, an industry that is redefining itself?
In recent years, butcher's shops throughout the nation have been closing at the rate of four a week. But while Britain and France were staring each other out over the export ban, business was booming at a 10-foot meat counter in the Hampshire town of Stockbridge, where the Robinson brothers, Paul and twins Peter and Jonathan, run a specialist business at the shop their father John took over 30 years ago when he moved there with his young family from Worcestershire. At that time there were 19 members of the Andover and District Retail Butchers Association. Today there are two - and at Christmas, when the proprietor of Soper's butcher's shop in Andover retires, there will be only John Robinson's.
High street and village butchers have mainly been victims of the competition from the boom in supermarket shopping, and changing eating habits. But while red meat sales have suffered a 30-year overall decline, actual meat consumption, when poultry sales are included, has in fact increased. In 1967 the British people wolfed their way through 62 million kilos of meat.
By 1997 the figure had risen to 70 million. The dramatic swing toward poultry saw sales of chicken increase by more than 300%. Total poultry sales today amount to £4.4 billion a year.
More dramatic has been the rising value of meat sales over the past two decades. In 1980, the beef, pork and lamb market was worth £6.4 billion; by 1997 that had climbed to £11.7 billion. Even taking inflation into account, this challenges the picture of a dying industry. Dramatic change it may be, but crisis it is not. This is also demonstrated when you consider that beef sales are within a percentage point of pre-BSE levels and expected to increase next year.
Over the same period, the way we buy our meat has changed. In 1980 there were nearly 23,000 independent butcher's shops in the British Isles and 4,994 supermarkets with butchering operations. By 1997, independent butchers numbered only 10,800 and there were 5,579 supermarkets. (Although the increase in supermarket numbers was not so dramatic, supermarket floor space had risen substantially.)
Why is it that while so many butchers are going bust, businesses like Robinson's in Stockbridge, Doves in southwest London and hundreds of others seem to be thriving? The answer seems to be quality and specialisation.
Although Robinson's shopfront is the type you would encounter in any market town, the business turns over £1.5 million a year. It serves a clientele of meat lovers and hunters who bring in deer and pheasant to be dressed and hung, and it specialises by preparing its own bacon and sausages. The service is cheerful. The meat looks and tastes like meat.
It is a very profitable little operation indeed. It sits in the Test Valley, an area knee-deep in Mercedes estate cars and bankers who commute to the City of London from nearby Andover.
Paul Robinson is well-remembered as the butcher who battled against the beef-on-the-bone ban during the BSE crisis, standing up to Jack Cunningham, then agriculture minister, in a broadcast debate, even when threatened with prosecution. Robinson still sells beef on the bone. Cunningham never got his day in court.
Robinson's does not cater just for the rich. Its delicious home-made faggots are, metaphorically, two a penny. The bacon is smoked at the back of the shop. There are raised game and chicken and ham pies, and the shop sells three and a half tons of custom sausages a week, employing two men full-time to make them.
Enter the cold store and you will see carcasses of roe and fallow deer shot on local farmland. The shop sells 2,000 free-range turkeys at Christmas and at other times wild duck, goose, venison and beef. The beef has been hung so long it is black - which, of course, is how beef should be sold and cooked. However, to borrow the words of Michael Caine, 'not many people know that' - and, what is more, not many people like to see it.
Today, for the most part, meat comes on polystyrene trays under clear film. That is how the bulk of the population likes to see its meat. On most labelling and packaging, you won't see the animal you're about to consume. There will be pictures of pastures and meadows without lambs or cows. Today's meat buyers need no longer confront the origins of their purchases.
Farmers have had a rough time - particularly those caught in the BSE cull - but modern farmers until recently never really had to sell. They reared animals, claimed their subsidies and went to market to collect on their produce. Now auction markets are closing all over the UK and farmers are having to market their production. Banbury stockyard, once Europe's biggest livestock market, was closed because the land it stood on was too valuable for the weekly business of selling livestock.
Like the surviving butchers, farmers too are becoming specialist producers and have turned to organic methods of raising meat and produce as they carve out new markets for themselves. Small high-quality retail outlets deal in truly prime meat - the kind not reared in sufficient quantity to attract the supermarkets or large-scale caterers. Producers of prime meat and the retailers who sell it have created an economy of their own, supported by a growing customer base of consumers who love meat but are concerned about the provenance of what they eat.
Thirty-year-old Tom Lowther farms a meagre 230 acres of hill-edge land in Cumbria, roamed by 1,000 sheep. He, and his mother before her retirement, used to send them to Penrith market to sell mainly to wholesalers. Even with a subsidy of £22 per ewe, the price attained was uneconomic. 'I should think damn near half my income is subsidies,' Lowther says. 'It is very hard to make any sort of living.'
Then came new hope. In November of last year, Lowther sent some lambs to market and was bid £13 apiece - which was far less than production costs. He decided he would try to sell direct to the consumer and bypass the dealers, supermarkets and retailers. So far, mainly by word of mouth, he has sold 600 halves of lamb - butchered and dispatched at £35 a box.
The fell-grazed Lowther lamb is getting quite a reputation and he is hoping to branch out into selling mutton direct to Indian restaurants in Manchester and Birmingham. In order to expand the business, however, there are formidable hurdles. Every food health-scare has brought more rules about the way animals are dispatched and butchered.
Go north from Lowther's country into Scotland and up to Inverness, home to some of the best beef cattle in the world. I did the trip some months ago and met farmers at their wits' end - knocked out by BSE and low prices.
There I found a cabal of farmers who were flouting the law, operating on remote farms in the dead of night. They shoot their own cattle, hang them from a bucket loader to dress and skin them and finally - about two weeks later - butcher them. The meat is sold to a tight retinue of like-minded individuals - friends and acquaintances, for consumption as Sunday roasts, steaks, beefburgers and oxtail. You can be certain this meat will never see a shop counter. And it is not only Scotland that plays host to such maverick behaviour.
Down in Dorset, Ruth Thorne operates a service for local farmers by 'finishing' (fattening) cattle, pigs and sheep, then butchering them. A shy but determined woman of middle age, she lives alone on a smallholding with a few sheep, cows and a donkey for company. From these premises she turns out bacon that is the talk of the county. It is cured slowly in a brine of salt and demerara sugar, then packed for a steady stream of customers who come to her door. She does a good trade with local hotels but a quirk in legislation bars her selling to retailers.
Commercial bacon producers who supply the large multiple stores can butcher and 'smoke' a pig in 10 minutes. Of course the bacon isn't smoked at all - just passed through a vacuum where 'smoke flavour' is sprayed on to it.
Thorne understands animals in the traditional, non-anthropomorphic sense.
For her, it's a matter of the ratio of muscle to bone. When she says an animal is beautiful, she means 'there's good money in that backside'.
She often visits supermarkets and in her mind's eye reassembles the carcasses, totting up the cuts of meat. She reckons a cow that she would sell to a supermarket for £500 ends up costing consumers £2,000 - and she wants nothing to do with that.
When John Robinson was starting out in Stockbridge, there was an abattoir nearby run by Howard Bennett. Sold two years ago to the Randall Parker Food Group, HM Bennett is at the other end of the business - the bulk end, supplying pork and lamb to supermarkets and wholesalers. It is one of the UK's top five meat packers with a state-of-the-art cutting plant geared for meat provision on a giant scale.
Animals are no longer slaughtered there - that's done in Wales, where upward of 15,000 lambs are killed a week. At the Bennett plant near Andover, articulated lorries reverse into and pull out of the cold store at regular intervals. Each can carry 1,000 carcasses. The lambs are sorted, cut, jointed, weighed and even priced for the supermarkets, which supply their own branded labels.
If you want to have a look round the Bennett plant you first have to put on a hairnet, wellies and a white coat with no pockets. You then walk through a footbath and scrub up with soap and water. When managing director Jim Gaffney started work at Bennett's in 1977, there was muck in abundance.
'People would stop for a cigarette while gutting an animal. The business was very out of date. It needed to be modernised. But perhaps it has gone too far. Quite honestly, no one knows why this type of food hygiene is necessary,' he says.
Every carcass processed at Bennett's has a provenance. They know where and when it ate its last meal and where and when it was slaughtered. 'Traceability' is the food business buzzword of the late 1990s and the supermarket chains in this country will not accept that animals sourced from a livestock auction possess this key selling point. This is another reason livestock markets are going out of business. The packet of lamb chops on a supermarket shelf is traceable to the very field on the farm where the animal was reared.
The lamb destined for the supermarket shelf with a budget price label will not be as tasty as Tom Lowther's lamb. His will hang for five to 10 days, while supermarket lamb must rely for maturation on its time in the packaging - because meat that lingers in the store chiller is not sold meat, and that's bad for turnover.
While meat may no longer enjoy the same place on the nation's dining table, 97% of the population remain meat-eaters. There is a greater range of food than ever before and our diet has become more eclectic and more European. Meat shoppers want prime cuts that are lean and quick to cook.
Offal, which on the Continent is still turned into culinary masterpieces, is a market in decline. Much of it now has to be discarded by law. Concerned consumers have lost their trust in mass production.
Farmers and retail butchers have been through a testing period economically but the survivors may emerge stronger through the process of revamping and best-practice management.
British consumers who still hold the thought of a delicious roast close to their hearts may see to it that discerning butchers become brand names themselves. The butchers who research the demographics of their areas could well develop small chains of high-class well-run shops in the nation's market towns, selling to very different customers than the supermarkets.
Witness John Robinson's with a small-town retail outlet that can employ 14 people full-time and generate £1.5 million turnover.
The meat business is far from dead. It is being reinvented.