The break in the chain

Meat used to be a matter of confidence and pride. Every market town held its own local fat stock show and sale in the weeks before Christmas, where farmers would compete to present the best-finished beef animal and butchers would vie to outbid each other to secure the champion beast and the honour of offering its meat to their customers, the cuts laid out in their shop window alongside its rosette and the winning farmer’s name.

Provenance was not a concept, then, only a simple fact. When I was growing up in the 1970s, in a country village where the butcher had a little abattoir behind his shop, I understood without question the source of my family’s Sunday roast. I cannot recall feeling any qualm at the sight of lambs, fresh from the field, being unloaded from a sheep trailer in the village street and driven on foot into the butcher’s yard. Their last, short journey was part of the unspoken pact between life, livelihoods and landscape.

So I have long been calm in my acceptance of the journey from hoof to plate. But things have changed: the idea of animals being trucked over increasingly long distances to be slaughtered by euphemistically-named Food Business Operators who may have little or no regard for them except as commodities troubles me deeply, as it should trouble all wholesalers, retailers and consumers. No farmer who does not slaughter on site (not legally possible where meat is to be sold off the farm) can be absolutely certain of how their animals will be treated once they have left the farm gate. This is ‘an inconvenient truth,’ a break in the food chain which appears to undermine the resurgent sustainability dynamic. When I contacted Walter Lewis, author of the Feeding Body and Soul blog, and expressed my growing concerns over this apparent disconnect, the present standards in abattoirs and what might be done to raise those standards as high as possible, he invited me to expand upon them further.

It has to be said that legislation to date seems only to have compounded the problem. There has been a huge reduction in the number of small local abattoirs over the last twenty to twenty-five years, due largely to the inspection requirements which were introduced – ironically enough – to improve animal welfare and reduce risks to human health, but which proved prohibitively expensive for all but the largest abattoirs. Coupled with population changes and the shift in our shopping habits as a nation, this resulted in the closure of hundreds of small abattoirs, severing for ever the historic socio-economic links in the chain between farmer, slaughterman and family butcher.

It is important to acknowledge that the government-appointed veterinarians placed at every abattoir are there to observe procedure, oversee welfare and report problems. Yet a single vet cannot be everywhere in the abattoir at once, and it has been shown too often that the official figures for incidents of mistreatment or equipment misuse do not tally with the findings of independent charities such as Animal Aid, whose secretly-filmed footage revealed the horrific consequences if and when the system fails. Such images cannot be unseen, once seen, and they were instrumental in prompting a House of Commons debate early last year on the question of whether CCTV should be installed throughout all UK slaughterhouses. At the same time, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee published a dozen recommendations around the installation of cameras and the examination of footage, adding that:

government, the slaughter industry and the rest of the food chain [should] collaborate on research to establish scientifically, and quantify if applicable, whether the presence of CCTV and the systematic viewing and review of CCTV footage in line with recommended consistent industry protocols will achieve the full potential benefits we foresee in terms of good operator practice and animal welfare.

While all of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food-accredited slaughterhouses are required to have CCTV in place and Animal Aid continue their campaign for cameras to be universal, it is not clear what action has been taken in respect of the FAWC’s recommendations.

The farming success stories featured on the Feeding Body and Soul blog are living proof of the power and potential of supreme welfare standards and skilled butchery in the production of high-quality meat. There is incontrovertible evidence that grass-fed beef is better for human health and for the environment than beef raised on other feed types such as soy, maize or brewers’ waste. Farms such as Gazegill, Field House and Swillington Organic, with their on-site butcheries and shops, are committed to raising their livestock in the most responsible way possible and to treating the resulting meat with care and respect. For these producers, at least, meat is a matter of confidence and pride once more. As a non-vegetarian, I honestly believe that each of us has a responsibility, both intellectual and emotional, to ensure that the meat we eat comes from as sustainable a source as possible and that our role as consumers should extend to questioning every link in the food chain.

We cannot assume that all abattoirs are failing our expectations. And we naturally expect farmers to be highly concerned over the possibility of a breakdown in welfare standards in their livestock’s last moments and to take what steps they can against it. Yet I am curious to know more about the practicalities and the principles involved in arranging to send animals for slaughter. I have challenged Walter to ask these questions of the producers he meets, but they are also questions for the entire meat industry, for our leaders and policymakers and, ultimately, for ourselves.

© New Moons For Old, 2016

Originally published as a guest post on the Feeding Body and Soul blog.

The image featured shows Barkaway’s butcher’s shop in Plaxtol in the early 20th century © Plaxtol Local History Group

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