Continuing loss of small abattoirs threatens to destroy local meat marketing

Earlier this year, a report by the Sustainable Food Trust revealed that the UK’s network of small local abattoirs is near collapse. In this blog, Neil Johnson, one of our Food and Farming Advisors, takes a look at how Brexit could exacerbate this continuing trend towards anonymised, mass production of meat in the UK. How can we ensure consumers are able to enjoy high quality, locally produced food?

Highland cattle grazing the National Trust coastline at Cape Cornwall, near St Just, Cornwall. ©National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

If Brexit impact on livestock farmers is to expose them to global market forces with prices set by world supply of mass-produced anonymous commodity, then the UK red meat sector, particularly the producers in the hills, simply cannot compete and will lose – we will never compete on price in a free-trade world, no matter how low we drop our standards (which is something nobody wants to see happen).

In a world where we can only lose in the race to the bottom, an alternative business model is required – and this could be one based on selling the benefits of a better product – one based on quality, safety, environmental benefits, provenance, heritage, health, food miles, locality. Rather than admitting defeat and hormone-injecting our beef and chlorine washing our chicken in the hope it will make us as cheap as the competition, we should focus on giving consumers a credible alternative and selling the benefits to them of buying a better product.

People don’t buy i-phones because they are the cheapest phone on the market, but because they believe they represent the best product available and are worth investing in. Great British Meat needs the same quality-based buying decisions to secure future markets. For this to happen we need two things:

  • A great product, clearly different from the competition – if we are to get beyond the price per kg, we need a great story and to tell it well – be it locally produced, traditional breed, high welfare, environmentally responsible, conservation grazed, grass-fed, high nature farming, organic, healthy fats, or whatever. This goes deeper than just branding (we’ve seen recent moves by major retailers to add an ‘image’ to commodity produce with generic farm name packaging), it’s about genuine difference with credibility and authenticity, not just marketing spin.
  • An accessible, functioning infrastructure for connecting high provenance product to the marketplace. A report from the Sustainable Food Trust finds that the UK’s network of small local abattoirs is near collapse. In 1970 there were almost 1,900 small red meat abattoirs. Now there are 249. The ongoing consolidation of our slaughtering facilities into ever fewer, ever larger sites moves us ever further down the road of anonymised, price-led, commodity mass production, a structure that favours the supermarkets, to the detriment of producers, local butchers and retailers and the consumer. Without urgent action there will be a huge loss of consumer choice because the marketing of locally-produced, traceable meat will no longer be possible in many parts of the country, and our ability to add essential value to our produce as individuals, through local and regional marketing initiatives and as a national industry.

Government has a role to play in securing a future for the red meat industry in the UK, and the benefits it delivers – food security, landscape, diverse grassland habitats, rural economies – and we call on government to take this responsibility seriously.

Part of this will be trade negotiations, market access, quotas and tariffs. Part of this will be about supporting farmers to change their farm business model to generate a profit from farm produce. But it must also include supporting and encouraging the development of infrastructure and capacity that allows the farming industry to develop and supply a domestic market based on high quality, high provenance, valued and supported by local consumers. Produce that industry and consumer alike can be rightly proud of. Our best defence against low cost, low quality produce is producing and supplying a better alternative.

Our response to Defra’s recent Health and Harmony: The future for food, farming and the environment consultation welcomed the importance given in the consultation paper on maintaining high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards. However, we noted the lack of clarity on how this would be achieved in the context of prospective trade deals with countries that have different standards, and the risk our farmers face in being exposed to unfair competition with imported low cost, low standard produce.

Today, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee released their inquiry report into that consultation. It includes several recommendations to address some of these issues – including: a clear statement that trade agreements should always contain provision to prevent food which does not meet UK standards from entering the country; improvement of country of origin product labelling; financial support for farmers to help ensure high standards of animal health and welfare; and the linking of food policy with wider public health goals.

These go so far – and we await, with interest, Defra’s response to the Efra Committee’s report, as well as Defra’s own conclusions from their Health and Harmony consultation, and the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, scheduled to enter Parliament this Autumn.

But meanwhile, take a look the Sustainable Food Trust’s report, which includes a good set of recommendations for positive action, primarily from Government at Westminster and the Devolved Assemblies, to save the smaller abattoir sector, and the vital contribution it makes to this country’s high quality food production.

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