The British Game Alliance (BGA) appointed its new chief executive Liam Stokes in July. Abi Kay spoke to him to find out what his priorities are for the sector.
New BGA chief executive Liam Stokes is a man on a modernising mission.
Since taking the reins this summer, his focus has been on handling the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has left the future for the industry after the shooting season in some doubt.
But he remains determined in the longer term to move the game meat sector away from its old-fashioned image and towards a more business-minded future.
He said: “There are some very successful commercial game processors, but taken as a whole sector, from egg to plate, game meat has remained quite traditional and not commercially-facing.
“Game shooting has not historically focused on its role as providing a food commodity to be sold to the public, but that is what it does, so we need to modernise and behave accordingly.”
Though Mr Stokes acknowledges there is a need to modernise the sector, he rejects the idea that game meat has an image problem associated with shooting.
“The image problem, in my experience, is it is massively inaccessible in terms of cooking,” he said.
“People see it on the menu in a pub and choose it because someone else has cooked it. But buying it to take home and prepare is where you have the biggest obstacle to overcome.
“We want to help people to take that first step, which is about getting as far away as we can from that scary bird in feather hanging in a brace on the gate.
“We need to get to a place where people can whip it out of a packet.”
As part of this plan to make game more accessible, the BGA has been working hard on improving its assurance scheme.
The latest set of independently audited standards are far more detailed than those which were in place previously, and cover everything from release through to handling the game.
Several game farms have already signed up to the scheme, despite some issues with Covid-19 shutting down the ability to send out auditors.
Members are able to access the only accredited mycoplasma test, a pathogen which causes upper respiratory disease in game birds.
And a handful of major processors, including the largest, Lincolnshire Game, are now only collecting game birds from BGA-assured shoots.
But Mr Stokes has higher hopes still for the scheme, and wants it to be on a par with Red Tractor in terms of recognition.
“The end game is to have as many game farms as possible supplying as many shoots as possible and to have a kite mark,” he said.
“The kite mark is beginning to go on to BGA produce at the moment. Our goal is to have a kite mark which is as recognised as Red Tractor in terms of traceability and sustainability of harvest.
“Obviously it is a bit different to Red Tractor, but it is broadly the same thing when it comes to welfare and safety in handling the meat.”
Mr Stokes is clear, however, that the BGA is not holding up game as an alternative to other British meat.
Instead, he wants to tell the story of how game can fit into the wider picture of sustainable eating.
“I hope we can show the public this is a meat which is local and traceable, and it can contribute to meeting some of the environmental pressures farmers are under,” he said.
“We know farms which have shoots on them tend to have more trees, more hedgerows and more coppices by virtue of having a game shoot.
“This is something people can have on their menus alongside British beef, British lamb and other British meat.”
Mr Stokes is also taking this collegiate approach to lobbying the Government, getting the BGA added to key Defra groups and working with other commodity groups and representative organisations for the first time.
“We need to step out of our bubble and get closer to other meat bodies,” he said.
“If we are talking about 25 million game birds each year compared to a billion chickens, we are pretty small beer, but I still want to be in those conversations.
“A lot of the issues are very similar. If the poultry industry finds there is a problem with, for example, access to shavings for bedding during the pandemic, the game sector needs to be in the room with those organisations to say ‘that is a problem for us too’.
“That cross-pollination of information is something I do not think we have had access to and it has caused problems in the past.
“Being added to the Defra groups has been really valuable and hopefully will be useful to our members, processors and producers.”