The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a change in the dynamic of the food supply chain which may offer a lifeline to smaller abattoirs.
The challenges of running an abattoir and keeping it profitable have been well documented in recent months.
Andrew Clarke is the managing director of H.G. Blake, an independent multi-species abattoir near Norwich.
He also farms and owns two butcher’s shops in partnership with his family and wife, Hayley.
Mr Clarke said: “At the start of the pandemic demand for meat was unbelievable as supermarket shelves emptied and consumers shopped at local butchers.
“When supermarkets restocked we expected the bubble to burst, but it did not. Retail sales in our butcher’s shops has doubled, although it has eased off slightly in the last month.
“The catering side did suffer, but is starting to come back as outlets reopen. I do have some concerns, though, about when the furlough scheme comes to an end.
“People seem much more interested in the provenance of their food and I think they have realised how much better quality meat from a butcher is and the fact that it is better value.
“The major problem facing abattoirs is operating costs, which make those processing a small number of animals unviable as many of these are the same as for bigger businesses.
“A big part of this is the required staff – a vet and Food Standards Agency personnel as well as investing in keeping facilities up-to-date and complying with accreditation bodies and ever increasing regulation such as the requirement to install CCTV.
“Sourcing staff can be a problem, although there is serious money to be earned in meat processing for skilled staff, but the industry in general needs to invest in more training and promotion of the opportunities available.
“There is also the massive increase in the cost of waste disposal and the fact that hides and skins now have no value drives operating costs up and, unless there is the throughput to cover this, it is impossible to remain profitable and is why small abattoirs struggle.
“We do not supply any supermarkets. I prefer to negotiate price, not be told what it will be. So we supply independent butchers, farm shops, high end caterers and restaurants nationwide and we pay our farmers suppliers a fair price through good times and bad.”
The demise of small, local abattoirs has particularly impacted on those farmers and retailers wanting to kill small numbers of animals, if larger abattoirs are not prepared to take them.
Mr Clarke added: “We do private kills for farmers and smallholders. No customer is too small – we will take one or two pigs or whatever anyone needs slaughtering and it is important that the abattoirs which do remain continue to offer this type of service.”
Communication with farmer suppliers is important so that each party understands the others requirements.
Mr Clarke said: “I often get asked what is the best breed for eating quality, but apart from the extreme leaner breeds, it is not about breed but about how they are looked after and fed.
“Personally, I think cattle are better finished on cereal which gives the meat tenderness, softness and marbling. Most of our farmer suppliers will give cattle a season at grass and then finish inside.
“We prefer not to slaughter cattle straight off grass as the fat is too yellow. We are also slaughtering cattle younger than we did years ago, usually from 16-20 months.
“Ideally, I want a 280kg to 350kg carcase which is a good O+ or R grade.
“What I want in a carcase, is length as that is where the value cuts are. I do not really want U and E grades as the back end is too big and bigger joints are hard to sell and it is difficult to find alternative jobs for those cuts such as topside.
“There is a big increase in demand native bred cattle which is good news for farmers as they are usually easier to manage and have lower production costs than some of the continental breeds and are ideal for smallholders.
“For our own shops, I prefer cattle out of native breeds by a Limousin bull which gives you the best of both worlds and of the continental breeds I think the Simmental has the best marbling.
“The events of recent months have seen a real change in consumer’s perception of food and meat in particular, and I hope that the whole of the farming and meat industry can build on that to create a more sustainable future for all of us.”