Butchers having to adapt to meet customers’ demands

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Independent butchers in our area have survived the supermarket surge of the past 40 years better than most other parts of the UK.

Significantly, those still in business have had to change, adapt and innovate to meet changing demand from customers. One example was brought home when chatting to a butcher. He said that 30 years ago he could sell meat from 13 or 14 lambs a week. Now it is three or four with much more of his trade in chicken and pork. It’s one thing to read that lamb consumption is declining steadily, another to find the local angle that it’s down two thirds.

Red meat retail sales in the UK were down 7.9% in England in the past year. In Scotland they were down 3.6%. A slower decline can only be cold comfort, but Quality Meat Scotland have suggested that many of the now-familiar products in butchers’ shops and supermarkets such as marinated chicken and lamb, sausages, burgers, and ready meals are not included in red meat sales. If they were, red meat sales would be shown as half as big again, so there is hope for livestock farmers.

It would be interesting to see a butcher’s window of 30 years ago with its basic cuts plus mince and sausages alongside the way meat is now displayed not only as cuts, but in marinated, curried, peppered, and many another inventive form. Some of that has been driven by supermarket ready meals and competition, but I like to think that much of it comes from high street butchers knowing their customers and talking to them. A friendly, interested, manner, willingness to cut meat to a customer’s specification and advice on how to cook it – if asked for - can still sell a lot of meat in a small town.

There have been other reminders that getting meat from farm to table is never easy and not only farmers and butchers have had to adapt. More than one meat company has gone bust recently deep in debt to auction marts. A bit like a gambler desperately going double or quits marts have continued to extend credit in spite of rumours in the forlorn hope that all will come good. With legal action here and there it is also clear that backhanders still play a part in the wheeling and dealing end of the meat trade, plus an obvious need for tighter financial control.

There is also the question of what part auction marts will continue to play in sale of animals for slaughter and consumption as opposed to sales of store lambs and calves between farms. Big meat processors are trying to impose penalties on finished cattle that have had more than three changes of farm in their lifetime and sales direct from farm to slaughterhouse are increasing. Harrison and Hetherington’s recent takeover of John Swan & Sons and their St Boswells and Wooler marts suggests that like farming one answer is to get bigger. Immediate action to change the colour of auctioneers’ coats to white has also been noted.