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Why butchers are calling on Brits to buy less meat

BY Joseph Phelan

30th Sep 2022 Food Heroes

Why butchers are calling on Brits to buy less meat

Butchers are urging people to choose quality meat cuts over quantity as they fight to keep their industry alive—but as living costs rise, is it too much to ask?

It’s common knowledge that both veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise across the UK.

Studies suggest around ten per cent of the country now refers to themselves as vegetarian, while three per cent say they’re vegan—when combined, that equates to around 9 million people.

Whether in a bid to save the planet or for ethical or health reasons, millions of people are either cutting down on how much meat they consume, or removing it from their diet altogether.

And now lovers of plant-based food have an unexpected ally.

Butchers, whose entire living relies on people buying meat products, are calling on the public to reduce the amount of meat they buy.

In an attempt to encourage shoppers to select premier meat over cheap supermarket cuts, and to choose quality British products over low-cost imports, butchers around the country are echoing a “less but better” message.

London-based The Ginger Pig is one of the butchers leading the charge, but they’re by no means alone. Charlotte’s Butchery, based near Newcastle, has also been very vocal about the need for people to limit their meat consumption both to benefit the environment and to support British farmers.

But, with the cost of living crisis starting to bite, can people really afford to choose quality over quantity? And, if not, could British butchers—and the farmers that supply them—be facing a bleak future?

The problem with meat-based diets

Crowd of cows stand together in fieldAgriculture, and especially farming cattle, is a huge contributor of greenhouse gases as well as land and biodiversity loss

“This is something we’ve been talking about at The Ginger Pig for decades. We feel very strongly about it,” Megan Hallinan, Senior Marketing Manager at Ginger Pig, tells Reader’s Digest. “We’ve always encouraged a flexitarian approach, and it’s something all butchers should be taking into consideration.”

The idea of butchers encouraging the consumption of less meat seems, initially, rather unusual—but it’s a mindset that is becoming increasingly popular.

“It does appear to sound completely contradictory in terms of what makes sense for business,” admits Charlotte Mitchell, owner of Charlotte’s Butchery.

“However, the meat industry is not quite as straightforward as five-year plans, profit and loss, economic growth and turnover. In a world where meat-eaters are criticised and veganism is on the rise, it’s sensible for meat retailers to do their bit.”

"In a world where veganism is on the rise, it’s sensible for meat retailers to do their bit"

Human activities are putting huge pressure on our planet’s fragile environment. Various industries are guilty of emitting greenhouse gasses, and agriculture is no exception.

In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that “agriculture is directly responsible for up to eight-and-a-half per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, with a further 14.5 per cent coming from land use change.”

This is, of course, a global problem, but hosts of butchers across Britain are pro-actively attempting to catalyse positive change.

Less is more: Butchers for conscious consumption

Two butchers cut meat at butcher shop counterButchers more often rely on locally sourced meat, which means the meat they sell has fewer food miles than supermarket produce

Butchers are doing all they can to minimise their own impact, to develop supply chains that are eco-conscious, to eradicate all types of unnecessary waste, and to promote the idea that choosing quality over quantity is not just desirable, but necessary.

“We are all about customers buying and eating the best quality meat. The cost of producing meat has risen significantly, due to factors such as cost of animal feed, energy and transport etc. Additionally, the general cost of living for the consumer means it’s only logical that people are going to buy less meat,” Hallinan points out.

“We’re in a very fortunate position,” Hallinan adds. “As both farmers and retailers, we [at The Ginger Pig] could see this coming, and have subsequently been planning and encouraging this shift in attitude towards consuming less meat for some time.

"Sustainability is key for us as a business. As such, we’re all about our customers buying top quality meat which we source from the very best farmers around the country.

“Our emphasis is on using the whole animal carcass, which means less wastage, less transportation costs and pollution, and is better for both the environment and the consumer.

"We’ve heard whispers about some of the big supermarkets saying they will raise animals to a younger age before slaughter, to reduce the methane produced per animal. For us, this doesn't make sense. We grow our animals to full maturity, resulting in less breeding and a smaller environmental impact.”

"If you support a local butcher, it usually means that the food miles are low"

Mitchell has a very similar outlook.

Butchers hate waste,” she says. “Food miles are a really big thing, and if you support a local butcher, it usually means that the food miles are low, and they are providing work for the local area.

She continues, "I believe people should continue to shop locally where they can. It all feeds back into our local areas and communities. Businesses need to work together and support each other as best they can."

This is certainly the view held by Gareth Stevenson, head chef at Palé Hall, one of the UK’s most revered restaurants not just because of the quality of its food, but because of Stevenson’s approach to sustainability.

Indeed, in 2021 Palé Hall was awarded Wales’ first ever Michelin Green Star, largely due to Stevenson’s obsession with doing things better.

“Businesses that don’t prioritise a sustainable, local-first approach to operating are, to all intents and purposes, living in the past,” Stevenson says. “They’re not looking at the reality of the world we live in.

“Buying locally and cultivating mutually beneficial relationships is important in terms of benefiting the environment, bolstering local economies, and prioritising quality, seasonal food. Some of the best produce in the world is found just a few miles from Palé Hall’s front door, so why wouldn’t we use it?”

For Britain’s farmers, Stevenson’s words will be greatly welcomed. According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), food producers are now faced with the most severe challenges in a generation due to the combination of a depleted workforce, rising operation costs, Brexit-related export/import hurdles, supply chain disruption, and unpredictable weather.

Many of Britain’s farmers are mired in difficulties not of their own making, and if their businesses are to survive—and ultimately thrive—they will likely need to rely on more people to adopt a mindset similar to the one embraced by Stevenson, Hallinan and Mitchell.

Planet vs budgets: The impact of the cost-of-living

Raw sirloin steak on wooden slab in kitchenButchers say that cutting back on meat and enjoying the occasional quality meat cut instead can help reduce grocery costs

Of course, the cost of living crisis, which is expected to get worse before things start to get better, is constantly lurking in the background of all decision-making processes.

People are finding that they have less disposable income and that the prices of day-to-day products are on the rise. This, coupled with widespread economic uncertainty, means they are unwilling to spend excessively.

Many are being compelled to consider whether choosing quality over quantity is, in the current climate, a viable option.

However, both Hallinan and Mitchell are confident that, despite the country’s financial woes, higher-grade produce still has a large audience, and people will choose a “less is better” approach even during periods of financial difficulty.

“There will always be a time and a place for meat purchased from the supermarket, and meat purchased from a butcher like The Ginger Pig,” Hallinan notes. “Our customers are, thankfully, continuing to buy from us at the same rate, showing the desire for quality product and variety.

“We know that many people will buy meat from the supermarkets for lots of reasons, but there are lots of points of difference between supermarkets and butchers.

"In particular, it’s important to talk about range, especially when thinking about cost of living and being able to buy quality meat. Butchers such as The Ginger Pig can simply offer a bigger variety of cuts than most supermarkets.”

"Many of my customers have said that they would rather pay more and have less"

This is a point strongly supported by Mitchell.

“Convenience is a huge part of modern life. Many people just do not have time to think about supporting a lot of local businesses. However, many of my customers have said that they would rather pay more and have less. People want quality over quantity.”

Mitchell also believes the cost of living crisis could, to some extent, work in the favour of butchers and other businesses that produce superior products and, additionally, take the time to build personal, one-to-one relationships with customers.

“People are starting to look at value for money and the experience they are getting every time they spend,” she says. “We care very much for our customer base and for the products we sell.”

However, ultimately, Mitchell notes that her desire to embrace sustainability, and to encourage more people to eat less meat where possible, is embedded in her moral philosophy.

“I feel that, as someone who works in the food industry, I am duty-bound to try and be as ethical as much as economically viable,” she concludes.

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