Sustainable Butchery? by Jessica Wragg

The Amazon rainforest is burning, and to all of us it looks as though we might be in the midst of an apocalypse. The blazes, which started in the last week of August, are still going strong as I write this and although they might be under some kind of control, they’re yet to stop. The reasoning is foggy, yet somewhere in the whispers of the press, in the cries of animal rights activists is this: the fire was started by cattle farmers. Cattle ranchers are to blame for setting the trees alight to make space to farm beef, which they struggle to do outside of the rainforest. 

So, what happened to the meat industry’s drive for sustainability? What happened to the whole carcass, nose-to-tail, free-range British, eat-less-meat-and-better-quality argument?

It never existed to begin with.

Our road to ethical eating can’t begin if we’re not being supplied with the goods. Although the vast majority of our population still buy and consume meat from industrial farms and large producers,  smaller, independent butcheries promised us responsibly sourced steak and free-range chicken. We buy it and we cook it and we trust the word of the butchers behind the counter, and of the larger company message. 

I left the meat industry five months ago. Not forever; it wasn’t a sad goodbye. In truth I was left without a job and decided not to go for another. It was time to take a break for a little while, whilst I gathered my thoughts and concentrated on my first book coming out. I swore to myself that it would have been a shame to waste that time working 60-hour weeks and being too exhausted to care about promotions or articles or interviews. The last five months were the best decision I ever made. I’ve been working in butchery since I was 16 and this is the longest time I’d ever had off. It gave me pause to think. 

Every butchery I’ve worked for has promised an ethical alternative to mass-produced, cage-reared, never-see-the-light-of-day animals. There’s been dry-ageing beef – not just to 28 days but sometimes to 45 and further. There’s been chickens reared to three times the age of the ones you might buy from Tesco or Sainsbury’s, with a depth of flavour like no other and succulent, fatty meat beneath the skin. They’ve gotten rid of plastic bags in a bid to care for the environment, and told the stories of the exact farm and location and even the farmer’s name from whom they buy their pork and lamb. Each one has been a pioneer in the trade, and each one a notable name around London and country-wide. 

But each one has failed when it comes to transparency. Whole carcass butchery is, when you really boil it down, difficult to profit from. One customer who wants five ribeye steaks of 300g each will take a quarter of a carcass of beef. One rack of lamb is half that on a carcass, and more people will buy racks than they will shoulder or shanks. Each popular cut is bound to leave you with a surplus of others. 

The way around this is to buy in boxed. Everyone does it. The larger processing plants around the country cater to the demand of butchers and customers, who might need 40kg of one certain cut compared to 10kg of another. They manage to balance it and will always find home for the other. 

The trouble comes when a customer asks where the beef comes from. In a box of 20kg, it’s almost impossible to tell where a singular, 300g piece of onglet will come from. Although the piece will have come from a factory that selects rare and native breeds, there’s only so many in the country and we can’t have that same supply all of the time. Yet still we’re of the understanding that we’re buying from those cattle, even though deep down we know it’s impossible.

The fact is, we can’t be ethical carnivores until we just eat less meat. Only then will there be a supply of rare, ethically reared and responsibly sourced beef, pork and lamb to go around. Will that happen? It looks doubtful. 

As a butcher, it’s my job to sell you the best produce that’s been cut down in the best way. It’s not my job to tell you that you shouldn’t be purchasing this much, or that you should try another cut that’s similar but altogether cheaper. That makes no sense for the profits of a business or for a customer. The only thing it makes sense for is our health and the environment. 

And that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the last five months. I left a job I loved with some complications, and wondered if I should jump straight into another. I didn’t, as it happened. I left the meat industry out of my mind for that time, only pausing to wonder how I could go forward in an industry I loved and had given me so much, whilst still knowing what I know about supply. I decided the only way to do it was to write more. To raise awareness, to give talks and answer questions and speak my opinions clearly. Eleven years has given me a lot to talk about. 

And then, maybe when we start to change our attitudes and our eating habits, maybe I’ll get back behind the counter. We need to make a change, and we need to make it fast. We need to hear voices of women and men, young and old, and that change needs to be accessible to all. Good, healthy meat that isn’t pumped full of hormones and antibiotics shouldn’t just be an achievable meal to the wealthy. 

So for now, ‘sustainable’ butcheries are not for me. Sustainable should mean something to the company and to the butchers and to the customer. Sustainable should not mean the Amazon rainforest should burn. 

Jessica WraggNatalia Ribbe