Rural Notes 10

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Recent weeks have seen the country shocked by a horse meat scandal and staggered by the scale of it. From the earliest revelation last month that some Tesco Value burgers had been ‘contaminated’ with Irish horse meat, we moved rapidly to learn that virtually no supermarket (Waitrose excepted) had any understanding (or care?) about the constituents of any of their processed or ready-made beef products. The same bewildering disregard applies to food procurement departments in schools, hospitals and military bases up and down the country.

I fear this reveals something fundamentally flawed in our relationship with the food we eat and the ways we choose to buy it. Food is vital to us all, and there is now no doubt that the quality of our diet plays a pivotal role in determining the quality of our health. The United Kingdom has an agriculture industry which produces food to the highest standards imaginable. I am sure that fruit and vegetable producers are subject to rigorous checks and tests, but as a vet involved in the meat industry I know this to be the case with livestock production.

The breadth of diligence is staggering, and begins at birth, with every new born calf being ear tagged with a permanent and unique identification number which it will keep throughout its life. This is immediately recorded on a national database and is cross referenced to ensure that at appropriate intervals, the animal is tested for diseases such as Tb. Any medicines ever given to the animal must be recorded and there are very strict regulations ensuring that animals cannot be slaughtered for consumption until appropriate time has passed following medication to clear from the body. These regulations are backed up by random abattoir testing for medicine residues. At all times the paperwork accompanies the animal and is sufficiently robust that butchers are able to identify their produce down to individual animals on individual farms. There is a further tier of scrutiny which then takes place at the abattoir, with vets performing inspections of the live animals and professional meat inspectors working under the vets to provide physical checks for signs of disease or ill health which would preclude carcases from entering the food chain.

Rigorous statutory hygiene regulations are observed throughout the process from abattoir through the transportation chain and up to and including the butcher. The levels of scrutiny are designed to be high and comprehensive. Back on the farm, East Lothian cattle are almost exclusively beef and the standard of animal husbandry employed throughout the county is, without exception, of the highest quality. There is wide uptake of government supported health monitoring schemes and virtually universal use of appropriate vaccinations and wormers to maximise herd health. The ambient micro climate of the county gives unusually extended grazing seasons meaning the cattle are winter housed for the shortest periods possible, enjoying fresh air and grass for much more of the year than the national average. The pastures grazed are tended and fertilized and appropriate mineral supplements are given to maximise health. Every one of our farms employ diligent stockmanship with the whole herd checked daily, seven days a week, all year round.

All of this represents an investment in the health and welfare of the animals concerned. None of this however is cost free, and the consequence is that home produced meat, processed locally and delivered to local butchers cannot be regarded as a cheap food. Not for the first time, Politicians have confused price with value for money and have created a monster. The so called Cheap Food Policy much vaunted during the Tony Blair era left British farmers at a huge disadvantage as the quality of their product has significant costs which need to be recouped for their businesses to be profitable. It will surprise few, that major players such as the supermarkets have used their size and strength to squeeze their suppliers, to the point where they have had to look abroad for their product, often all too readily towards countries where the standards of health, hygiene, welfare and regulatory scrutiny are but a shadow of the UK’s. For better or worse, EC membership results in free movement of trade goods, including meat. I imagine everyone else has been as surprised as I am by the tales of how far some of the contaminated meat supplies have travelled from their East European slaughter houses to their West European production factories.

Meat has been treated by some companies as a commodity, but it is much more. Locally, it is a produce, which dedicated farmers virtually craft to create, investing time, effort and money to achieve the highest quality with the highest safety standards. This comes at a cost but locally sourced quality meat, be it beef, lamb, pork or whatever, is still terrific value. The multi- pack of processed burgers selling for under £1 might be cheap, but it’s not necessarily good value. There now exists a great opportunity for the public to vote with their shopping baskets and to send a clear message to the retail trade that what is wanted is good safe quality meat, such as that produced on our doorstep. The county is spoiled with some great local butchers who offer fresh local produce, and a great Farmers Market in Haddington every month. If we support these businesses we support our local farms too and we gain peace of mind that we are purchasing a quality product, fully fit for consumption.

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group