By Jonathan Roberts
Being no stranger to a late night kebab, it came as no surprise when I received a gloating text message from my Mum – ‘well it serves you right, what did you think was in it?!’
It was in many ways a fair response to the news that horsemeat has entered our food chain. It was a response I inherited when, during the height of the furore, I received a leaflet through my door from a well-known supermarket, advertising, among other things, Findus lasagne for 99p. Quality beef it was unlikely to be.
But, as we all know, the issue is more about labeling. To the Labour Government’s credit, significant advancements have been made in the past decade in how food is presented – most noticeably through the invention of the traffic light system to highlight fat, sugar and salt content. We have rightly become accustomed to knowing what is in our food, so when beef is the only meat on the label, we expect it to only contain beef.
Elsewhere, whilst the horsemeat scandal was yet to be uncovered, our nations farmers have been struggling to survive during some of the wettest years on record. Taking good care of livestock has become a daily battle, as saturated land made grazing impossible, and the price of manufactured feed rocketed. With calf registrations down significantly, and 24% of farmers already on the poverty line, cattle producers have for a while needed a major boost.
Simultaneously, greengrocers and fishmongers have all but disappeared from the High Street, and the trusted local butchers have survived only by the skins of their teeth. In the 1990s there were as many as 22000 independent butcher shops. Now, there are fewer than 7000. But in corners of many rural communities, butchers are managing to survive through intelligent diversification and product development (one of my butchers in Thirsk, as it happens, sells its own lasagne).
So, what do these three issues have in common?
Jack White, of Croft and Squires butchers in Ferrybridge said this week “It’s hard to put a figure on it, but we are definitely seeing more people through the door”. Well the Guild of Butchers can put a figure on it – reporting a 20% increase in overall sales, and a 30% increase in sales of mince.
Since the horsemeat scandal broke, Butchers across the country have been doing a roaring trade. And so they should be. Meat from your local butchers has full traceability. In most cases, your butcher will be able to name the farmer who reared the meat on sale – they will be business partners and, quite probably, friends, working together to feed the local community.
The farmer, the butcher, and quite possibly your local restaurants and pubs, are in essence living up to Labour values of community, cooperation and fair trade – a boast larger retailers can rarely make.
Whilst no-one should take delight in the food-chain scandal, Labour should at least take the opportunity to champion the efforts of our farmers and small, independent retailers.
I know not everyone will be able to afford to visit their butchers (cheap food is popular because many people are struggling to make ends meet), but there are many who can – hence why, according to a poll by Consumer Intelligence 62% are now more likely to buy meat from an independent butcher after the collapse in trust for well known brands.
I call on the Shadow Cabinet to use the current media climate to vocally promote our farmers and butchers. We must champion the fact that our farmers work to some of the most stringent food and welfare standards anywhere in the world, and work incredibly hard in difficult conditions to produce top quality food that can be trusted. We should show that we are on their side – that we understand them, that we share their values.
Whilst the large food brands have let us down, our local producers are delivering for Britain with integrity and ingenuity. We should be the party of the farm and market place, as well as the factory and city. For too long farmers and small rural retailers have felt that we do not understand them. This is our chance to change that perception – we must seize it.