Caring where it comes from

AS I dragged my wife unwillingly into the meat and poultry section of an upmarket retailer, I not only sensed her extreme annoyance at leaving behind the wonderful array of chocolates in the confectionery department but also felt my own disappointment when I saw row upon row of brightly coloured labels that represented the vast array of French chicken on display.

I had to look hard for the English chicken at the back of the cabinet as they were completely outnumbered by their French counterparts resembling soldiers fighting a last stand in a Napoleonic infantry battle. I had always thought that this particular retailer was proud to be part of the British establishment but obviously not where poultry is concerned. Does anyone really care about the UK livestock producer any more?

Probably not is the answer.

It seems that only a very small minority of British restaurant goers are prepared to establish the provenance of the meat and poultry on their menu. I belong to that small minority and even if I have no intention of eating the chicken I will usually ask the question at the risk of embarrassing my wife and enduring the rest of the meal in stony silence. Usually the answers are meaningless and vary from “I think it’s English chicken “or “we buy from a local butcher so they (the chicken) must be locally produced”.

In France, it’s almost universally accepted that restaurant owners will acknowledge their producers in the frontispiece of their menus. According to the British Poultry Council, the UK is currently importing between 40% and 45% of its chicken requirements which represents a huge number of takeaways and meals out!

A recent decision by Morrisons to move away from stocking 100% fresh British poultry meat which has been described as “extremely disappointing” by the National Farmers’ Union will only exacerbate these figures.

If the livestock farmer is feeling the pain because of astronomical increases in the price of animal feed then spare a thought for the processor who is responsible for converting the live animal into the finished product that we see on the shelves of our local supermarkets, butchers and farm shops.

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The processor is audited by the Food Standards Agency which is responsible for enforcing the plethora of protocols and red tape that disseminates from Brussels. Perhaps the hardest task faced by the processor is trying to resolve the impossible dilemma of paying the producer a fair price for the live animal whilst trying to achieve a reasonable return from the marketplace.

The Dutch company Vion, one of the largest integrated chicken producers in the UK, has just announced losses of �37million on a turnover of �1.1billion and said in its press release that relationships between suppliers and their large customers were “very different” here than on the continent. Only recently has the Dairy Industry made some progress on milk prices after naming and shaming those supermarkets that were not prepared to pay their milk producers a fair price.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? The answer is not that different from that given by the Governor of the Bank of England when referring to the economic downturn: “We still have some way to go before we see an improvement in the situation”.

In my humble view we still have a long way to go before the consumer even begins to realise where our meat and poultry comes from.