Great British Beef Week: The essential role of local abattoirs

ALTHOUGH 75% of England’s agricultural land is grass, this is not true of East Anglia, which is predominantly arable and traditionally the nation’s bread basket. Some arable farms still have a few livestock on meadows near the house , but most of our cattle and sheep are kept in our beautiful river valleys, saltmarshes and flood meadows. These animals are important for the landscape, since it is their grazing which maintains the grass in good condition and the biodiversity of the grassland habitat. But they are also a valuable economic resource, providing the excellent beef and lamb for which Suffolk has become famous.

In the past, most cattle would have been Suffolk Red Polls which, together with the Suffolk Sheep and the Suffolk Punch Horse, form Suffolk’s iconic ‘trinity’. The Red Poll was established as a breed in 1863 but its ancestors were the extinct aurochs which once roamed wild throughout Europe. As the continental breeds came into fashion, the Red Polls declined but today their numbers are steadily increasing. Red Poll beef can be found in many of our butchers and farm shops, competing with Suffolk-bred Hereford, South Devon, Aberdeen Angus, Highland, Lincoln, Charolais, Limousin, Simmental and a variety of commercial breed crosses, all of which can be seen at their very finest competing at the Suffolk Show.

The beef produced in Suffolk is exceptional and there are several reasons for this. First of all, the quality of meat relates to the way in which the animals are kept. In Suffolk, and generally in the UK, beef animals spend most of their lives out of doors, living off a natural diet of grasses, hay silage and arable by-products, supplemented with limited amounts of concentrates. It has been suggested – and many of us would agree – that it is the grass-based diet that makes the meat taste so good.

Another reason why Suffolk has such good meat is that we still have the necessary infrastructure.

The first essential is the local abattoir, so that animals do not have to travel great distances from farm to abattoir. Long distance travel can be stressful, which in turn makes meat tough, while short journeys mean less stress for the animals, better quality meat and fewer ‘food miles’.

It is the local, medium,-sized, multi-species abattoir (cattle, sheep and pigs) which is the basic requirement for the production of quality local met. The high-volume slaughterhouses, essential for the supermarkets, mass catering and the export trade, cannot cope with small consignments nor give them the individual treatment, which enables farmers to add value by selling their meat as a branded product and diversifying into new markets. These specialist abattoirs, operating to high standards, are the lynch-pin of the local food economy, slaughtering as much as 50% of red meat in this country.

Some counties no longer have a medium-sized, multi-species local abattoir but in Suffolk we are lucky. There is Lamberts, the new, very up-to-date abattoir, on Eye Airfield, and across the border there is Blakes in Norfolk and Fowler Bros in Essex.

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As well as the local abattoir, other critical parts of the food chain are provided by the markets and marketing co-operatives, such as Anglia Quality Meats, by the cutting plants, such as Bramfield Meats and the Wild Meat Company, wholesalers, such as Suffolk Meat Traders and by our many butchers in the market towns and villages. It is their knowledge and skill which ensures that the meat is matured, hung on the bone for several weeks or more and skilfully cut and prepared. Proper maturing is vital, for it is this which allows the meat to become tender and for taste to develop.

In Suffolk we have a very lively local food economy to such an extent that Suffolk is becoming known as a food destination. Livestock are at the heart of it. Butchers depend on quality local meat to differentiate them from the supermarkets. The more discerning pubs, hotels and restaurants also need reliable supplies of quality local meat. Likewise, it is almost impossible to run a farm shop or farmers market without a local meat supply. All depend on this essential infrastructure of abattoir and cutting plant.

Our grazing animals have shaped our countryside. They are the guardians of our landscape. Without them, our grassland would revert to arable or to impenetrable scrub. It is up to us to ensure that they and the landscape survive – by buying Suffolk meat. By doing this we can all make a difference, helping maintain our landscape, our countryside, our livestock farming and our local food economies.