What’s your beef?

Allman Fowler and his family, of Burnham-on-Crouch run one of a vanishingly small numbers of small independent abattoirs in East Anglia. Here he talks about the trials and tribulations involved in keeping it going

WHEN Sarah asked me to write a short article about Fowler Brothers Ltd and the problems we encounter in running our wholesale butcher’s business I thought the best way to start would be to give a brief history of our company.

My father Richard, who was a master butcher, instigated the formation of Fowler Brothers in 1966. Initially the company consisted of three butcher’s shops, run by my three elder brothers, situated in East London, Wickford and Latchingdon, together with a small meat wholesale depot. In the early 1970s, they purchased the abattoir where we are currently situated, and gradually developed the business. Major milestones encountered during that time include gaining our EC licence, which consisted of a huge investment in the mid nineties amidst the BSE crisis and then foot and mouth outbreaks. Both these events brought our business to a complete standstill but somehow we came through it.

Our business is now made up from the abattoir together with an on-site butcher’s shop and catering business, which is run by my eldest brother Kevin and we have recently obtained planning permission to extend and remodel the shop. My other two brothers divide their duties; Kelvin runs the office and transport while Lodge handles day-to-day sales.

The meat business, on a small scale like ours, is a tough physical job. We load lorries from 5.30am carrying quarters of beef and pig carcasses on our shoulders, and cutting meat to customers’ requirements and then delivering them to high street butcher’s shops. There are not many of us left doing the job in carcase form but it’s the best way for quality meat. Whilst the lorries are out, the slaughtering process gets under way. We have a small team of skilled slaughter men who have many years’ experience and take great pride in their work.

Running a small abattoir, like any other business, presents many challenges. These include rising diesel, gas and electricity costs, bad debt plus increasing beef and lamb prices. This has put pressure on everyone in the supply chain; on the face of it higher livestock prices are good for farmers, but beef farmers in particular are having to deal with higher costs to replace stock. Currently, pig farmers are also suffering with cheap foreign pork imports, often with misleading labelling, implying the purchaser has bought British meat. In addition, the red tape we encounter appears to become more burdensome each year, stifling small businesses. I am a believer in independent meat inspection. However, we have the Food Standards Agency to contend with, and they govern the inspection service. They seem intent on foisting huge price rises on us in the coming years, which will obviously have a detrimental affect on us and has the potential to make it unviable for us to continue trading. It could be a case of biting the hand that feeds you.

On the positive side, being part of a small business can be very rewarding. We have a loyal and hard-working team, some of whom I have had the pleasure to work alongside most of my working life. Apart from my three brothers and nephew Glen, we have other family members who work for the company and some in reserve for exceptional circumstances!