Two years ago, I enrolled on a butchery course. I rather fancied seeing how the sausage was made, and also envisaged taking home handsome pork chops and having an ‘in’ when I needed to order my Christmas turkey. But the amateur course was no longer offered by my local college. So instead of a four-week, two-hour evening course, I signed up for a year-long Level 2 NVQ in craft butchery that involved a lot more anatomical theory and hairnets than I had anticipated.
Butchery work is physically demanding — I wasn’t made for carrying beef forequarters over my shoulder — and comes with the usual risks of a job involving knives and saws. It can be smelly and messy and bloody. It can also be hugely satisfying, but it is definitely not glamorous.
I was one of only two students when I started. The class accommodated up to 12 (and used to be consistently full), but there has been a huge decrease in trained butchers over the past 20 years. Very few supermarkets have in-house butchers, while the growth of supermarkets has driven many butcher’s shops from the high street. The prices at which supermarkets sell meat mean that, in order to compete with the giants, butchers’ wages are extremely low for a highly skilled position.
The national shortage of butchers has now made front-page news: it took jeopardising the Great British Christmas and a potential shortage of pigs-in–blankets to focus our collective minds. Like most supply–chain crises, the issue is complicated. The past few months have seen acute problems compounding existing ones: most recently, the shortage of slaughtermen has created a huge backlog of animals awaiting killing, as has the shortage of butchers to prepare meat for customers. The British Meat Processors Association estimates that the industry is 15,000 workers short, so demand is high for these jobs but not enough people have the skills to do them. The result? A cull of thousands of pigs has begun, their carcasses burnt or buried. Some 120,000 pigs are now awaiting the same fate.
There are immediate welfare concerns for these pigs, kept in cramped conditions and getting bigger by the day. Farmers have warned that on-farm culls may be necessary. And with such a logjam of produce, the pigs can’t be processed sufficiently quickly.
‘We are within a couple of weeks of having to consider a mass cull of animals,’ said Rob Mutimer, chair of the National Pig Association. Mutimer blamed the crisis on an exodus of foreign workers caused by a combination of post-Brexit immigration rules and shifting pandemic restrictions.
The situation has been worsened by the CO2 shortage, since CO2 is used to stun the animals before slaughter. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng responded with temporary exemptions on competition law for the industry, enabling companies to work together to manage supply. Some have also mooted a system of temporary visas for the meat industry, to save our Christmas dinners. But opinion in government is split and it’s hard to imagine many workers travelling across Europe for a few weeks’ low-paid work.
In any case, it’s clear that this is not just a short-term problem and the meat industry as a whole could do with new ideas. If we want more butchers, we need to make butchery a viable career choice. We need to invest in proper training, and give people confidence that there will be work year-round and for the long-term. Our food choices matter, too: cheap supermarket meat, processed in factories by workers who cut the same joint all day, is a very different proposition to meat bought cut to order in a local butcher’s shop. The skills are not cross-applicable. Which do we care about saving?
There is some hope for the industry. A relatively new government apprenticeship scheme is encouraging a wider range of butchers into the profession. Ray Humm ran butcher’s shops for 35 years before switching to training others (including me) in the craft. ‘We are definitely getting more women going into the trade,’ he tells me. Almost half of his current class are now women, which would have been unheard of a few years ago. The industry is starting to accept women, who have ‘as much skill, if not more finesse, than men’.
During lockdown, many of us rediscovered the pleasure of shopping locally and visiting our local butcher’s shops. But if we want to preserve the skill of butchery, we need to encourage more people to become butchers. Turkeys aren’t just for Christmas.
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