The recent high-profile story concerning the use of horse meat in so-called beef products has highlighted some major concerns for consumers. Naturally, people want to know what they are putting on the table. But beyond that is a broader question – just where is this food sourced from? And who gets to supply our supermarkets with produce?
We’ve become all too familiar with brand names and pack shots, meaning we’ve distanced ourselves from what the ingredients actually might be. Lulled into a false sense of security, we’ve allowed ourselves to be deceived when it comes to buying our meat. In a world of ready-cooked meals and instant food, we’ve come to simply trust what it says ‘on the tin’. Or at least we did, until these recent revelations. Now, we need to consider not just what we purchase, but where it comes from.
What has come to light is just how complex the business is. In striving to offer us ever cheaper food, the supermarket chains have been forced to be ever-more adaptable, always looking for ways to make savings – often exploring options further afield when it comes to sourcing produce. Many suppliers are used across a range of countries, providing raw material for meat products in a way that is unprecedented.
It’s come a long way since the days of the family high street butcher – traditionally, he was the only source of reliable, safe meat. So it is ironic that the dominance of the supermarket pretty much killed off the local butcher shop over the last two decades. Unable to compete with the ever-cheaper pre-packed meat on offer in the supermarkets, butchers were no longer seen as economical for most people.
The trouble is, in wanting meat to be as cheap to purchase as possible, the consumer has had corners cut. In relative terms, meat has never been as cheap to buy as it is these days. In previous generations, high quality meat was seen as something of a luxury, not a necessity. It was expensive; one joint of meat would often be made to last for several days in the week.
People paid a premium for fresh meat before because they knew the person who butchered it, and if they asked him, he would be able to tell you the farm from which the livestock came. This gave a sense of accountability, and the knowledge of a simpler chain of supply that sourced local produce. Our supermarket experience has taken us all a long way from this.
Fortunately, not all is lost. There are still independently run butcher shops, and most likely some in your town. Take advantage of a free online directory service such as Directory Lists to contact local butchers in your area.
Get to know your local butchers and support them by shopping regularly there. Ask for their opinions and advice when it comes to buying and cooking meat (you’ll find most butchers are very approachable and helpful), then compare it to your supermarket shopping experience. You’ll see there’s a lot to be said for how things used to be done – and returning to those old values might not be such a bad idea.