Organic Foods: Back to basics for butchers

There's no magic to organic lamb and beef - just a taste of the past. By

OVER THE past months Bob Kennard has been asking his customers what they think of him and he's found their responses highly gratifying. More than 98 per cent say they would buy from him again and 86 per cent described his produce as "excellent". But his favourite reply was from an elderly lady and it concerned his chicken.

She declared that she hadn't tasted anything like it since 1943."We're quite proud of that letter," he says.

Mr Kennard is one of a rapidly growing band of producers who have realised the potential of organic meat. From his base at Graig Farm in the Welsh hills near Llandrindod Wells, he supplies retailers and also operates a mail order and delivery service, specialising in a range of high quality produce from Speckles and Derbyshire Gritstones (breeds of sheep) to what is said to be the world's first organically registered wild fish, imported from the British island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. He hasn't regretted his decision to go organic: during the past three years his business has been growing at an annual rate of 60 per cent.

Organic meat represents a tiny fraction of the organic market - five per cent, according to the Soil Association's organic food and farming report, compared with 54 per cent for fruit and vegetables - but it is busy catching up.

By next year, compared with 1997, organic beef output will have more than trebled, lamb production will be up nearly sevenfold and pig output will have increased more than ninefold.

The reasons for the growth are not hard to come by. It's the industry's boast that BSE has never occurred in an animal reared on an organic farm, and the BSE crisis is one factors driving consumer demand for organic meat, which is in turn driving the supermarkets to demand it. Concerns about antibiotic residues in conventionally produced meat look certain to fuel further growth.

Although, as Mr Kennard says, there's not much magic or mystery about organic meat - it's the way livestock farming used to be, before it began relying on drugs, chemicals and factory units - the legal definitions introduced by the EU in the early Nineties have given the market stability and confidence, and they have also persuaded the supermarkets that organic meat is here to stay.

But for many meat eaters, it's the taste that seems to matter. Much mass- produced meat, complain the cognoscenti, tastes like polystyrene. By contrast, Mr Kennard speaks of vanished delicacies such as "salt-marsh lamb", so- called because of the wild marshland herbs the animals fed on while grazing. The taste of meat, he says, has been shown to improve with age, but conventional meat producers slaughter their animals young. It's also dependent on diet and exercise. So it's perhaps not surprising that a chicken which forages for its food and picks up a range of trace nutrients from grasses and soils will taste better than one living virtually immobile in a battery unit and subsisting on standardised feed.

It's not all rosy for organic producers, however. The Government is introducing new veterinary inspection standards for abattoirs that will, the organic movement argues, result in the closure of hundreds of small local slaughter houses and may make it impossible for many smaller farmers now considering the switch to make a living. They are based on European rules but no other European country is said to be implementing them so harshly. If these reforms go ahead, producers say, the dream of a local organic economy, supplying meat on a small scale to high street butchers and farmers' markets - not merely on a large scale to the supermarkets - could prove stillborn.

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