Supermarkets go for the kill

Tony Blair last week accused the biggest food stores of having farmers and customers in 'an armlock'. The truth is even worse
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The Independent Online

Every day two traditional high-street butchers wipe down their slabs for the last time. Three out of every four joints sizzling in Britain's ovens is a clinical, sterile, vacuum-packed slab of unnaturally red meat, which bears hardly any resemblance to the bloodied carcass from which it came - even less to the distant image of an animal grazing on a hillside.

Every day two traditional high-street butchers wipe down their slabs for the last time. Three out of every four joints sizzling in Britain's ovens is a clinical, sterile, vacuum-packed slab of unnaturally red meat, which bears hardly any resemblance to the bloodied carcass from which it came - even less to the distant image of an animal grazing on a hillside.

Today far more people will worship in those modern cathedrals - St Sainsbury, St Safeway, St Tesco, St Asda and St Somerfield - than will ever dream of darkening the door of a church.

From birth to death, from animal insemination to human digestion, from the farmyard to the kitchen, a few giant supermarket chains increasingly dominate our lives. They feed off and accelerate the industrialisation of agriculture which has served up BSE, E. coli, salmonella - and now the rapid spread of foot and mouth disease.

Yet when Tony Blair accused supermarkets a week ago of having both farmers and customers in an "armlock", the chains reacted with wounded innocence.

"If Mr Blair wants to play politics and scrabble around looking for a scapegoat, that is up to him," huffed Asda. "We were under the impression that it was the Ministry of Agriculture and not the supermarkets that set agri-policy in this country."

Really? The facts tell their own sad story. When the demobbed soldiers of the Second World War came home, they found 35,000 butcher's shops and no supermarkets. Their children and grandchildren inhabit a country with countless superstores and only 8,500 butchers. Once famously a nation of shopkeepers, Britain has indeed been half-nelsoned into becoming a colony of supermarket-trolley-pushers.

The five leading supermarkets together control 70 per cent of the retail food industry. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, says: "Supermarkets have such a huge percentage of the market they can simply exert control. They have us all over a barrel."

Once upon a time, butchering a side of beef was a craft. Everyone knew that to get the best beef - the beef of Olde England - you started with an animal that had been well treated. It came from a farm around the corner, had been well rested overnight in a pen next to the abattoir, and was killed when it was still half-asleep.

Slaughtering an animal took an hour, not just a few minutes. You removed the guts and cut away the unwanted bits, but you knew to leave a bit of fat around the fillet. You didn't strip the carcass with high-powered jets of water. Then you hung the hind quarter for three weeks or a month until it was nicely mature, and only then did you put it on the butcher's slab. The result: flavoursome and tender meat.

Supermarkets know all this. But they have no taste for tenderness, and do not especially care for flavour. Their twin concerns are profit and attracting more customers than their rivals. So, at their command, animals are driven hundreds of miles up and down motorways, arriving stressed and strung out. They go on to a production line. Time is money, so the meat is not hung for long. Perhaps it is tenderised with an electric current. Often it is chopped, boned and sealed into a vacuum pack, weighed, labelled and lifted into the back of a van to be driven to a warehouse at the other end of the country - all within 24 hours. The watchword "throughput" should be branded into every joint on the shelves. Indeed the supermarkets' writ over the meat industry extends to what looks suspiciously like total control. It is one thing to send animals to mechanised meat production plants where they are killed quickly and profitably - quite another to impose conditions on animal producers that fundamentally change farming and the meat business.

Yet this is what supermarkets have done. Not only do their buyers strive to force down prices by negotiating bulk contracts with farmers. They dictate the size and shape of animal deemed acceptable, select the breeds of meat worthy for the public, and impose a deadening uniformity.

The result is indifferent meat. But although supermarkets know it, butchers know it, farmers know it and real meat enthusiasts know it, most consumers do not seem to notice. It is as if a spell has been cast on the country's table habits.

The trick is to persuade us that we are getting value for money. But the National Federation of Meat Traders says that many small, independent butchers now sell at prices comparable to supermarkets.

John Taylor at Earlsdon, on the outskirts of Coventry, buys cattle from a local farmer, five miles away, and commissions their slaughter at a local abattoir. The meat is hung for three weeks and cut and packed in his shop. His prices are only slightly higher than Tesco's.

Between the farm gate and the supermarket shelf, the price of meat more than doubles. In normal conditions, before the foot and mouth outbreak, farmers could sell beef cattle at an average price of £1.66 a kilo. Beef in the shops sold for an average of £3.70.

The price also roughly doubles on the way to the small butcher's. But the extra costs are imposed by quality rather than convenience. Supermarkets cut costs - and corners - by mass-production, but put them back in packaging and presentation, while a good butcher is not in such a hurry and still takes the time to hang his meat.

So supermarkets sell a piece of meat manufactured in one way, butchers in another, often for about the same price. But for better - or almost certainly for worse - we British have made our choice. We have made it plain that we do not care about the quality of the slab of meat on our plate, or the way it has been hacked about by white-coated operatives, or the pointless waste in its manufacture. We do not care if it has been injected, or frozen, or driven around the country, dead or alive. We do not even care what it tastes like.

But we love the convenience. We can drop our pack of meat in the same trolley as the nappies and tins of beans. We can get home in time for EastEnders. And we can make ourselves believe that because it is mass-produced, it must represent good value. (If we go to one of the larger supermarkets, where there's a counter that apes our old local butcher, we can even kid ourselves we're buying good-quality meat.) Meanwhile hundreds of butchers go to the wall, as we sleepwalk into the supermarkets' embrace.

It need not be like this. "Real beer" campaigners once took on the might of the big brewers in opposition to insipid, mass-produced keg beers, and won. There are still plenty of butchers who offer the choice of meat handled in traditional ways, who could be rescued by a similar public outcry.

Tesco said last week: "We are doing all we can to sell meat from British farms. By understanding what our customers want and by providing them with the full range of cuts presented and displayed as they want, we believe we can do more to help sell the British product."

But one farmer near Exeter, Peter Grieg, who slaughters his own meat by traditional methods, replied: "The writing has been on the wall for farmers with the ever-increasing power of the supermarkets. Whatever Tony Blair says, nothing is going to change the way they run their business. They've got us by the short and curlies."

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