To mark the start of the silly season, this article is about sausages. The pork-based barbecue favourite, as one elegant variation might have it, is a pretty jolly food, isn’t it? That dog on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life wouldn’t have been so funny if it had barked the word “bread” or “apples”. And what other food would sound as good in a phrase like “silly sausage”?
But funny as the not-so-humble banger may be, I have some serious news to deliver: Britons are falling out of love with sausages.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics this week reveal that our sausage consumption has dropped by a quarter since 2008. The fall reportedly equates to 260.7 million fewer packets that are being sold by supermarkets and butchers over that period. Instead, shoppers are switching to healthier meats like lean steak – annual sales are up to £3bn, a rise of £1bn from 2008 – and chicken, which is up by nearly half since 2012 to £2bn.
As someone whose household goes through a dozen sausages a week (they are my daughter’s favourite food), I find these figures depressing. How can we Brits have gone off the banger, the food that is at the centre of every English breakfast, barbecue lunch and Bonfire Night, so emphatically?
Part of the answer seems to lie in demand for healthier foods, given that steak and chicken sales have gone up at the same time as the sausage’s decline. The sausage may have higher fat levels than a skinless fillet of chicken, it is true, but you may as well substitute the word “skinless” for “tasteless”, given how bland this is compared to something sizzling and oozing out of the frying pan or off the grill.
Sausages are also casualties of the war on salt. And in this war, flavour suffers collateral damage too – unnecessarily. Eating too much salt, particularly for at-risk groups, is bad for you but there is no need to cut out salt from our diets altogether. This shift in consumer tastes suggests the campaign against fat and salt of the past 30-odd years has been successful, yet it is becoming increasingly accepted that sugar is the greater evil in our food, particularly in causing obesity.
The growing demand for chicken and steak also suggests a national desire for “purer” food, and it is unsurprising, particularly after nearly three decades of food scares including BSE and the horsemeat scandal, that we want our meat to be unadulterated. And, yes, given the ingredients in some supermarket sausages – bulked out with rusk, preservatives and breadcrumbs – I don’t blame consumers who don’t want to put up with this rubbish. Earlier this year government vets claimed that one in 10 sausages contained the hepatitis E virus, which humans could contract if the meat wasn’t cooked properly.
The way we shop is killing off the sausage too: while cheap, processed sausages are more likely to be sold in supermarkets, high-street butchers sell bangers with higher meat content and fewer additives – some will even make their sausages on site. Yet the traditional butcher, along with other high-street traders, is in decline. That’s the subject of a whole different column, but the recent case of the town whose high-street shops enjoyed a sudden boom in sales after a suspension in parking restrictions tells its own story.
There is an answer to all of this bad PR, and a way to save our sausages – and that is to help Britain’s 6,000-year-old pig-farming industry. According to UK Agriculture, the number of pigs kept for breeding and slaughter peaked in 1980 at nearly 6.5m and has been falling dramatically since. The British pig industry receives no EU or state subsidies, unlike other types of farming, and British pork has been undermined by cheaper imports from abroad.
The Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, is trying to boost the pork industry and other UK food produce by, under a Conservative manifesto commitment, increasing the number of products with protected food status – including the iconic sausage – although ultimately this will mean persuading the EU to accept that our British bangers are better than German wurst. Truss also memorably promised, in her first conference speech as Environment Secretary last year, to expand the pork market to Beijing.
But it is not enough to persuade the world to fall for our sausages; ministers have to encourage Britons to love them again, and there is nothing funny about that.