The secret life of the sausage: A great British institution

Five million of us eat them every day. But beneath the skin, many are an unappetising cocktail of fat, filler and gristle. Martin Hickman reports on a campaign to get us to appreciate the humble banger

Monday 30 October 2006 01:00 GMT

British people can't get enough of sausages. Five million of us eat them every day. And this is not a purely British indulgence. Every country in Europe has done its gastronomic duty in the banger department - from Germany's elongated bratwurst to Spain's spicy chorizo.

After all, who could resist a sizzling mix of freshly ground meat, herbs, breadcrumbs, gristle, bones, sinew, rusk, soya, colours, preservatives, polyphosphates, nitrates, sulphites and flavour enhancers?

Step forward Sue Nelson, chief executive of North West Fine Foods, a not-for-profit organisation that champions small food producers. She has upset the powers-that-be in the sausage industry by urging the public to boycott its national promotional push, British Sausage Week, which begins today.

Organised by pig farmers in the British Pig Executive, the week comprises fun activities for schoolchildren, a competition to find the greatest a sausage sandwich and promotional kits for butchers and caterers.

Among British Sausage Week's list of "wacky" information for children are the following two facts: the average British household spends an average of £22.24 on 88kg of sausages every year and over 90 per cent of households buy them regularly.

Ms Nelson says there are a few things these 54 million Britons should know about their bangers. Indeed, she believes that most sausages are so poor they should not even be called sausages.

"These sausages can contain only 25 per cent real meat with the rest being made up of an unappetising mix of water, pork fat, rusk, potato starch, soya protein concentrate, sodium, guar gum, antioxidants, sodium metabisulphate and cochineal - all finely minced together.

"In fact the producers have to add pork fat to the mix to give the sausage any bite at all. And it doesn't stop there," she said.

"The sausages are stuffed into non-UK beef casings - an ingredient that is banned from the content of the sausage itself as being too dangerous to eat.

"And what about the pigs themselves? If the packaging doesn't say 'reared outdoors' then it is likely to have come from pigs reared in crowded factory conditions, sometimes around 2,000 to a shed on concrete floors. Their teeth are clipped and they are regularly fed antibiotics to treat the respiratory diseases they contract from the lack of fresh air."

The solution? Boycott British Sausage Week, says Ms Nelson. "Why should consumers support a Sausage Week that is likely to increase sales of some of the very poorest quality foods that we can buy and encourage people to eat fat, additives, concentrates and worse?"

Such arguments horrify the £530m-a-year sausage industry, which makes the vast majority of sausages eaten in the UK, following the decline of the high-street butcher.

Tim Barkey, marketing controller for Wall's, whose sausages have a meat content of between 67 per cent to 74 per cent, accused North West Fine Foods of misleading consumers.

Sausages were not a quarter meat, he protested - they were between 42 per cent and 98 per cent meat. "That's an absolute lie. I don't know why they're doing this, because they're denting the whole category," he said. "Twenty-five per cent is just ridiculous."

The Meat and Livestock Commission, which backs British Sausage Week, is irked, too. The sausage week is designed to promote the best British bangers which carry the British Meat Quality Standards Mark.

The standards mark is awarded to sausages that meet standards on animal feed, welfare, transportation and slaughter, and features on labels as a rosette with a union flag. Quality mark sausages are at least 85 per cent meat.

But although 90 per cent of pig producers have signed up to the scheme, many supermarket sausages do not qualify. Half of Britain's pork comes from foreign countries such as France, the Netherlands and Denmark where welfare standards are lower.

Andrew Knowles, of the Meat and Livestock Commission, says that most British sausages are of a high standard. But he understands the concern. "There aren't any products out there that are illegal but a product at the lower end might have a lower quality of what you might term desirable meat than the top end," he said.

"Maybe the consumer should stay away from those products."

By taking on the mass producers, the anti-sausage week campaign has turned the spotlight on the content of the industrial sausage - something which the industry is legally required to list on the label but which is more revealing still. So what is the truth about sausages - what goes into them?

By law, sausages must be 30 per cent meat. Although sausages can contain a range of meats from venison to veal, some 83 per cent of sausages sold in the UK are pork. And pork sausages must be 42 per cent meat for them to be labelled as such.

But this is where it gets a little tricky: what counts as "meat"? After the food industry got itself a bad name by using paste flushed from bones - mechanically recovered meat - the European Union reformed the labelling laws in 2003. The EU deemed that although it would still be used, mechanically recovered meat could not count towards the meat content. Because consumers were wary of buying products with it on the label, mechanically recovered meat has fallen out of use.

The food industry uses plenty of other types of cut-price meat instead. Fat can account for 30 per cent of the pork or a quarter of other meat in sausages. "Connective tissue" -tendons, sinew, rind and gristle - may form another quarter of the meat. The BBC's internet consumer wing X-Ray last year subjected four own-brand supermarket economy sausages to laboratory tests at the University of Wales to discover just how much of the "meat" was what most people would think of as meat.

Meat in Tesco sausages had the most gristle (24 per cent), followed by Sainsbury's (22 per cent), Asda (10 per cent) and Morrisons (7.5 per cent).

Salt content can also be high. The Food Standards Agency found that the salt in standard sausages had increased from 2.2 per cent in 1991 to 2.4g in 2003.

In addition, modern sausages often contain the binding agent rusk (a mixture of wheat, flour, water and salt), water, colours such as E100 and E180, preservatives E210 and E239 and other artificial colourants, flavour enhancers, stabilisers and bulking agents.

Yesterday Asda was selling "smartprice" sausages with the following ingredients: "Pork 34 per cent, water, rusk, pork fat, wheat flour, soya, protein isolate, wheat starch, salt, pork rind, barley flour, stabiliser (diophosphates), dextrose, preservative (sodium metabisulphate), salt extracts (pepper, nutmeg, coriander), antioxidant (ascorbic acid), colour (cochineal), sage extract, and sausage casing (beef protein)." A 454g pack of eight costs 49p.

By contrast, premium organic sausages have up to 95 per cent meat accompanied by herbs and breadcrumbs. A 500g packs costs £3.90.

A public moving more towards "premium" foods increasingly prefers these pricier, posh sausages. Mintel reported last year that although sales of sausages by volume increased by 17 per cent between 2000 and 2005, takings were up by 23 per cent.

The consumer analyst David Bird said: "Although not an obvious food to have benefited from an increasingly prosperous UK population, sausages have seen a notable shift towards more premium positioning.

"Indeed manufacturers today are reinventing sausages as posh nosh with quality-led production, after the association with mechanically recovered meat and cheap fillers tarnished the perception of this British staple."

Chris Lamb, marketing manager of the British Pig Executive, said that consumers were "demanding high-quality" sausages. "The resurgence of the sausage market in recent years is built on the quality and premium sector, which often has a meat content higher than 65 per cent," he said.

A stalwart of the sausage market, the Irish company Kerry Foods, which owns Wall's, Bowyers, Richmond and Porkinson and is the biggest manufacturer of sausages in UK, believes the ordinary industrial banger is far from under threat. "The British sausage is one of the most dearly loved components of the British diet and despite all of the trends in terms of new products sausage sales continue to grow and develop," said Frank Hayes, director of corporate affairs.

"Consumers appreciate that sausages can fit into an overall balanced diet. A lot of work has gone on in terms of improving recipes and increasing the nutritional value."

But such arguments fall on deaf ears among the purists. The website suggest people look for packs with a short list of ingredients. It advises shoppers to seek out well-packed sausages with no air bubbles that are traditionally coiled and look plump with shiny skins.

It says that a good sausage will cost around £3 per pound (£6.75 per kilo) compared with cheap supermarket sausages costing less than £2 per kilo.

Sue Nelson passionately believes that Britons should rebel against "dodgy cheap food".

She said: "Cheap sausages are the very worst example of this. Often we can't see what's inside the packaging and we certainly can't see what's inside the sausage casing so it's the perfect opportunity for producers to pack them full of additives, fillers and as little of the expensive meat as possible.

"People need to wake up to the fact that cheap sausages are just crap. A proper sausage is a real thing of beauty and we have an incredible array of quality producers in the UK. If you want to support British Sausage Week go along to your local butcher and try the real thing."

The sizzling facts

* Sausages were mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, as far back as the 9th century BC: "These goat sausages sizzling here in the fire - we packed them with fat and blood to have for supper. Now, whoever wins this bout and proves the stronger"

* The Romans introduced sausages to Britain. The word sausage is derived from the Latin word salsus which means something salted.

* Sausages became known as bangers during the Second World War because they were so filled with water they exploded when cooked

* Today there are over 400 varieties of sausages currently made in the UK. There are four main categories: economy, standard, parchment and premium. There is a legal minimum meat content for sausages but no legal requirement specific to each category.

* Britons eat around 175,000 tonnes of sausages every year - worth £530 million. That amounts to 1.7 billion sausage dinners. Five million Britons eat sausages daily. Saturday is the most popular day for sausage consumption.

* Two thirds of sausages are sold by the top five supermarket chains. 83 per cent are made from pork

* Sausages contain roughly 300 calories per 100g. Assuming that sausages weigh around 75g, this means that an average sausage contains 225 calories. Reduced fat sausages contained an average of 162 calories per 100g - nearly half the average.

* The world's biggest recorded sausage was made in Sheffield in 2000. It stretched for 36 miles and used 16 tonnes of meat.

* Natural sausage skins are made of the intestines of pigs, sheep or cow's intestines. Artificial skins are made from collagen - often from cow skin.


Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in