As peak BBQ season arrives with the warmer weather, butcher at organic veg box company Riverford Matt Flynn talks about the difference between free range and organic meat, what goes into making a quality meat, and what he looks for on a farm when it comes to animal welfare.
Wicked Leeks (WL): What does ‘ethical meat’ mean to you?
Matt Flynn (MF): Ethical meat, to me, means sourcing it from a producer that promotes environmentally friendly business practices; paying attention to field rotations so that they can recover and encouraging producers to grow vegetables alongside rearing animals and using their manure to build a full, circular, organic chain.
Animal welfare is a top priority. When I go to visit our producers, I look out for different indicators depending on the species but the main ones are the amount of space available, the animals’ reaction to us being there – because if they’re poorly treated they will be nervous – and the condition of the field that they’re in.
High animal welfare would have plenty of space for the animals, with a rotation of fields, secure and well maintained, and in the case of cattle, they should be curious, inquisitive animals.
Animal welfare is an important part of taste. If animals are stressed before slaughter, they release adrenaline, and this can make the meat tasteless and tough. Matt Flynn
WL: What makes meat taste good?
MF: Slow-reared meat for taste is always the best, but often the animal that tastes the best isn’t the best for profit. This is because the longer an animal is alive, the more it costs the farmer in feed. In organic systems, whether the animal is ready or not is judged by the farmer who looks at the age and the weight. Whereas other places often use the animal, even if it isn’t up to weight to ensure better margins.
Animal welfare is an important part of taste. If animals are stressed before slaughter, they release adrenaline, and this can make the meat tasteless and tough.
We try to reduce stress by as much as possible, so we work with small scale producers, all of which are very close to us to limit to the travel distance from the farmer to the abattoir and then to our butchery. Our abattoir is small, meaning the animals are not hanging around for a long time and are processed very efficiently.
The final part of the puzzle is the maturation and ageing process. At Riverford we wet age our meat, meaning it matures inside a vacuum pack instead of hanging dry, so that the flavour matures and is more tender.
WL: What role do ‘ethical’ butchers play in supporting high welfare, sustainable farms?
MF: The butchery at Riverford always buys the whole carcass and this means we can source directly from farmers and they keep more of the money. Otherwise, if we only wanted certain cuts we’d have to buy from a middleman, and they would keep a cut.
Riverford producers know that they can call and speak to me directly and visit us on site if they have any questions; we’ll always help where we can. We also work with the farmers to plan availability through the year with a forecast so they can manage production and breeding effectively.
WL: What do you think about different certifications when it comes to meat?
MF: In my opinion, organic is the leader in ‘ethical’ meat and should always aim to be not only the best tasting, but the best for the animals, farmers and customers. While free range has a great focus on the living conditions of the animals, it is not always focused on the welfare of the animal with regards to vaccinations, rearing and scale of production, leading to higher stress levels and the overall health of the animals.
WL: Do you think we should eat ‘less but better’ meat?
MF: I fully agree. Meat is an important part of my diet, but I think it is more important to eat less meat but from a high animal welfare, sustainable and ethical source.
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