Butcher and meat

Behind every BBQ there’s a butcher

Butcher Matt Flynn talks about what ethical meat means to him and how taste is directly linked to animal welfare.

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

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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8 Comments

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  1. This all sounds wonderful but paradoxically grass fed free range beef is more damaging to the environment than factory farmed owing to the huge amount of pastureland required and consequential loss of habitat. If the practice were scaled up to feed the present beef requirements it would be an environmental disaster.

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    1. I wouldn’t call sheep-grazed uplands ecological wastelands. I agree that in a lot of places the concentration of sheep is too great and needs to be thinned out, so that more trees can grow, but there’s still a place for sheep. It would mean that the price of mutton and lamb would rise, so that people would eat less, but good quality meat.

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    2. That not quite the full picture. Pasture fed livestock (organic must have a minimum 60% grass based diet) might require more land than intensively reared feedlot systems. However, these intensive systems have a tendency to require higher inputs such as antibiotics and have higher grain based diet (more land for feed not food) your premise does not allow for the need to reduce our overall meat consumption, eating less, but better meat.
      In the long term mixed agriculture is an excellent way to boost organic matter and improve carbon sequestration in the soil.
      Not to mention the nutritional difference of organic, grass fed meat and dairy. Unfortunately, It’s not as simplistic as meat bad; veg good

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  2. This isn’t entirely accurate. There are vast tracts of land in these islands where crop growing is impossible – the Yorkshire moors for example, North Wales and much of the Scottish highlands. In these areas the cattle or sheep are ‘hefted’ to live out in the open all the year round. Their presence is beneficial to the ecology as well as providing excellent meat. Most people eat too much poor quality meat which is bad for them and for the environment. They should be encouraged to eat less meat but of better quality – the cost would be about the same.

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    1. Doingmybest: Sheep grazed uplands are already environmental wastelands as these animals eat tree saplings (their favourite food). These areas should be densely forested and richly diverse in flora and fauna.

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  3. Really? Have you walked in these places? I have and have been ‘greeted’ with a wall of silence, no bird song, no diversity of flora, no animals other than sheep and a few crows. It shouldn’t be like that but we have been taught to believe that this is what they should look like and laughably some are designated AONB’s. Why is it that similar areas in E or Central Europe look nothing like them, and are richly forested – it’s because there are no sheep! Grazing density is irrelevant.

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    1. I would agree that livestock, traditionally, has not added much to the biodiversity of the land, especially when they overgraze and their manure contains traces of antibiotics (not good for the dung beetle) but there is a wave of new livestock farmers that raise their animals especially to enhance the flora and fauna, as much as the bison that have been recently reintroduced to Kent for their rewilding project. Have a look at Nikki Yoxall’s twitter, a farmer in Aberdeenshire; a great communicator and totally focused on ecology, she might persuade you that not all livestock are the same in terms of impact.

      But agreed, we definitely don’t want to expand the amount of land we’re using for livestock, so we’d have to consume far less. Something there doesn’t seem to be the appetite for…

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  4. “Unfortunately, It’s not as simplistic as meat bad; veg good” – unfortunately it is. All forms of rearing animals for consumption are vastly more damaging to the environment than plant agriculture. Also the “eat less meat but from a higher welfare source” doesn’t hold water either; that method results in yes better animal welfare but the end product isn’t affordable for the majority of people, particularly in today’s economic climate. As I’ve said it cannot be scaled up for the level of consumption currently required without consequential huge environmental damage.

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