Spend an hour with Mark Slade and even a hardened vegan might start to appreciate high-quality butchery as an artisan skill that cares about sourcing and animal welfare.
Perhaps not, but the life-long butcher is rightly proud of his business, a busy, small-scale facility in east Devon that handles organic and grass-fed premium meat. “I’ve been a butcher since I left school, it’s all I’ve known,” says Slade, who took over as general manager of the Riverford-owned premises around ten years ago.
“I buy directly from the meat producers, a dozen or so farmers who are all in the local area – the furthest away is Looe in Cornwall,” he says. “All meat that we process is well under an hour’s drive.”
A gruff, tough-looking character who looks like he would be more at home in a traditional apron with knife in hand than in an office, Slade is well versed in what makes his meat different, and of course, what makes a good steak, whether that’s raw or well-done (his own choice is medium). “We hang our beef for seven days, then it’s vac-packed for further maturing,” he says. “We don’t specify a hanging time because it depends on demand. The fact it’s organically-reared and grass-fed is what gives you the quality and flavour.
“The quality is also noticeable on chicken, which have 10-12 weeks on the ground compared to 4-6 weeks for a conventional chicken. We have five chicken producers in Devon and I do audits of all the farms.”
Slade’s butchery is serviced by a small, slow-throughput abattoir just down the road, where waiting is kept to a minimum,, and there are two animal welfare officers, a vet and a meat inspector on site at all times. Distance to the butchery is important, not only for animal welfare reasons to minimise stress, but adrenaline in their system affects meat quality.
Knowing his producers like he does, and the costs involved in producing a high quality, high welfare, piece of meat, even without meeting organic standards, Slade is sceptical about the cheap prices in supermarkets. “I walk past Tesco and see a pack of meat for £4 and I know they cannot possibly do it for that cheap, they’re either pumping it full of water or there’s a farmer there losing loads of money,” he says.
With all the noise around veganism online, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether there were any meat eaters left at all. Riverford itself campaigns for ‘eating less but better’ meat, and Slade says he was initially wary about how this might affect his sales, though he needn’t have worried. “Sales went up when we had the How Much Meat campaign, because the message was eat less meat but better quality, so that benefited us,” he explains.
Reducing meat intake was also highlighted as the number one thing an individual can do to help counter climate change by the recent IPCC report, and for Slade, that has not been so easy to accept. He says: “The general shift towards flexitarianism has been very difficult for me. Vegetables used to be seen as part of the meal, not the main dish.”
But for anyone who does still enjoy and eat meat, it’s hard to fault Slade’s obsession with traceability and hygiene that is evident on even a brief tour through the butchery. The steel chiller rooms with hanging carcasses are immaculate, and the butchery’s production manager Matt Flynn carefully points out the unique code on each carcass that will follow it through the entire process, meaning that each individual cut can be traced back to the exact animal and farm it came from.
There hasn’t been an issue in the whole time Slade and Riverford have been in charge of the butchery, but it doesn’t hurt to be ahead of the curve in transparency in an industry that has been deeply rocked by scares such as BSE and more recently, horsemeat.
Walking from the chillers into the first processing room, there is a whirring and flashing of blades as workers wearing chainmail-type gloves for protection slice cuts of meat with lethal speed and precision. It’s a highly-skilled job, explains Flynn, moving us into the mince processing section, where the butchery still produces burgers and sausages by hand, a laborious and expensive process.
In a previous life, Slade worked for large-scale and non-organic meat companies, and he is well aware about how standards can differ, saying he was “unsurprised” when the horsemeat scandal broke. But it was working for three years in the US that really opened his eyes to industrial-scale meat production. “When I worked in Texas, I saw the scale of the cattle industry. There were so many cattle, the herds would shimmer like the sea into the distance for four miles before the abattoir,” he says.
There are fears that a post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and US could compromise the high standards in Britain’s meat industry, through things like chlorinated chicken and genetically-modified food, but Slade believes it is unlikely to happen. “I don’t think many people want GM food over here, and I can’t ever see a day when the Soil Association would allow GM, even if it was organic GM, because it’s so far from the organic ethos, which is all about being in harmony with nature.
“I can’t see us importing that much more food after Brexit,” he continues. “Honestly, I think there will be a deal done with the EU, but I also think our ties with trading partners like New Zealand will grow again.”
For now, though, Slade is more focused on the busy Christmas period, where he will be taking on extra staff to make the almost 60,000 organic pigs in blankets expected to be ordered by Riverford customers, alongside the other festive favourites such as geese and turkey.
As Britain prepares for one of its favourite feasts of the year and debates around how much meat we should eat continue to rage, for Slade and the butchery, at least, it’s business as usual.