Unnecessary demise of the local butcher


In her recent book, She Moves Through the Boom, Ann Marie Hourihane describes the fate of butchers' shops in the Dublin urban village of Ranelagh. Twenty-five years ago, there were 10; now there are two and one of them is closing down. One of the most famous of the old ones, renowned for its sausages, is now a cafe selling cappuccino, cafe latte, espresso and vegetable wraps.

All over urban Ireland, even in places not yet fashionable enough to have a great trade in espressos and vegetable wraps, the story is the same. The butcher's shop that had been across the road from where I live, supplying gossip, scandal and slagging as well as round roasts, chicken fillets and the Christmas turkey, closed last year. According to the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, it was one of 400 that have shut down in the last decade.

These piecemeal closures may seem accidental and insignificant, but they are driven by Irish and European policies. If and when we recover from the foot-and-mouth crisis, those policies will have to be thought about very carefully. There are lots of things to argue about in apportioning blame for the foot-and-mouth crisis. One factor on which almost everyone is agreed, however, is the huge increase in the movement of livestock. The public has learned in recent weeks that sheep and cattle seem to spend as much time on the road as a taxi-driver with a tax bill to pay.

It has also learned that vast numbers of animals are processed through a smaller and smaller number of marts and abattoirs. The discovery, for example, that what is sold as Irish lamb in France is as likely to have come from Carlisle as from Connemara, has opened our eyes to the industrialisation of the meat trade and the rapid loss of local abattoirs and local butchers. The potentially catastrophic effects of this process are now obvious.

WHAT is probably less obvious to most consumers is that this process is not a natural effect of the free market but a result of official policy. For well over a decade, the Department of Agriculture has been pursuing a policy of concentrating ownership and control of the meat trade in the hands of a small number of big operators.

In the political world, this policy has been disastrous, providing the cover for the kind of naked government favouritism towards a big operator like Larry Goodman that was so evident in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In terms of food safety, animal health and animal welfare, its effects are only now becoming obvious.

The foot-and-mouth crisis has shown that the best place to kill livestock is close to the farms on which they are reared. It limits the spread of disease, it is less cruel, it allows consumers to buy local meat from trusted local suppliers. Since the quality of meat is adversely affected by the stress of travel, it makes for a better product, and local abattoirs are much easier to police than the huge chaotic meat plants. Yet in the last decade, about 700 local abattoirs, two-thirds of the total, have closed.

So why has the State been deliberately engineering a shift from the traditional Irish system of local abattoirs and local butchers to the disastrous British system of a small number of super-abattoirs supplying a trade that is dominated by big beef barons and supermarkets?

Everyone would accept that the old small abattoirs often had poor standards of hygiene and need to be upgraded if they are to meet EU standards. This is what Fianna Fail promised to do just a few months before the current Government was formed: "Fianna Fail in government will provide an incentive package to assist in the necessary upgrading of domestic abattoirs."

IT ALMOST goes without saying that this has not happened. According to the lamented Minister for Food, Ned O'Keeffe the promise could not be kept because of EU prohibitions on State aid. This, though, is nonsense.

EU Commission guidelines specifically permit State aid to enable plants to meet new hygiene requirements. Though no one likes to say so explicitly, the reasons for not upgrading local abattoirs and thus effectively forcing them to close is simply that it doesn't suit the interests of the big industrial players.

According to the Associated Craft Butchers, it was told by a senior Department of Agriculture official in 1999 that there would be no grant aid to local abattoirs because the big meat factories already had more than enough capacity to slaughter all Irish livestock.

The butchers were told to speak to an Enterprise Ireland official who, in turn, told them that his agency foresaw "the demise of the high-street butcher" but saw no reason why "Dublin butchers should not be supplied by Kepak", for example.

The Department of Agriculture subsequently disowned these explanations, but the evidence suggests they are essentially accurate. The policy of moving livestock over large distances and concentrating the production of meat in a small number of large plants is clear. Local slaughtering and local butchers are being sacrificed to the interests of the big players in the export trade. The preference of Irish consumers for dealing with people whom they know and trust is being ignored.

As usual, it's only when we all take a roasting that we wonder who put the fat in the fire.