Very few folk volunteer to join me when I tell them that I’m going to view the slaughter of one of our animals at the abattoir.
This is hardly surprising really. It’s the grizzly part of the work we do and very few people like knowing the detail when it comes to a living animal meeting its end in the name of their dinner. Occasionally I am quizzed via email by a potential customer who is considering us. More often I’m met with a strained, sickly face when explaining the process to people I know.
Strangely though, going to our small, local abattoir is something that I take masses of pride in. When, 5 years ago, I was putting detail into the concept of selling cuts of meat in boxes, I hadn’t really considered just how much I’d value knowing the small team that conclude the life of Coombe Farm Organic animals like I do. I know them on first name terms. I call and ask them how the kill went, or to clarify weights for me. I ask how they are, what the news is? More often than not though, these days I ask how business is? These are uncertain times for small, independent, family-run abattoirs.
It’s usually a Tuesday morning when I roll up to watch our animals go through the process. Organic animals go first to ensure that there can be no contamination, so I have to be on-site at 5:45 am for a 6 am start. I sign in, change into whites, and head through to the main killing room. The place is quiet, and a small team of 3 or 4 workers and a DEFRA approved Vet prepare the paperwork and other equipment. Then it starts. Tag numbers are read out to ensure traceability is upheld, the vet inspects each animal individually (there is no queue of animals being despatched here), and only when she approves the slaughter, can the bolt gun can be administered. It is instant, it is respectful, there is no fuss, and then it is over. The same team then work through the process as the carcasses are stripped and broken down according to species. It is only that moment before the first animal is killed that there is ever a sense of nervousness or feeling uncomfortable. People need to understand this process. People should see it, and the hanging carcass, and the butcher's block and knives and bloodied overalls. This is where meat comes from. If you eat meat it is important that you have considered these things.
I would not be quite so quick to advocate this process, however, if the Coombe Farm Organic animals were sent into one of the many vast, slaughterhouses that now process a majority of the meat that moves into the food chain in the UK. Sure the paperwork and the hygiene is carried out diligently. But to make places like that pay, you need to motor through the numbers. That is where (in my opinion) compassion and respect and knowing that the full trace of the operation, from field to plate, is carried out in the manner that we would hope for – is lost.
It is these enormous abattoirs that apply the pressure to the business of our small, independent friends who operate a mere 7 miles away from our farm gate. These, along with the endless and unwavering expense of keeping up with legislation that is constantly updated to deal with the shortcomings of the super-sized slaughterhouses.
I, therefore, ask you to think more broadly when considering where you buy your roasting joint, or steak, or Christmas goose. Knowing your farmer is excellent. Knowing your butcher admirable. But knowing where and how the animal you are about to consume was killed is essential to knowing that you chose correctly.
Farmers deserve to be able to remain local when choosing their suppliers, just like consumers deserve the right to purchase their food locally. Choosing to support small scale abattoirs who have a vested interested in local agriculture and its communities is more vital now than ever before. If we choose to turn away from purchasing our food in this way, how long will it be before the choice is taken away from us all together?
Ben, Founder, Coombe Farm Organic