Urgent: do you love decent meat?
Lynda Brown - 03 May 2012
Like most people, I'm passionate about supporting smaller family farms: they're the living backbone of our landscape, rural life and food culture. If only, then, it were as simple as supporting them with your purse power. But it isn't. Tuesday's online Guardian ran with a story about Vion (no, I'd never heard of them, either) that illustrates the sort of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that we generally never hear about, but which could affect the future of small farmers much more than you think.
Vion, who turn out to be one of the country's largest abattoirs and meat processing concerns, recently wrote to its farmer-suppliers, explaining they would now be paid directly by Vion, instead of, for example, via their meat-co-operative or agents
No problem there surely? Well, if I've understood correctly, it doesn't seem to be quite as simple as that. First, the farmers concerned don't appear to have a choice: the questionnaire they are required to fill in (I've seen it) states that unless they supply their bank details, they won't get paid – whether or not this means Vion is no longer interested in doing business with anyone who doesn't comply isn't clear.
The questionnaire also requires them to fill in very detailed information about their farming practices, including future plans for expansion or otherwise, and in the section entitled 'About You' the following: "Please list any public offices or elected positions you hold within your community"; and "Please list any agricultural based organisations or events with which you are involved".
Now, call me naive but I just don't see what this has to do with the business of killing animals, processing meat, or its quality? I'd personally take a very dim view of any abattoir wanting to know my outside activities (I dance salsa, if I were a farmer and did so at an agricultural event, would that render my meat as undesirable, I wonder?) but that's neither here nor there.
What I'm more concerned about is side-lining farmers' co-operatives and marketing groups – the phrase "divide and conquer" comes to mind. These provide all kinds of support, including insuring the farmer against failure of the abattoirs – a major benefit of joining one – plus that all important negotiating power that a farmer on his/her own doesn't have. Dismantle them and you're one step nearer to the demise of small farmers – and ultimately one step nearer to mega farms.
We've already seen this happen to both the dairy and pig industry. I ask myself, would I want the same for beef and sheep family farms? No. I'm cooking 28 day aged steak tonight from one such farmer, and I want it to stay that way.
From Vion's perspective, as its letter makes clear, this is an initiative to improve communication, service and marketing. Be that as it may, I'm not the only one concerned. So, apparently, are a growing group of dignatories and politicans; only two days ago, Welsh Assembly member Kirsty Williams described the actions of Vion Foods as a "potentially worrying shift in the red meat sector – a sector on which Welsh agriculture is highly dependent."
Want to know more? Go to www.ethicalFood4Me.org (for info: this has been set up by Welsh meat co-operative, Graig Producers, who decided in David and Golliath fashion to go public on this, and have set up an online petition to gather consumer support).
Lynda is an award-winning food writer and broadcaster, and keen advocate for organic living. She is author of several food books over the last twenty years including Planet Organic: Organic Living, The Cook's Garden, and The Modern Cook's Handbook, as well as writing The Preserving Book that was published in 2010 in association with the Soil Association. Lynda is an expert on food and nutrition and a seasoned broadcaster, regularly speaking on food and farming both on the radio and television.