Who do you trust? An #NFDF2014 visit to local @freedomfooduk approved abattoir to discuss food provenance and animal welfare.

Last year there was the horse meat scandal. This year the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) said the ‘lamb’ in some kebabs and takeaways isn’t always lamb. These two headline grabbing stories come on top of long standing concerns among many consumers about animal welfare, particularly in countries that export meat to us but don’t apply UK standards – such as in pig rearing.

As a result, more of us are taking food provenance seriously. Whether you enjoy a Sunday roast, or bacon with your morning fry-up (I wish), the quality of the meat we eat still matters. We want to know we can trust the source and that the animals have been well looked after in the process.

Among those benefiting from this increased interest in food quality are traditional local butchers, who use good local abattoirs to source locally reared meat. However, such abattoirs and butchers are increasingly rare – as consumer and supermarket demands force consolidation. Industrial scale abattoirs handling thousands of animals a day are increasingly the norm – with live animals shipped hundreds of miles from farm to factory.

Buy Local – it tastes better

Thankfully, here in Norfolk we are lucky – we still have a local, family run abattoir – and it has an excellent reputation among local farmers, butchers and restaurateurs. H. G. Blake (Costessey) Ltd (better known as Blake’s in the food community) runs a multi-species abattoir just outside Felthorpe. It handles cattle, pigs and sheep from local farmers and smallholders in the Eastern region – and only supplies wholesalers and independent butchers, not supermarkets.

There is an argument that every meat-eater should visit an abattoir at least once in their life just to understand what happens to the animal before it appears on your plate as tender sirloin. So, in my role of championing #NFDF2014, I visited Blake’s in April and met Andrew Clarke, the managing director. This wasn’t out of ghoulish fascination with the slaughtering process (I’m too squeamish for that) but rather to find out how they compete with the industrial food processors.

The business was founded over 60 years ago by the late Hilton Blake and is still family-owned (Mrs J Blake is Chair). It moved to its current site in 1995 where it has a modern purpose built abattoir, with an ‘A’Grade for food safety from the BRC Global Standards body. The abattoir is also RSPCA Freedom Food approved, testifying to its high standards of animal welfare, and has Soil Association approval to handle organically raised animals.

High standards of care reflect company culture

On meeting Andrew and his colleague Jason Forder (General Manager), it becomes clear very quickly that maintaining excellent hygiene, employee health & safety, and animal welfare are their major concerns. When I enter the office, Jason is on the phone to a customer politely explaining why delivery drivers are no longer permitted to carry whole sides of beef on their shoulders. “I know they used to but that was over 20 years ago – we don’t want to risk anyone’s livelihood and I’m sure you don’t want someone badly injured on your premises either.”

There’s a large TV screen on the wall in the office – displaying images from 14 CCTV cameras placed strategically round the premises. In one frame I can see some pigs making themselves comfortable in the deep straw of the holding pens. In other frames I can see people clad in white from head to toe preparing carcasses. “We installed the cameras nearly 20 years ago,” explains Jason, “partly for security but also to monitor the whole slaughtering process from delivery to dispatch, to ensure we maintain the highest standards.”

Andrew, who is also a livestock farmer and co-owner with his family of a farm shop in Hevingham, is passionate about animal welfare. “All our Norfolk beef is from local Quality Standard assured farms,” he explains, “where the cattle graze on some of the finest pastures in the country. We don’t want to ruin the flavour by stressing the animals, so careful humane handling at all times is critical. As well as having an FSA approved vet on site during slaughtering, we have five full-time animal welfare officers on the team and are training more.

Great tasting meat takes patience

“We know the farmers and the butchers – and often put them in touch so they can better understand each other. This builds confidence in the full traceability of the product from farm to final sale. And buying locally not only means shorter journeys for the animals but also helps reduce food miles, so is better for the environment.”

Look for this sign in your local butcher's shop - for great tasting Norfolk beef.

Look for this sign in your local butcher’s shop – for great tasting Norfolk beef.

As well as Norfolk beef, Blake’s sources pork from producers across East Anglia, including Blythburgh Pork, which is truly free range. “Blythburgh’s pigs roam large paddocks,” says Andrew, “where they root in the sandy Suffolk soil and socialise with their herd. This natural lifestyle means they grow more slowly than intensively farmed pigs and so develop more flavour.

“A lot of people think taste depends on the animal breed but feed, growing conditions and animal care matter just as much. It’s why our East Anglian lamb tastes so good all year round, from the prime spring lamb to late season animals finished on grass and root crops.” This attention to detail and passion for the very best tasting meat has helped Blake’s establish a loyal customer base, supplying many of the region’s best butchers, such as Archer’s and Papworth’s.

As fellow #NFDF2014 champion (and head chef at The Grove in Cromer) Charlie Hodson said, when I mentioned my visit: “I reckon Blake’s run the best abattoir in Britain. I buy all my beef from Icarus Hines, one of Norfolk’s premier butchers, and he gets it from Blake’s. So I can be sure it’s best Norfolk beef that has been properly matured and expertly butchered. This means I can be confident it will taste great – and our guests will love it.”

More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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