The return to ethical butchery and a sustainable meat industry has been slow-going -- and yes, it is a return. After all, only 30 years ago, grass-fed beef was almost unheard of, yet a hundred years ago, grass-fed beef was the norm. And we can all remember a time when offal was known as the "butcher's cut," things like liver, tongue and brain nowhere to be seen in our butcher cases, much less our supermarkets, when these cuts were definitely gracing our ancestors plates and are now being found on the charcuterie menus of the best restaurants.
But let's be honest here -- it's not just about cyclical tastes. We were living in a world of mass-produced muscle meats, and the environment was suffering for it.
Luckily, changes have been taking place in the world of the carnivore of late. Grass-fed beef is becoming more widely available; organic and free-range and sustainable meats are becoming the norm. And initiatives like Meatless Monday have been increasing awareness about reducing how much meat we eat, for our bodies, for our health, and for the environment.
Perhaps the newest trend is the idea of ethical butchery, epitomized by Berlin Reed, the former vegetarian turned butcher who wrote the book on ethical butchery, quite literally. But he's far from the only one. We've interviewed two meat industry professionals who are taking the meat business back to its roots -- a journey back in time that's perfect for the 21st century meat eater.
Jason Quittenton, Organic Butchers
Jason Quittenton of Jason's Organic Butchers is based in the UK, a country boasting a slightly different meat culture to ours. While America was perhaps originally inspired by the British diet, no one can center three meals a day around meat quite like the British. For Jason, the trend of returning to the roots of traditional butchery represents somewhat of a bigger dietary cycle, which he can attest to after 10 years in organic butchery and 24 years in the butchery trade in general.
Of course, the cycle perhaps begins with the butcher himself. "I was into farming as a kid and left school and went straight to an abattoir," he says of his early experience in butchery. "I just wanted to do it. I sold rabbits as a kid..." he remembers. And while he worked purely as a butcher for some time, since his return to organic, he's begun raising his own animals again; no more rabbits, but chickens followed by his own beef.
"I like that side of it as much as I do the butchery," he says.
But this return to the roots of his love of the industry may have just as much to do with the trends in butchery today. While mainstream butchery in both the States and the US tends to be mass-produced, a return to the source has been on-trend and allowed butchers like Jason to get back to the cycle of raising and butchering animals on-site.
"There was a return to head-to-tail recently, I guess because there's a rush on anything that's promoted," he says. This renewed interest in head-to-tail butchery has an important link to free-range raising, as some organs including the liver are actually partially or fully destroyed by the mass production techniques used by many American farms.
For some, this experimentation with organ meats will be a trend, according to Jason. "Some people stick around and some fade back to where they came from." What might be here to stay, however, isn't necessarily the choice of cut, but the choice of quality.
Jason fell into organic farming by chance, when he took over the business he currently owns. "I used to cut their stuff," he explains. "And the business was already organic." A big change for Jason in some ways, less so in others.
"In the actual butchery, I don't know where there's a massive difference," he concedes. "But the difference in the meat is enormous." A difference in quality attested to not only by the veteran butcher but by his loyal customers.
At the end of the day, Jason believes that it all boils down to trust. "They want to trust you," he says. "After the horse scare, people are wary of what they're buying. If you're under (the) organic (label), they go through everything and anything," he says, referencing the strict laws and protocols attached to the label. "Even if (the customers) don't eat all organic, they know can trust you."
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And while cost has proved prohibitive, keeping some customers away during the recession, Jason can attest to the fact that his most loyal customers have stayed true to his old-fashioned and traditional way of approaching the meat industry. "Through the tight times, customers have come back again," he says.
Camas Davis, Portland Meat Collective
Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective has taken this return to the source of meat one step further. The collective is not a traditional butcher shop; it does, however, offer classes in butchery and whole animal utilization, something that was nearly impossible to learn about in Portland when Camas first became interested several years ago. In fact, she had to go all the way to France to learn traditional butchery.
"Traditional butcher shops these days are not actually that traditional in terms of how they use the whole animal," she says. "Most butchers are buying boxed cuts, maybe doing a little trimming, and putting those cuts, which are mostly muscle cuts, in the case, and that’s it." Camas wanted to educate people about other cuts and teach them how to take full advantage of the entire animal.
"We're relying on a different consumer base that didn’t exist before I started the collective but that was sort of creative by the collective," she says.
As for Camas, her journey towards this way of life took many twists and turns. "I came from a rural environment where I learned that animals could be killed to eat," she says. "That wasn't a foreign concept to me." That being said, Camas "grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is largely vegetarian, so I became vegetarian. I struggled with where I wanted to be on the meat-eating spectrum."
A far cry from where she is today -- the fearless pioneer of meat, whatever the cut. "Often because my freezer is full of things that our students might be afraid of, I do have a lot of bones and a lot of skin and a lot of organs, so I end up making pâté with the livers or bone for a stock or skin in a cassoulet or in sausages."
The key, according to Camas, is balance and moderation -- the proper education can lead to a change, not only in consumer habits, but in consumer demand and therefore in meat production nationwide. "If we only have a consumer base in America that wants to eat tender muscle meat, that’s about ¼ of the animal, so if we have to produce that many animals to produce meat for ham or ribs or pork chops, that requires factory farming. If we create a consumer base that wants all of the animal, that can affect how the consumer demand works."
Moving forward, it's important to remember how much education still needs to be done -- and how much the proper knowledge can change the way we see our meals. "I think it's really easy to buy meat and not think about the time, the work, the inhumane treatment that goes into it," Camas says. "I think that when people take our classes, they might not buy the whole animal, but they have told us that they start to think about it differently. I certainly have started to eat less meat."
Turning meat into a sometimes food -- but one of top quality -- could be the next frontier in American dining.
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