A common explanation for offal’s fall from favour with the British public is that, unlike other meat, it was rarely rationed during the Second World War. When rationing ended in 1954, the public wanted nothing more than to devour the muscle cuts they had been denied for the past decade, leaving offal without a look in.
But there was another, greater change afoot in the 1950s that accompanied the post-war steak frenzy and helped cast offal aside. Global trade was growing faster and on a larger scale than ever before. Britain’s need to increase food production for an expanding population led to more commercially oriented policies, such as the intensification of farming and an increase in the marketing of food products. Along with a number of other measures these resulted in a significant scaling up of the food industry.
These changes had an inevitable impact on the meat trade. Butcher shops and small-scale slaughterhouses dramatically declined, while supermarkets and importers began to dominate the industry. Such far-reaching changes had drastic repercussions on consumer tastes, industry relations, the very definition of convenience, and, as a result, offal’s place within our food supply.
Changes in the trade
The life stories of meat workers recorded by the British Library give us unprecedented insight into the meat industry during the 20th century. The Second World War broke down many established supply networks as the meat trade was nationalised and decentralised into depots in different parts of the country, largely to minimise the impact of bombing. The industry remained under government control well beyond the end of the war. Until 1954 most meat could only be acquired via ration books – or on the black market, where a lucrative trade in rabbit and chicken took place. Little did the public know then that chicken would soon be as ubiquitous as Bovril tea.
The government had to find a means to redress the deficit in British meat. According to John Brewster, a meat trader who was a member of the London Wholesale Meat Supply Association, a co-operative that imported meat, the Ministry of Food agreed with association members that bulk buying from around the world was the way forward. During the war, the need for more efficient packaging – as food stuffs were shipped to troops abroad or imported to Britain – had led to rapid innovations in cold storage transportation, and had started a trend for deboned and ‘deglanded’ carcass imports, which took less space to transport.
These trends had a dire impact on small-scale UK slaughterhouses. Firstly, a rise in the number of imported carcasses – as opposed to animals imported live – meant that they became increasingly redundant. Slaughterhouse owner Rodger Baker documented the rise in large-scale slaughterhouses and the consequent closure of smaller abattoirs: between the 1950s and 1970s Britain’s approximately 5,000 small slaughterhouses decreased to just 110 larger ones. He was fortunate to survive the closures and in 1966 built a new, large slaughterhouse with a cutting room attached, so pre-cut meat could be supplied to the supermarkets.
From the new slaughterhouse, Baker supplied Findus and Birdseye. For the first two years he continued to trade with local butchers, but by 1968 he had ceded to the demands of the large suppliers on pace and scale. Regretfully he could no longer manage the work for local butchers – once his livelihood – alongside the large-scale work for his commercial customers.
The butchers, meanwhile, reported that they too began to buy pre-cut meat, and less offal, as they ‘modernised’ their stock to keep up with the supermarkets. But one butcher, Ronald Steadman, sold his chain of butcher shops in the late 1980s in anticipation of the supermarkets taking over. He regretted the loss of livestock markets and farmers, but claimed that “de-boning lines and packing lines have all got more modern and better for a housewife to pick up on a tray”.
Changing tastes, changing systems: The chicken or the egg?
All the interviewees remembered that poultry had been a rare luxury in their youth. The co-operation of an enterprising group of farmers and innovative food retailers – notably, Sainsbury’s – put an end to this. Using initiatives in animal selection and disease control, along with new technologies in slaughter, processing and storage, and increasingly available antibiotics, they set the UK poultry industry into action.
There was a strong dose of smart marketing involved. It spoke to decreasing family sizes and shifts in women’s working hours, and it reinvented this luxury item as a staple. Many of those interviewed commented on the wants of the modern housewife: as Ronald Steadman said, they were now “a different kettle of fish to what they were then.” Their choice of cuts had changed and they were no longer so willing to prepare meat themselves. At the same time, shifts in global trade made consumption ever more convenient for the consumer – white, boneless meat from around the world was the desire of the modern working woman. Whether it was consumer tastes or industry reforms that led the way in bringing about these changes, however, remains in dispute.
The supermarkets were increasing their monopoly throughout the 1970s, and came to negotiate a position where they could cream off the choice cuts. Slaughterhouse worker Brian Hewitt said: “You can’t blame them. That’s business… but they are not doing the job of the general butchers… using the whole carcass.” Once the supermarkets were no longer buying offal, which had formerly gone to the butcher as a matter of course, the slaughterhouses were pushed to find new markets for it. The problem was, said meat trader John Brewster, that “packaging and production costs became higher and the by-product price became less and less”.
So where did all the offal go? In part 1 of our offal exposé we heard the slaughterhouse men talking about different outlets for offal up until the 1950s. But from the 1960s onwards the men simply noted that offal was sent for “processing” once the slaughterhouses had been modernised. Most seemed to have little idea of its end destination. Those who could elaborate further stated that it continued to be used for fertiliser or pharmaceuticals and was collected from the slaughterhouse by the manufacturers. However, most reports indicate that offal went into the production of animal feeds. Within the consumer sector, it was only used in processed meat, burgers and sausage filling.
One track mind?
The consumption of offal in Britain changed once again in the wake of the BSE crisis. Following an extended period of research into the disease the UK government confirmed a link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The EU banned exports of British beef with effect from March 1996, and offal cuts such as brain, spinal-cord, spleen, thymus, tonsils and intestines had to be stained and disposed of. According to slaughterhouse worker Brian Hewitt it cost the industry GBP 22 million that year to get rid of this offal. Many of the interviewees went out of business or faced severe financial struggles as a result of the ban. John Brewster described the BSE crisis as the worst disaster ever to hit the industry: “It was nearly impossible for us to accept the existence of this disease.” He recalls being interviewed on radio and claiming that it was not too serious but he “did know in [his] heart of hearts that the sterilisation process involved in animal feed” had become insufficient.
Changes in the social network of the industry also meant that the former, albeit informal, trade accountability mechanisms – where the men knew each other’s business and would call each other out on bad practice – broke down. The industry’s network had become so large and so far removed from its customers that gaining a bad reputation was no longer enough of a threat to keep standards high. As Brian explains:
“In the old days the spinal cord was removed and cleaned and sent to butchers for their sausages; there would have been a Dickens of a row if you didn’t trim the spinal cord off and make it all clean, trim all the glands off. Then things went lapse… and it can’t have been good.”
Brian Hewitt’s suggestion that personal relationships between industry workers maintained standards and held the community to account harks back to another meat worker’s comment that “you could abuse the system, but if you did you wouldn’t be in business very long”.
The loss of informal accountability through inter-industry respect, combined with the absence of formal accountability via regulation, and the longstanding imperative to keep ‘making the fifth quarter’ (generating income from offal) all played a part in the causes of the BSE crisis.
The loss of offal’s financial value came about as a result of complex socio-economic shifts, but its cultural value was also lost as new notions of convenience arose alongside increased levels of technology and commerce. Pre-war practices had largely reconciled the interests of slaughter, sale and consumption around an economic use of the whole animal. But the new conveniences now expected by modern households focused on quick, easy and cheap procurement and preparation of meat.
The UK food system has come a long way from the pre-war localised systems of meat production that used every morsel of the animal. Offal’s diverse and delicious cuts continue to turn a few food-loving heads, but it is unlikely to slip back into mainstream consumption any time soon. For a generation never encouraged to enjoy the off-cuts as children, it is increasingly difficult to turn them onto the cuts they think of as icky or disgusting. Offal needs to be revalued as safe and beneficial to both the environment and industry. This would ultimately require industry upheaval – a complete rethink of the slaughter and packaging process and a fresh appraisal of meat by-products in the public imagination.
Featured image by Jev
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