Opinion: Butchers need to adapt and respond to changing times to remain relevant and in business

The craft butchers are skilled performers, who use precision in preparing, dressing and displaying their meats to perfection. They personalise cuts of meat for their customers to the required size and flavour profile. They are experienced in educating the consumer on different cuts spanning from premium to the less expensive cuts, the latter excellent when cooked a little slower, providing all income levels with assurance of quality and taste for their families.

The craft butcher can confirm the provenance of the meat, right to which farmer has supplied it. If they own an abattoir, they can provide the complete farm to fork offering and a short carbon footprint is almost guaranteed. All of the above adds real value to the customer's food shopping experience.

Agri-tourists and international Michelin star chefs often visit Irish craft butcher shops in pursuit of find out more about Ireland's rich gastronomy. This enhances Ireland’s position as an island rich in an abundance of foods beyond spuds or bacon and cabbage and elevates Ireland as a food destination.

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They can see how beef is given the required time to mature in the old-fashioned way before it is skilfully seam boned to produce delicious cuts for customers. They can taste the traditional sausages and puddings as well as the home cured bacon that has been handmade using recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation, preserving yet another skill of the craft butcher and at the same time showcasing each butcher’s secret recipe and style.

Craft butchers provide a sales platform for local artisan producers, often at the beginning of their food journey. These small producers may not have the financial and technological resources required to meet the volumes demanded by the large supermarkets. They also tend to espouse similar values to the butcher "respecting the craft" in their production processes like, for example, Irish cheesemakers.

The butcher shop can be described as an "asset of community value", that local gathering place where customers and butchers recount the sporting and political news of the week. It can provide a sense of place and belonging, in particular to the elderly, contributing in a positive way to their health and well-being through community social engagement.

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These men and women are champions of their craft, dedicating rare spare time to practise and compete on regional, national and international platforms in particular Les Fins Goustiers in Alencon, France and IFFA in Germany, the leading international trade show for the meat industry. They compete against other entrants by showcasing their sausages, black and white puddings, spiced beef and other culinary delights. In 2018 an Irish team were crowned champions in the World Butcher's Challenge, showcasing their butchery skills and innovative practises.  

According to the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, the approximate number of butcher shops in Ireland fell from 1,300 in 2003 to 800 in 2019, based on their membership and general trends. Threats to the future of the Irish craft butcher are potentially very damaging, ranging from the competitiveness of the low cost, high volume discounters, supply chain volatility at farm level, climate change, changes in taste and the emergence of cultured meat, also called "meatless meat", in the form of plant-based burgers.

Coverage of climate change and dietary matters is another factor which has the potential to threaten the craft butchers’ livelihood. Headlines can have a potentially disruptive effect on consumers, even "traditional meat eaters" as they can begin questioning their own dietary behaviour.

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There is a real need to identify potential solutions to safeguard the future of the craft butcher. One initiative could be a quality programme for craft butchers. This would include clear communication of the direct origin of the meat, in conjunction with Bord Bia's Origin Green programme, a restricted farm to fork distance, clear sustainability practises from key stakeholders and evidence of positive animal welfare practises.

There has been a lot of research conducted in Ireland as to how the Irish beef industry can and is moving forward in tackling climate change. To support the butcher, there needs to be more coverage on the positive sustainability practises which are being undertaken by stakeholders right along the food supply chain. Consumers should also conduct their own research using validated sources.

Butchers need to adapt to changing times to remain relevant. They need to continually reassure the consumer of the quality of the meat by educating them on provenance, highlighting their traditional craft methods and showcasing the high level of innovation present throughout the craft butcher body from north to south.

This piece is based on Food and Disruption: Protecting the next generation of "Irish Craft Butchers",  a paper delivered by the author at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium 2020

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ