Many alternative marketers position themselves as "different from" and thus "better than" conventional competitors. But with animal agriculture, does that do more harm than good?
Two interesting reports from the other side of the pond, England and Holland offer interesting perspectives on that question.
They both involve entrepreneurs who are trying to capitalize on innovative ways of marketing meat products. That’s fine, but the efforts both raise controversial questions about how their messaging affects the larger industry.
It begs the question whether people who position themselves in opposition to conventional production, or in the face of majority opinion, are helping or hurting the industry’s image. It also raises the question whether their marketing tactics damage public perceptions of the public toward producers, meatpackers and processors?
You be the judge. Here’s the first story.
The Meat Box
In Great Britain, a creative butcher has put together a concept that, while certainly not unique, is positioned to take advantage of some of the worst perceptions of livestock producers. The project is called The Meat Box, and here’s the quirky British description, according to the foodie website Munchies:
“The Meat Box is so much more than a carnivorous orgy of sausages, mince, steaks, and male genital-related banter. It might just be the ethical, anti-supermarket answer to Britain’s butchery woes. Because everyone knows high street butchers are folding quicker than a Y-front-clad card player in a game of strip poker.”
Not sure about that visual image, but you get the gist.
The Meat Box consists of fresh meat products delivered directly to consumers from producers who contract with dedicated butchers. Typically, the mix in the meat case at the larger supermarkets is heavily dependent on imported beef and pork, and independent farmer-producers in Britain are faced with finding alternatives to stay competitive.
“Farmers put a lot of effort into rearing their animals, but this effort isn’t always reflected in the market value they receive,” said Jim Lewis, the onsite butcher at Cotswold Farm and a Meat Box purveyor. “But an onsite butchery provides a traceability that gives a marketable edge over inferior, cheaper alternatives. This value can then be re-invested in the animals in order to maintain standards.”
But by denigrating conventional product, are these entrepreneurs hurting the larger meat industry? Consider the language that supports their positioning. Here’s how the Munchies reviewer described the product:
“I can see that ‘marketable edge’ the minute I open the lid on the box Todenham Manor Farm delivered to my door. The mince is ruby red and luscious looking — none of that brown nonsense you get in the supermarkets that looks like an old scarf dipped in coffee. And when I fried it up for a spot of spag bol? Hallelujah! No Tears of our Lady-style weeping of water into the pan.”
He defined “quality” by hitting some very hot buttons.
“Todenham doesn’t pump their meat full of artificial chemicals or cut corners with artificial thickeners, flavour enhancers, or preservatives. Would your average supermarket butcher be able to offer the same? I doubt it.”
Buying local? That’s positive, although independent producers and butchers and direct-to-consumer marketers will never represent more than a slice of the overall red meat sector. Yet, they are a growing segment and their operations help keep farmland and pastures in production while offering valuable consumer choice.
But slamming supermarket beef and pork as “brown nonsense,” with “water weeping into the pan.” Isn’t that throwing a sucker punch at conventional producers?
Not if those accusations are true. I know that many restaurants in Britain tend to serve entire meals that appear “brown,” and British food in general doesn’t exactly sit at the pinnacle of the culinary pyramid. But if the ground beef sold in Tesco or Sainsbury stores really is brown and does shrink significantly, then The Meat Box might be exactly what that channel needs to raise its game.
Now here’s the second Euro story, also courtesy of the Munchies website.
“At Ernste, a butcher shop in Arnhem, Netherlands, it’s been busier than usual over the last few days,” the story began. “The shop, which has been around since 1899, was recently placed into the Dutch media spotlight when the newspaper Volkskrant wrote about his concern over the possibility that the shop . . . might have to close its doors.”
What’s so newsworthy about that? Ernste is a horse butcher shop. Specializing in the sale of horsemeat products. And business seems to be going great.
“There are many people who have been coming here for years for the horse sausage, which we are really famous for,” said Appie Botter, one of the shop’s butchers who is taking over the business from the retiring owner Willem Brugman. “I have customers who come all the way from [the towns of] Didam and Heereveen specifically for the sausage.”
Traditionally, horse butchers thrived in working-class Dutch neighborhoods because the meat was the working man’s food. Now, however, the neighborhood around Ernste is gentrifying, with new boutique clothing stores and other upscale retailers.
Thus, a campaign is now underway called “Red paardenslager Ernste!” — “Save Ernste horse butcher shop” — and it just might work.
“These new inhabitants are really into buying organic and artisanal foods,” Botter said, “and this new group is curious about horsemeat and the story behind it.”
Chef Werry van Leeuwen, owner of the nearby Gastropub Sugar Hill, has become an “ambassador” for horsemeat, spearheading a promotion called “Horse on the Menu,” which includes such delicacies as horse steak tartare.
Is that a good thing? Despite the stronger and far lengthier culinary connections Europeans have with horsemeat, is it possible to overcome the emotionally charged feelings so many people have toward horses?
According to van Leeuwen, the demand for horsemeat is “an emerging trend,” one that is part of a culinary revolution at such restaurants as Le Chateaubriand in Paris. “Horsemeat is softer and sweeter than beef,” he said. “It is not industrial flesh, but very pure, Dutch meat from riding school horses that retire or die.”
In the United States, I would argue that such positioning would result in No Sale.
In Holland, however, dining on riding school horses appears to be an entirely different experience.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator