Shocks and disruption to any system quickly highlight the elements that are working, and all too clearly, the weaknesses. Any system, is only as strong as its weakest point.
The meat industry is a system with a complexity of elements that takes the livestock from the farm through to the consumer. It involves processing, transport, storage, value-adding, governance and consumption.
The events of the pandemic have shown that the consumer clearly views meat products as a necessary essential item, with many butchers experiencing the panic buying that cleared shelves and prompted early closes in order to re-stock and give staff a break from the high-pressure sales.
The advantage of the independent butcher is the ability to re-stock, take orders and work with individual customers to provide the products that the customer wants.
It is in this light, that the independent butcher can leverage new customers to the butcher store to become long term business once the crisis is past.
But what happens if part of the system supply chain is forced into shutdown due to staff COVID-19 illnesses?
It has become quite evident what the consequences are in the week prior to Easter when JBS, Cargill and Tyson in the USA closed a number of meat processing facilities. Not only were hundreds of staff stood down, but the supply through to retail will be impacted. An analyst with Rabobank USA said that the country had enough inventory for a month but the flow-on effect to farmers, who still need to send animals to the abattoir, and butchers who don’t hold a months’ worth of stock will feel the effects within a couple of weeks.
In an interview with Farmonline, butcher Trevor Hill said he had been feeling the impact of panic-buying that many butchers had experience and noted that ‘the centralised production supermarkets operate under means logistically they can’t ramp up their supply quickly but butchers can – we just walk over to the fridge and go let’s put that through the mincer now’.
A significant proportion of Australian meat production is exported or into hospitality. With border and restaurant closures, much of it can be re-directed into retail to meet demand and keep the supply chain moving.
Early indications also suggest that as we ‘stay home’, more people are taking the opportunity to cook meals, potentially increasing the weekly consumption of meat bought from the retail butcher.
The move into home delivery of product and meals gives an ideal opportunity for butcher shops to work collaboratively with chefs to create value-add products to suit current consumer demand.
Nick Rose is executive director of Sustain: Open Food Network and lecturer at William Angliss Institute and a specialist on food systems notes that the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of a bigger, long distance supply chain and that people are focusing on the essentials of life and secure access to food.
“This shift in focus has happened very quickly and likely to stay post-crisis,” said Nick. “One of those shifts may be the move toward more local and regional farming systems and economies, which some butchers are already employing with direct relationships to farmers, particularly for customers who want to know more about where their food comes from and the values and ethics of the farmer and butcher.
“The trajectory towards more centralised abattoir and processing plants in the past decade, and the closure of smaller, regional abattoirs has been detrimental to many small towns with loss of employment and a diminished community. In the current environment diversification and de-centralisation of our meat supply chain will mean greater resilience in the face of shock and major disruption.”
In Vermont, USA, the state government has successfully taken on a project to decentralise the food systems which has successfully re-invigorated small towns, seen employment growth in agriculture and food industries and given producers the true worth for their efforts and product.
“What this pandemic has really demonstrated is that farmers – and butchers – are essential to our food frameworks and should be recognised accordingly. It has also highlighted that access to food that is value for money and nutritious should be available to everyone. Putting programs in place post-crisis will be just as important then as it is now, and the butcher can have a significant role to play in that,” said Nick.
Many butchers have already taken on a paddock to plate philosophy, whereby the butcher works directly with a farmer to supply beef, lamb, pork and poultry and uses this as a point of difference for the store.
There are a number of food business models available, such as community supported agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets and food hubs, which are based on direct relationships between the farmer and the consumer.
Tammi Jonas, an ethical pig farmer in central Victoria and president of Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance said that many CSAs are now at full membership as a result of the pandemic, and are likely to remain so post-crisis. Tammi also conceded that while CSAs and farmers markets did have the perception of higher retail prices, quite often it is not the case and urges consumers to compare supermarket prices to independent retail.
“The long game is to get our food production systems structured so that everyone has access to good food, we have reduced dependence on mega-operations and greater agility and resilience for the rough times through regional and local producers, abattoirs and processors.
“The opportunity for butchers to work with chefs to provide meals from secondary cuts (and not mince!) and connect with local growers and their community has never been better. Most butchers are community-minded and good at selling their product, now is the time to re-negotiate with the supply chain or connect with local farmers.”