CHARLES NODDER INVESTIGATES THE GAME-MEAT MARKET,
What’s happening to the game we shoot? How have the campaigns to encourage consumption fared? Are game dealers facing ruin? The Field investigates
A tenet of game-shooting is that everything killed gets eaten. the Code of Good Shooting Practice tells us, “All shot game is food and must be treated as such.” the mantra runs that if we trash the bag we trash shooting’s future, so it was worrying, to say the least, that ugly rumours were circulating last winter about shoots struggling to get their birds away to the food chain.
The Field decided to investigate and contacted the national Game Dealers’ Association, several game suppliers and retailers, the organisations that campaign to promote game sales, Mintel (which maintains statistics on the food trade) and also Companies House. It didn’t take long to find that one large UK game dealer went bust earlier this year and two others are in deep, perhaps terminal, financial trouble. Only about a dozen remain. One gamekeeper asked us whether we knew of anyone who could take 40,000 good-quality pheasants this winter because he couldn’t find a game dealer who would. It’s definitely bad out there.
Strangely, however, the Mintel statistics clearly show that game meat sales in the UK have risen by 38% since 2011. BASC’S taste of Game campaign and Game to eat (its Countryside Alliance equivalent), have both done great work persuading our supermarkets to stock game, tv chefs to cook it and the media to publicise it. Both campaigns are adamant that the consumer research is right and more people are eating game in Britain now than ever before. So what exactly is the problem?
Fundamentally, it’s not just a UK issue. Although there are no reliable statistics, we were told again and again during our research that more than a half of everything shot in the UK is sold to other parts of the eu. Many British game dealers have been dependent on selling shot game to the rest of europe, either in feather or processed form. But whereas our UK sporting organisations have invested heavily and successfully in promoting game meat sales here, next to nothing has been done on the Continent, where game consumption appears to be in decline.
The reasons for this are uncertain. Some believe that foreign palates are simply changing, citing fewer restaurants with game on their menus – in Brussels, for example. Others say that overseas eating habits are shifting, with even the French dining out less often. We were also told that home cooking abroad is now starting to follow the lazy British and American trends towards convenience foods. Whatever the cause, the harsh reality is that the European demand for our game is at best stagnant.
Supply, on the other hand, is increasing rapidly. The number of gamebirds released and shot in the UK has grown year on year ever since the 1970s, when the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s unique National Game Bag Census first began. We now release about 35 million birds and shoot 15 million, double the quantity bagged in 1990. In recent years the annual Smiths Gore Shoot Benchmarking Survey has added further detail to this picture, showing how the rise has been driven by strong demand for shooting. And that trend continues; no shoot we spoke to was planning to release fewer pheasants in 2017 and many were expecting to release more. Releasing of redleg partridges, likewise, continues to grow. These birds are popular not just with guns but also with shoot managers looking to extend their income-generating season.
Gamekeepers report that demand for shooting this year is “red hot” and one large gamebird veterinary practice reckons there could be a million more gamebirds reared in the UK than in 2016. If true, that’s a 3% increase, which, assuming a normal bag return, will mean another 300,000 to 400,000 shot gamebirds this winter to be sold. That’s a big challenge for an industry that looks likely to lose a fifth of its gamedealing capacity at the same time.
Quality plays a crucial role, too. “The money in game dealing is all in the whole, oven-ready bird,” says Stephen Crouch of Hampshire Game, who also chairs the National Game Dealers’ Association (NGDA). He explains that the oven-ready bird sells entirely on its appearance. “Any visible shot damage, blood, torn skin, missed feathers or unsightly yellow fat is as much of a turn-off to a supermarket meat buyer as it is to the average customer in a butcher’s shop. Only the top fifth of a typical bag will be saleable in oven-ready form and while that is where the best mark-up lies, it is also the sector most affected by the overseas market being in the doldrums.”
Any birds that fail to make the oven-ready standard have to be filleted into diced game meat, a laborious task that can only be done at a cost of around £4.50 a kilo. The greater the damage to the carcase, the more will have to go to catering waste and the less is useable as diced meat. If there is any hint of decay, then in today’s highly regulated meat market the whole bird must be rejected. The law requires safe disposal of catering waste and this costs £150 a tonne, so the margin for the dealer in game filleted by hand is tiny. He is also likely to have been struggling lately with increased costs for the mandatory Food Standards Agency inspections, on top of the big rise in the minimum wage and higher fuel bills for collection and delivery. (Complying with the FSA rules alone is estimated by the NGDA to cost an average game dealer more than £25,000 a year.)
Some shoots aren’t helping, either. During our research, The Field heard too many tales of game being poorly handled by shoots both large and small. While many take excellent care of their shot birds, with chilled larders and staff trained in food hygiene, the sight of shot birds piled into the backs of pick-up trucks remains unacceptably common. Perhaps the low prices being paid for the product breed contempt. The deer world, with its higher venison prices, certainly has a greater focus on the proper handling of carcases. True, the demand and prices for farmed venison – unaffected by awkward seasonality, hunting damage or variation in age and size – are higher but surely this simply confirms the relationship between a consistent, good-quality game product and its saleability.
Size matters, too. The trend towards releasing smaller, American-type pheasants
Whatever the cause, the harsh reality is that the European demand for our game is at best stagnant
The Field heard too many tales of game being poorly handled by shoots
because they are believed to fly higher (or perhaps just look farther away – see past issues of The Field) results in half the useable meat per bird yet almost the same processing cost for each. All those extra partridges fall foul of this reality, too. They are an awkward size for a roasting or restaurant bird; often too much for one person to eat but insufficient for two. The economic effect of damage on a smaller bird is greater and the filleting cost almost prohibitive. It is unsurprising, therefore, that partridge often featured in the rumours of bags that could not be sold last year.
Faced with the perfect storm of a declining EU market and an over-abundance of often low-quality UK product, at least one game dealer last year tried a completely new business model. He started charging shoots 50p a bird to collect their shot game. Some estates paid up, if only to ensure that their larders were empty in time for their next shoot. Paying for game to be collected is, so far as The Field is aware, new to shooting and it crosses a line. For the shoots that pay, the bag has finally become a true by-product of a separate supply chain: the sale of sporting shooting at £35 or £40 a bird.
A by-product is one thing – many industries have them and indeed pay for them to be taken away – but a waste product is quite another. Were it ever to be revealed either that shoots were routinely destroying edible game or that the game dealers charging to collect their birds were routinely sending them on for rendering or incineration, then surely no politically acceptable argument for game-shooting could be sustained?
But beware of ill-founded rumour surrounding this topic. Some shot game is genuinely unfit for food by virtue of being diseased or very badly damaged, through hard impact on landing, for example, or perhaps a mishap during the process of being retrieved. Such carcases are, quite rightly, kept back from human consumption and must be disposed of correctly. This is a necessary part of quality control and should never be confused with wanton destruction, although the antis often and probably knowingly conflate the two.
How, then, can we ensure that healthy game always has an appropriate end use?
More and better marketing is a clear requirement. Much has been done in the UK already and laudable initiatives such as Game to Eat and Taste of Game deserve our support. It would be good to see them now doing more to promote game sales in Europe and, perhaps, building on Brexit, even in other parts of the world. They have experience here of success using supermarkets, celebrity chefs and the media to generate public interest in game sales; those are surely transferrable skills. The virtues of game as a low-fat, high-flavour product are universal. With the right commercial backing, better sales abroad as well as in the UK can surely be achieved.
Other useful initiatives are up and running already. Taste of Game is working with the Food Teachers Centre to show schoolchildren how to cook game. They aim to reach 60,000 youngsters by 2020. Taste of Game also works with Game to Eat on the London-based Great British Game Food
Individual shooters must do their bit, too. In
The Field’s view it is unacceptable behaviour for a gun to leave a shoot without taking a brace of birds, yet at virtually every shoot around half the guns decline. Frankly, and especially where the excellent oven-ready option is provided, if we cannot enjoy even those birds ourselves, or entertain using them, or think of someone else who would appreciate them as a gift, then we are just not trying hard enough. We shot them in the first place, after all.
Nor should we dismiss this concept as being merely totemic. The independent 2013 Value of Shooting survey identified 3.6 million live quarry gun days annually in the UK. Some of those will have been pigeon-shooting and wildfowling trips but most will have been game days. These figures suggest that if every gun accepted a brace at every shoot, an additional million birds would be taken away, amounting to a very useful 7% of the total UK production. Think about it: if four guns on a 160-bird day take nothing away, that’s eight birds or 5% of the bag.
So, to summarise our analysis, the game market is in a worrying state, certainly, but better ways forward seem relatively easy to find. More good-quality marketing here and abroad, attention to proper game handling and, not least, correct action by individual guns are all essential to heading off a clear and present danger to our sport. Such solutions lie – quite literally, in the latter case - in our own hands and as sportsmen we ignore them at our peril. Festival, doing much to spread the word among retailers, restaurants and pubs. The Country Food Trust, meanwhile, is providing high-quality country casseroles to food banks, hostels and welfare organisations in many parts of the UK. Inevitably, there is a cheap Marie-antoinette “Let them eat game” jibe, which often gets made in relation to this initiative, but the Trust lives it down and does really good work keeping hungry people fed.
Some shoots have taken matters into their own hands, too, supplying farm shops or food markets or even combining forces to hire chilled lorries in which they can export their shot game in bulk direct to Europe. It may not help UK game dealers much – rather the reverse, in fact – but at least it is getting good-quality game to the table. And, of course, a further benefit of all these initiatives is that the person who enjoys eating game, man, woman or child, is less likely to be opposed in future to those who pursue it.