Horizon: ‘Should I Eat Meat? – The Big Health Dilemma’

Horizon: ‘Should I Eat Meat? – The Big Health Dilemma’

I don’t really know why I watched this after the abysmal ‘Fat vs Sugar’ in January (a masochistic streak perhaps). I ran out of patience quite early on but managed to last out the hour. Pop over to here to watch it in full. Alternatively have a read of my post and see if it’s worth the bother. The documentary jumped from one issue to another in a confusing and ultimately pointless manner. Repeating the well-worn mantra of ‘all things in moderation’ and leaving the viewer ultimately frustrated at the lack of hard evidence for any of the scare stories, I felt this programme did nothing to seriously address the question.  Let’s hope that the next edition is better than this.

Presented by Dr Michael Mosley the programme questioned whether meat is a nutritious form of protein or an artery clogging danger that causes cause cancer and premature death. ‘What is the truth about meat?’ Dr M asks (in a sort of conspiracy-theory way). He rather guiltily admits to eating meat most days but adds that he is sceptical of the scare headlines about red meat and cancer. Dr M notes that as meat eating has doubled world-wide, we need find out if this is a good thing.  For the purpose of the documentary, he decides to go on a ‘high meat diet’ to see the effects on his body.

The requisite experts then appear (British Nutrition Foundation, Interventional Cardiologist, Senior Heart Health Dietician) and give a series of quite positive opening statements regarding meat. Dr M tells us that ‘as a species we evolved to eat red meat, but not that much and not that often’ (so don’t get too excited).

Dr M advises that we need to look at ‘studies’ (although perhaps we need to turn away from studies, academia and experts and start looking at how we feel on an individual basis, but that’s another argument). We hear that chicken and other white meat are ok (factory-farmed, antibiotic-laden chickens are obviously not a problem) but that it is the effects of eating red meat (beef, pork and lamb) as well as processed meat that needs to be considered.

The average meat consumption in the UK is 70 grams of red and processed meat a day, with a quarter of men eating 130 grams. Therefore Dr M decides that his experiment should consist of eating 130 grams of red and processed meat per day.

Dr M gets a health check (body fat, blood panel etc.) but admits that this is a sample size of 1 and so won’t be representative of everyone. He then hops over the pond to meet some very pleasant vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists who (on average) live for 7 years longer than the (average) American. Not all Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian though; some eat limited amounts of meat. The community extol the virtues of leading a ‘healthy, wholesome lifestyle’ and so are interesting subjects to study for a comparison between meat eaters and non-meat eaters (the half that do eat meat tend not to smoke or have other unhealthy habits).

Extensive epidemiological studies have been carried out to look at the Seventh Day Adventists and their health in relation to meat-eating. We then skip to an interview in a café where Dr M talks to Dr Gary Frazer leading the research (himself a vegetarian). Dr M tucks into some pulled pork and admits guiltily to the clearly concerned doctor (munching a vegetarian salad) that he has also eaten 4 rashers of bacon the same morning. After reflecting on Dr M’s survival outlook if he carries on like this (bleak), Dr Frazer explains that the vegetarians are doing much better in terms of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension and tells us: ‘That whole area is fairly well-established.’ Oh…

We are told that men who eat beef 3 times per week, double the risk of heart disease. At this point we see Dr M consuming a huge, deep-fried onion ring. This behaviour translates to 4-5 years reduction in life expectancy (that’s the beef, not the onion ring – keep up with me here…).

Dr M then goes back to Reading University to find out what it is in meat that is doing us harm. We look at the various nutrients in meat as opposed to vegetarian options. The scientist at Reading tells us that red meat is a ‘good, high quality protein’ but that cheese has the same amount of protein. Pork and vegetarian sausage have the same amount of protein. Tofu has a lot less.

We learn that red meat is made up of amino acids which are essential, many of which the body cannot make. Red meat is a complete protein and is also rich in vitamins and minerals. However, cheese has nearly the same amount of B12. It also has more saturated fat, but as people tend to eat less cheese this is ok. The cheese appears to be coming out tops in all this…

We are told that beef, bacon and sausages all have high amounts of saturated fat ‘which are linked to heart disease’. Then there is some talk about the research in the 1950s on heart disease and saturated fat, with the terms ‘red meat’ and ‘processed meat’ being constantly linked. This really is all over the place.

Dr M admits that recent research has suggested saturated fat is not that bad. He goes to talk to Dr Ronald Krause at Berkeley. Dr Krause was a former adherent to a low-fat dogma but found that his patients did not do well on low-fat diets. He set out to examine the studies regarding saturated fat and heart disease but found the evidence lacking. However, just before we get too complacent Dr M warns us that this ‘doesn’t suggest that saturated fat is a health tonic’ and asks if there is something else in red meat ‘that could be clogging our arteries.’

On to the subject of L-Carnotine found in the lean part of the meat and which ‘potentially’ affects the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries by reacting with the bacteria in the gut to produce TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide). We are told by an expert that ‘this has not been proven to occur in our bodies but is a potential mechanism for how this might work.’ Dr M then tells us that we now have evidence that saturated fat isn’t that bad but that ‘lean meat could be doing damage.’ The words ‘potential’ ‘could’ and ‘possibly’ crop up an awful lot over the space of an hour.

(Incidentally, pop over to here, and here for some interesting reflections on TMAO. Fish also raises TMAO).

Back to the UK experts and I noticed a hint of mild excitement that although they appear to have been barking up the wrong tree regarding saturated fat, there may be this ‘other thing’ that justifies them telling us to avoid red meat.

There is some dramatic music and then Dr M tells us that ‘the jury is still out regarding what it is in meat that increases risk of cardiac problems and how big this risk is’… Then we watch as he tucks into a burger with huge bun and a load of chips.

There is a brief and totally pointless bit about meat and culture, in which the experts link meat and ‘affluence’, and then Dr M goes to Harvard University to interview Walter Willett. Dr Willett has studied 120, 000 people over 30 years and explains the following findings:

Red meat (unprocessed):

  • Those who ate red meat had a higher risk of mortality, cancer, etc.
  • 85 grams (beef burger) = 13% increase risk of premature death

Processed meat is worse:

  • 35 grams per day (2 rashers of bacon) = 20% increase risk of premature death (because of heart disease and cancer)

Dr M warns us that things are ‘looking grim for meat eaters’. But wait! The EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) followed 0.5 million people over 12 years in 10 countries. This found that moderate amounts of red meat had no effect on mortality rates and that eating meat is ‘better than being vegetarian.’

(Incidentally the study showed that ‘Subjects in the highest fifth of blood vitamin D levels showed a 40% reduced risk [of colorectal cancer compared with those in the lowest fifth.’ See here)

At this point Dr M admits that epidemiological observational studies are ‘not certain’ (funny that he didn’t mention it before now) and that we ‘cannot prove that dietary components are causing specific diseases’.  At this point you wonder why you bothered watching…

Back to the experts and their final recommendations on how often to eat which ranged from ‘meat-less days’ (if you can’t go vegetarian, which is the ideal), ‘once a month’, ‘in moderation’ to Dr M’s advice that ‘a moderate amount a couple of days per week is ok’.

Dr M then considers colonoscopies and their importance in detecting polyps in the bowel (which may lead to bowel cancer). This leads him to look at why processed meat is a possible carcinogenic. Dr M cures some bacon at Reading University using 12 teaspoons of salt which clearly disturbs him (‘salt is obviously not good for us’), 5 teaspoons of sugar (not particularly bothered) and a teaspoon of nitrates. We are informed that Sodium Nitrate stops us getting botulism but reacts with amino acids. However, ‘we have yet to establish a direct link’ between nitrates and colon cancer. The smoking process (producing chemicals called PAH’s) may be another ‘potential mechanism whereby red and process meats increase our chances of gastro-intestinal cancer.’  As with all of this, there seems to be no conclusive proof. As an aside, the possibility of nitrate-free bacon is not mentioned.

On to the best piece of information in the whole documentary and if you have one ‘take-away’ it has to be this. Dr M recruits a statistician and asks him ‘If we were to nail down what we can really, really say  about  how long we live, what sort of things are we reasonably certain will cut years off your life?’. The statistician tells us that eating 2 rashers of bacon a day translates to an hour per day off our life. Dr M looks suitably grave at this announcement and exclaims ‘Wow!’ This is science at its best.

Dr M then returns to the hospital for a check-up and finds out the following:

  • No change in compounds linked to cancer (we are told that this is possibly because he has been consuming a lot of fibre with his meat)
  • LDL cholesterol has increased (no mention of what type here)
  • Body fat and blood pressure have increased

Therefore the suggestion is that eating more meat increases ‘bad’ cholesterol, makes you fat and sends your blood pressure up. No mention of anything else that Dr M may have tucked into on his high meat diet (onion rings, chips, burger buns…)

Dr M advises that we should eat unprocessed, ‘fairly lean’ meat on occasions and that ‘if you are going vegetarian make sure that you get all the vitamins and minerals that you need’. An expert adds that a healthy diet is a ‘predominantly plant-based diet, supplemented with meat.’

Dr M then finishes on a plea for more ‘vegetables, vegetables, vegetables’ and then it ends. Phew! Once again, Horizon comes up with the goods regarding cutting-edge science documentaries.

I feel genuinely sorry for those people looking to find an answer in all of this mess. The lightweight treatment of what is a serious subject (the avoidance of diseases such as heart disease and cancer) is frustrating. The confounding factors in all of the arguments put forward simply serve to confuse things even further. Apart from a fleeting comment (we evolved to eat red meat ‘not that much and not that often’),  our existence as hunter-gatherers for the majority of our time on earth eating meat, fish, fat, roots and tubers, a variety of other vegetables, with some limited fruit is not discussed or considered relevant. It as if we have all been beamed down from another planet. We need to look at the consumption of meat in the context of a real food diet; quality meat produce eaten alongside healthy fats and vegetables. The lumping together of meat-eating with a high carbohydrate diet for the purpose of ‘scientific’ observational studies such as this will always obscure the benefits of eating meat.

If people are encouraged to cut back their consumption of meat, many will probably increase carbs (as I did), as most people have been scared to death of fat. This has all sorts of implications for health – especially in terms of gluten and excess carbohydrates. The satiating effects of meat, and especially fat, are so important in the context of a healthy diet, particularly if people are struggling to lose weight and come from a background of low-fat, low-calorie eating that the ‘experts’ have pushed on us for many decades. When eaten with sufficient fat, meat portions do not have to be huge to be satisfying (particularly if you are looking to move into ketosis, in which case protein should be limited).

Meat quality was not addressed, although that may be a subject for next week’s edition (but what if you don’t watch that?). I also noticed that the benefits of offal was not discussed which was a shame as it provides some of the best nutrition by far.

I will watch next week’s edition but I wonder how many years of my life I have wasted – and will probably continue to waste – by watching rubbish documentaries such as this.  So a bacon sandwich a day takes an hour off your life? In that case I’m sticking to my bacon (without the bread) and if I could just give up watching these hour-long pointless documentaries, things will even themselves out…



For a list of Paleo-friendly suppliers and products see the Resources and Suppliers page.

A Butcher’s Tale: Interview with Bryan George of George’s Butchers, Talgarth

A Butcher’s Tale: Interview with Bryan George of George’s Butchers, Talgarth

Eating Paleo means caring about the source of your food and going to great lengths to secure the best that you can get (not necessarily the most expensive either). This is especially important when it comes to meat. Knowing that the animals are reared and slaughtered locally is a real bonus and finding a great butcher makes things so much easier.

Butchers are incredibly important but often overlooked in comparison to chefs and food producers. Some may argue that the craft of butchery is dying out as the big supermarkets move in and attempt to obliterate local trade. However, across a selection of villages, towns – and even in some cities – the craft of butchery is still alive and even thriving. In the wake of scandals and increasing concern about the provenance of our food and the ethical means by which it is produced, many people turn to their local butcher as a guarantee of quality and for reassurance about the food on their plate.

The enormous negative publicity regarding meat over the last few decades has obviously had an impact on the trade, with nonsense headlines such as those recently condemning protein diets (see here) making matters worse. But hopefully we are living through a period of change when people are beginning to realise that the advice on nutrition has been inherently flawed and that eating real food – including real, quality meat – is the best that we can do for our health.

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Situated in the small town of Talgarth at the foot of the Black Mountains in Wales, is W.J. George’s Butchers and Deli Pot delicatessen. A family-run business, George’s is renowned for the quality of its meat and skilled staff with customers travelling from far and wide. They also run a small abattoir; one of the very few local abattoirs left in the county of Powys. I decided to interview Bryan and Gaynor George about their butchery and delicatessen business, which they run with eldest son Christopher and his wife Georgina.

I wanted to learn as much as I can about the source of our meat, how it is raised, slaughtered and butchered, and to find out how things have changed over the years for this fantastic business and butchery in general. What I discovered provides a fascinating insight into butchery over the decades from a true master craftsman.

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Bryan (pictured left), tell me a bit about how you started in business and the history of the shop.

Well it was my father’s business and he started in 1935. His uncle had it before him on the same site. It used to be a pub called the Lower Lion. Gaynor has a fantastic photograph taken in 1904 I think and all the butchers are lined up outside. It was a slaughterhouse then too so all the slaughtermen are there as well.

My father was orphaned when he was 9 or 10 years old and the children were put out to relatives so he was sent to his uncle in Talgarth who was a butcher and auctioneer called Frank Price. I don’t think my father had any intention of being a butcher. He wanted to be an auctioneer but his uncle became ill and at 18 my father had to go down to the market to select stock and it went from there. After his uncle’s death, he naturally took over. It was a rented property then and was owned by Parry’s the old chemist shop. I remember that chemist – it had all the big bottles in the window.

Bryan's Dad website copy

My father, William John George, known as Billy (pictured right) had the chance of buying the shop in the 1950s. And of course meat was on control until about 1954. During the war years it was allotted to you because people obviously had ration books. I think the allowance was about 4oz each per week per person and corned beef could be counted in that. So of course, the larger the family the bigger the joint and had they had to eke it out. I can well remember them saying ‘Oh god we’ve got nothing for so-and-so’ and there used to be very good people living down here by the petrol pump so we had to go down and ask them ‘Can you manage this week?’ and they would say ‘Yes, we’ll be ok.’

So when did you actually start to work in the shop?

I left school at 15 and went in to the shop and thought ‘Oh my god, I don’t like this job! I’ll never stick that’. And that was it! I hated it because it was long hours and as the son I was expected to do those long hours while all the other kids had finished and were off to Brecon cinema. It was really long hours in those days because we had lots of rounds, which was the thing then because people didn’t have cars so you had to take the meat to them. As soon as I was 17 I was out on the van and out on a Friday until about 7 o’clock at night. Nearly every house had meat and it was really hard work. Conscription was on then and I went down to a medical in Cardiff and I got into the RAF. My father applied to the local MP to get a deferment for two years as he needed me in the business. During those 2 years they abandoned conscription.

Bryan Pic 1 jpeg working copy JPEG

I took the shop over in about 1988 when my father became ill and we kept up the slaughtering side of it. I used to do all the slaughtering on a Monday and Tuesday. I didn’t like it to start.

Bryan pictured left.

In my father’s day there were 5 butchers’ shops in Talgarth. There was a lot more meat about and there were 3 slaughterhouses in the town, so things have really changed.

Gaynor (who is also a keen restaurant reviewer on Trip Advisor with thousands of hits!) has an amazing scrapbook full of press cuttings she has collected regarding the business. She showed me the photo from 1904 that Bryan mentioned. The shop was then called Price & Son (Price is the name of Brian’s father’s uncle). The beef carcasses hang around the outside of the shop and the butchers and slaughtermen stand proudly in their striped aprons. At the front are two little girls in frilly dresses and bonnets. The shop looks practically the same as it does now. It is a wonderful photograph. Below is another photograph of the shop, taken at around the same time.

Butchers Shop Talgarth MASTER COPY JPEG 70

We haven’t changed the appearance purposely. We haven’t had a lot of cabinets in the shop which people like. And if we were to change it, for instance if legislation said that that we can’t have meat out in the open, people wouldn’t like it. People like to see the meat. People come in and they want to see us cutting it.

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How many staff do you have in the shop?

Eight altogether including the delicatessen staff. New recruits are Paul who has been with us for 12 years (pictured centre) and Jay has been with us for 8 years, the most recent (left). They were both Saturday boys and they decided to carry on. Paul started at the Welsh Venison centre and lived next door to us but one. We have known him since a little boy and he always wanted to work in a butchers. Jay has come on a lot too. Christopher (Brian’s eldest son, pictured far right) joined as he didn’t want to stay on in school, so he came into the business too. Chris doesn’t have children so unfortunately after him the George name will cease. I also have a daughter Janet, who is married with 3 daughters and lives in Singapore and my younger son, Robert is an accountant so things will change.

Can you tell me a bit about your customers, are they mostly local?

They come from a fair way, London even. We get quite a lot of people with weekend cottages and they come in. Dylan Jones from GQ who has a place up near the Black Mountains is a customer. He wrote the excellent article in the Mail called ‘Don’t mess with the man in the apron’ (see here). There’s a follow-up as well. It was funny because he said it was like walking into the OK Corral and everyone had their knives in their hands. He asked for salt marsh lamb! An article like that, I mean what would it cost in a national newspaper? It was great for business. I didn’t even know about it!

Of course, I had to give him a treat back so I took him out for lunch with his wife and daughters and the follow-up article is also up on the wall in the shop. I had a Lexus at the time and he met me at the house so I said ‘You follow me’. We got on the A70 and I thought that I had been dawdling a bit so I put my foot down and left him behind! In his article he said that I drove like I was training to be in the Welsh Grand Prix! He said that if you do happen to be on the Talgarth bypass and you see a white Lexus behind you – get out the way! He’s a fantastic bloke and he has a big do after the Hay Festival (a Groucho club pop-up) and uses our meat.

Yes, our customers come from Cardiff too. People in the cities know that they can’t get that sort of quality where they are and so they are prepared to travel. All they get offered is supermarket meat and butchers that don’t have any carcass meat and it all comes in plastic bags. And they don’t know the origin so they could be eating anything, so they make the effort to come. We have an old boy who comes over from Aberdare and another who rings up and gives us an order and then he’ll be down. You’re talking about £200 – £250! And the retired bank manager from Brynmawr who brings the whole family, they fill the shop! They come at least 8 times a year from Ebbw Vale and he tells all his friends, aunts and uncles. It’s real word of mouth – you can’t beat it. We don’t advertise much. But locals – a lot of them do go to the supermarket. Maybe it’s on price, I don’t know but I’ve looked in supermarkets and thought that they’re not that much cheaper than us.

We did supply the River Café in London with the late Rose Gray (where Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started). Rose actually came into the shop on a Saturday afternoon around festival time and I didn’t know who she was. She asked for a leg of lamb and told me that she had been recommended to come here so it better be good! I said ‘Oh yes – it will be good’. I thought she was a housewife you see. And she wanted some pork as well so she said ‘Is that good too?’ And it just so happened we had some pork from St Fagan’s. So as I was cutting the leg of lamb she said again ‘You better mind its good!’ and I thought ‘Oh my god she keeps going on’. And then she added ‘I do happen to have a Michelin Star.’ I said ‘Oh, that’s not bad work for a woman!’ That was when she told me who she was and I said ‘Oh, I didn’t realise’. I invited her to come and have a look at the lambs at the back which had just been killed. They were Texel lambs from Gwyn Davies at Caebetran Farm, Llandefalle. Lovely lambs, everyone a picture because he does breed a good lamb. The legs are big and the shoulders stick out, fantastic. She said that she had never seen lambs looking like that. So off she went and then she emailed us and asked to do business with us. That’s how it started and we began to supply them. She wouldn’t buy whole carcasses but have say 30 legs of lamb, fillets of beef and a side or whole pig.

We used to drive it up there on a Sunday and we were invited to lunch one day. We sat near to a doctor who had brought his wife all the way from Edinburgh for a birthday treat, so we knew it would be special. He said to us ‘Whatever you have – it will be good.’ He was right – it was lovely food. We’ve been up several times since then and also went to the launch of her book. We even sat near to the late Michael Winner one day with his 3 female companions! The service was fantastic, you didn’t have to call them, they were right there. It was so sad when Rose passed away (Rose Gray died on 28th February 2010). We lost the connection after that which was a shame.  Interestingly, the Head Chef Sian (Sian Wyn Owen) is Welsh.

So yes, we have a diverse client base!

What would you say your customer age range is?

I would say quite a lot of people over 40. Youngsters go for convenience.

Can you tell me about the meat that you sell? Where does it come from?

Yes – all from local farms. We might go say 15 miles away. We get some from Amberley the other side of the border. We get pigs from St Fagan’s Museum in Cardiff and they have a very good home there. They are looked after like babies and the pork turns out fantastic. It’s thanks to people like St Fagin’s that we get – whenever we can – the Welsh Breed pigs which had almost became extinct. The London chefs love the rare breeds. We don’t buy Welsh Black beef and my father would never buy it. He used to say that it is more of a dairy breed than a beef breed. It’s a hardy breed and stays out all the winter. But they don’t normally mature until close to 30 months old. Every time we have tried it, it has been too tough but of course it became trendy with the chefs.

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Can we talk about the abattoir? What are the benefits of slaughtering on the premises?

Well first of all, in an abattoir like ours we can choose the quality that goes into the shop. I mean if I was in a position where I relied on people to just send it in I would be getting some cattle and sheep which I wouldn’t normally buy. Say if we go on to a farm and they have 6 cattle there, there might be 2 that don’t suit us, so I’ll say that we’ll have the four. So we go to the farm to select the animals that we want. That’s what you have to do. And then we pay for them on the dead weight price. Sheep – they usually come to the market here every Friday. Those are usually off customers or those that we know who have got the right type of lamb for us. People say ‘Oh you had the dearest lambs again today – you only want the best!’ so people do notice. There’s one farm, Caebetran, that is over 1000ft up – or over – and he does superior lambs – Texels. And we have one farmer that does only Hereford cattle. But of course Herefords are really not commercially viable if the truth be known because these continental cattle have come along with a bigger yield of meat. (Gaynor adds that you can’t beat the Hereford meat!) The trouble is tastes have altered and the Hereford does carry more fat. I had one Hereford last week and also a Limousin cross. The Hereford was very nice but it was shot with marbling and of course people look at that.

What causes the marbling?

It’s the breed and this is what you don’t get with the continental. We have become so obsessed with lean meat that is why the continentals have become so popular. And of course the cattle come on quicker. They will get to weight quicker than a Hereford but, as one farmer said to me, they eat more as well. It takes longer for the Hereford to mature but perhaps it doesn’t cost as much to feed them. You do notice it over the loin; the sirloin. If you have a sirloin off a Limousin it will be big but with a Hereford it will be narrow.

What do you think has caused the decline in local abattoirs?

Cost! And people are frightened out of it. Bureaucracy has played a big part.

In 1995, in the wake of the BSE scandal 2 pieces of legislation were put in place; the Meat Hygiene Rules and Regulations and the Meat Hygiene Service.  Officers and vets were appointed to carry out tests on livestock and meat to ensure welfare standards and to prevent BSE.

How did the new rules and regulations affect the business Bryan?

Yes before this, local authorities inspected the meat but now it is local vets. Ours comes from Cardiff. Nearly all the vets are Polish. They phased out the meat inspectors in favour of vets but really they are only glorified meat inspectors. It came out that you had to have a vet pre and post slaughter. So in other words a vet looked at them to see if they are fit to kill to start. But that came in even when the local authority was doing it. I used to have to get my vet from Brecon and he would look at them. Then it changed and I couldn’t choose my vet and they fiddled about with it – and they’re still fiddling about with it.

If they were to charge full cost meat inspection then the business would close as the cost would be phenomenal and we couldn’t afford it. We get what they call ‘full cost recovery’ so it’s not quite as bad (around £300 month). That is to pay the vet to come out (which is subsidised) every day that we slaughter. You can’t start without him. There are lots of hidden expenses that you don’t expect. For instance, he wanted plastic on the walls even though they are scrubbable surfaces. Stupid things like sealing the doors. On a hot day as you can imagine it generates quite a bit of heat (especially with pigs) but we are not allowed to kill with the door open in case a fly comes in. Obviously they haven’t got flies in Poland or Spain! There was a fly in a cobweb that they complained about. And they complained about the cat walking around. Chris offered to buy the cat some wellies for the slaughterhouse.

We almost got closed down in around 1997. A chap came round and he was a cocky little devil. He was representing the chief vet in Cardiff, Mr Thomas. Anyway this little chap came along – as they do with a clipboard – and said ‘Well, you can forget this place after April’. This was around the time of new EEC regulations coming in. He said ‘You’ve got plenty of room down the bottom – just build a new one or send in some plans and see if they get passed.’ So I employed a firm and the estimated cost was at least 80k. So we submitted the plans to them and every month I would get a bill for £1100 until eventually I gave up.

April came and went and we were still slaughtering until one Monday we received a call from Mr Thomas on the phone and told us that the plans were not feasible. I said ‘That’s what I thought but one of your lieutenants said that’s what I would have to do or else I would get closed down.’ He said ‘Listen, would you be willing to spend 20k and we’ll give you 3 years?’ He was a chap that saved the day which you don’t get very often. He was obviously on the side of the small abattoir people. I said ‘Thank you very much’. He advised that we needed to extensively refurbish, including bringing the lairage (where the animals stand) up to date and  and installing an electric hoist instead of the old rope one. So we went ahead and did it and we never looked back, because it would have broken the tradition if we had to close the abattoir.

Where are the nearest abattoirs?

There is one in Raglan (the other side of Abergavenny) and one in Machynlleth. Every town used to have its own abattoir and they have decimated it really. I suppose those high up would like to see them closed down. Rather like the milk. We used to have 3 different milk suppliers in the town and it’s all gone. Now we are all drinking the same milk driven for miles and miles. That’s what they would like to see with the meat – nobody really standing out.

Can you say a bit about how the abattoir works for someone who has no idea?

We slaughter one day a week on a Friday. The animals are brought in by trailer behind a vehicle, unloaded and usually put on a bed of straw. They are there overnight. We are not allowed to keep cattle overnight so they need to come in on the day but sheep and pigs can stay. You don’t feed them but there is water for them. And then they are driven into the stunning pen and stunned with a gun. The sheep and pigs are stunned electrically with tongs and cattle with a gun.

With the cattle, they are obviously restrained with a yolk to come down over their head and they go into a pen. Then they are processed. Pigs are taken up on a hoist and then they are bled and go along a rail and drop down into a tank which is an automatic process. A pig de-hairer and scalder all in one. They go in; you shut the lid, press the button and wait 3 minutes. Usually all the hair is off providing the water is not too hot. It’s important that it doesn’t overheat otherwise it will scald the hair on and there will be a terrible job to get it off – a lot of knife work involved. And then they are gutted and that’s it. Then the meat inspector inspects them and if they are ok he puts a stamp on them that they are fit to eat.

How long do you hang the meat for?

Beef is usually hung for two weeks – maybe three – but I don’t like hanging it too long. Myself I don’t like a strong taste of hung meat really. Pigs, you wouldn’t hang too long. I think it is better if it does go into the second week and of course lamb you don’t hang.

What age are the animals when they come in for slaughter?

Pigs usually 16-18 weeks, with lamb we had one this week that was born before Christmas but that was very early, but usually the new season lamb starts around Easter which is the tradition. On the other hand you get people asking for something more mature (over 12 months) and we call it hogget. So it’s lamb, hogget and mutton (which became very trendy). Mutton is only to a limited audience but I suppose if we were in London we would sell more. And Smokies which are of course illegal. Smokies are old lamb which is smoked with the skin on. We also get the Ghurkas coming in for pigs. They like goat too for their curries.

Can you tell me about the importance of grass-fed meat?

Yes, but of course it is limited as you know. I would personally prefer completely grass-fed beef but we won’t be getting that until about June. Before then they are grain finished – grain, silage or hay. Really it’s a job to beat the grass fed beef. It’s yellower in colour. It is nice and natural.

 In the US, there is an American Grassfed Association, dedicated to promoting 100% grass-fed meat. Do you think that in the future, it would be possible for more Welsh farmers to transition to 100% grass-fed? How realistic is a Welsh Grassfed Association?

I think they would need some grain finishing to get them in condition. Of course they could feed silage but I’m not keen on that (a mixture of hay etc.) Grain finishing is salvation in times when there is just not the weather to keep them out.

Do you notice anyone asking for 100% grass-fed meat?

No – it’s not something that we get asked for.

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What do you think of organically raised meat?

I think it’s overrated. How do you really know that it is 100% organic and from what I have seen of the samples, some of them are not finished. They are bare if you like. It sounds wonderful but I think there is an element of doubt. I suppose you have to put your faith in it because they are regulated. The organic meat used to have to be slaughtered on a different day to non-organic. They are a little more lenient now in that you can slaughter and have them in the same fridge providing the meat is clearly stamped. And of course there is a market for it. We very rarely get people asking for organic meat but when they do, I say that it is as close to organic as they can get. They are locally raised on the hills and the animals are not factory farmed and growing up on a few foot of concrete.

How hard is it to currently make a living out of farming?

The farmers are getting a good return now. If we look back to an ox roast we had for the coronation this should tell you something about prices. It was a fantastic Hereford beast – just over 700 weight and it was £11 a hundred weight (live weight), so the beast was roughly £80. You would pay that for a lamb now. It was a great event and we had to slaughter it in a particular way (I didn’t have to cut the H-bone or anything like that) as the shaft had to go straight through from the front to the back. A firm came up from Oxford and they put it on the spit. They did a similar event in Cardiff with Aberdeen Angus beef, but they told us that the Hereford beef was superior!

Do you think that people spend less on meat now that they did, say 20 years ago (proportionally)?

We don’t sell the big joints like we used to. They used to have big joints in the old days, big ribs of beef and things like that but now only at Christmas time and special occasions. I don’t think that people have the big family get-togethers like they used to. It is a shame really. People from London will buy a whole leg of lamb or something like that and say that it’s a lot cheaper than what they pay in London. It’s a different ball game up there with the high rates and other costs.

 What about organ meat, do people still buy that?

No they buy less – a lot less. When I was slaughtering on a Monday, my mother would be cutting the liver up and we would sell out completely by the Tuesday afternoon. The liver used to be all sliced up and gone. It used to be recommended by the medical profession – good for anaemia and things like that – but not anymore. We very rarely eat liver ourselves.

Mince is very popular, probably because of the foreign dishes like chilli and Bolognese. Plus it’s a cheap, versatile meal. There’s also a big demand for minced lamb, although we mince that to order.

Television plays a big part. If a chef is pushing something on television we notice the demand for a while and then they forget about it!

Would you say that people are less adventurous in the cuts of meat they are buying?

Definitely – they’re not as educated as they used to be! Definitely not!

So you think it’s because they don’t know rather than they know the cuts and don’t want to buy them?

Yes, it’s because mother hasn’t told them about it. For instance, brisket of beef. How many people buy that? Plus they are timid of asking but they shouldn’t be! They shouldn’t be ashamed of asking because we can give them better advice than the supermarket.

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How do you think that local butchers can compete with supermarkets?

Only by quality and the relationship we have with our customers. Price doesn’t come into it really but quality is the thing. Of course you do get a certain section of people that just want cheapness and will buy their meat anywhere but then you don’t know where the meat comes from really – or what’s in it. For instance, with minced beef they might be adding extra fat or putting lights (lungs) in the mince to give it a good colour (only for so long and then it fades). Then the supermarkets use tricks like lighting of course.

What do you think of some of the campaigns over the last few decades telling us to avoid red meat and saturated fat?

Gaynor: When I was in hospital to have a kidney out I was the first to recover. The nurse said to me ‘My god you’ve got a healthy body – what is your secret?’ and I said ‘Plenty of meat!’ and I believe that my body healed quicker because I was stronger.

Brian: From time to time these campaigns raise their head. People might think ‘I’ll cut back’ but that’s only for a while. I think if you have a meal without meat, there’s something lacking. We are traditionalists. We like Sunday lunch and if we don’t have it, by Wednesday we think there’s something missing. I suppose I am fortunate in having someone that is such a good cook!

Do you think that people have become disconnected with the source of their food? I was thinking of the story in about the butcher’s window recently? (see here)

Yes I think we are breeding a nation of wimps. The chap in the article said he hated walking by with his daughter because she was upset.

I think people have become disconnected. Years ago when I used to be slaughtering there used to be gangs of kids come down to the slaughterhouse and watch it. They used to know exactly what was happening. Girls and boys would be watching for hours and they didn’t mind. The children weren’t squeamish. It’s like now, children think that milk comes from Tesco. Now we are not allowed to let anyone watch unless it is pre-arranged and you would have to wear a white coat and wellies and a hat or hair net. It’s so stupid all these health regulations.

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How do you think we can re-connect people then?

Through education really. Years ago things were quite open. For instance nobody kills a bacon pig anymore. That used to be a big event. I used to go and watch when I was young. They would kill it and then hang it for a few days depending on the weather and then cut it up. It was a big job and they didn’t used to waste a thing. But that’s all gone. Sometimes when I was out on the rounds, people would say ‘No meat this week. Our neighbours killing a pig and they are going to give us some meat.’ My grandfather always kept a pig. After the war you were only allowed to keep one pig and the inspectors used to come round. I remember they came round to Bill Herrin at his farm and he had just slaughtered two pigs. The police found two plucks (lungs) and two hearts, so Bill said ‘What do you think – the pig had two hearts and two sets of lungs!’ That was all the evidence they had. There was a good telegraph system involving everyone – even the local policeman – so we had plenty warning!

How did BSE impact on you?

I think there was a lot of propaganda. That Professor Hugh Pennington got his sums wrong because he forecast thousands would die from CJD but it didn’t happen. It did a lot of harm at the time and there was panic. We were even on Australian TV (ABC). They rang me from London and asked me how we were managing for meat as they had heard about us. They filmed us and asked a lot of questions and we had people ringing us up to say they had seen us. They banned us from selling anything on the bone, and even today we still have to run the spinal cord out of the cattle. And of course anything over 30 months were sent to be destroyed but now you can sell them and that filters back into the system.

How about Foot and Mouth? How did that impact?

That was horrible. What went on was criminal. You had to stick up for the farmers that stuck to their guns. Some barricaded themselves in and refused to let their stock go because there was no sign of it. We were in New York on the way to Michigan at the time of 9/11. If you remember, they were going to take more sheep off the Beacons but they stopped because of what happened with 9/11. Foot and Mouth was no more! Of course there was a lot of racketeering going on, dealers saying that they had a prize bullock when they didn’t, to get the compensation. But of course you had to admire the people that stood up to it because they didn’t want to lose their stock. There was needless shooting – terrible to see.

Was the horse meat scandal beneficial to you in the sense that people returned to local butchers?

It was in a way but people soon forget. People were especially cautious with mince but then they just drift back. But where were all the people that are supposed to police us then? They had been getting away with it for years.

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You recently opened a delicatessen sourcing fantastic produce from local producers. How is that going?

Very good. That came about because of the environmental health as they didn’t want us to sell cooked meat next to raw meat. You can do it but it is awkward. It was the youngsters’ (Chris and Georgina) idea really and we had the box room spare. You do get a bit staid – as I am – and they pushed for it. They’ve done a great job and it’s going really well. Of course it pleases environmental health no end! Christopher prepares foods such as the hams, haslets, black pudding and he is so busy with it. He would like to do more if he gets the time.

Do you think butchery is promoted enough as a career for young people to go into?

No, I don’t think it is really. If you were in school you probably wouldn’t even think of butchery really – like fishmongers. It’s not given the status it deserves. They talk about chefs – why not butchers? It’s a skill (although that is going out of it). The butcher is left out but really we deserve more speciality status.

There was a very interesting programme on radio 4 recently regarding butchery (listen here) and they interviewed a young woman who became a butcher and now has her own shop. Why do you think that so few women go into butchery?

My mother used to but that was only a family thing because my father was there. I believe that there is one down in Cornwall that has her own butchers shop and slaughters but you don’t see that very often. I suppose the slaughtering is not a nice job for women to go into.

What more do you think could be done to promote Welsh meat?

Every month we have to send off details of what we slaughter (say 16 cattle, 30 pigs and – at the peak – 70 lambs) and you pay a levy on each beast you kill. There is quite a lot of expense incurred. These people (Hybu Cig Cymru) take the money but I don’t think they do enough for the meat trade. They make a few leaflets and booklets but nobody picks them up. They promote the wrong sort of things. We would like to see them promote the cheaper cuts. They promote sirloin steak and fillet steak (which we can always sell) but not the cheaper, fattier cuts and this is where it links back to the scare stories about fat. Eblex in England do a much better job and do far more for butchery. They have videos on their website and show a lot of unusual cuts such as flat-iron steaks (a tasty cut off the chuck), but our lot don’t promote the right cuts. They should be promoting liver, ox cheeks, pigs cheeks, ox hearts… We sold some ox cheeks to a lady recently and she said how marvellous they were. Rather like ox tail, that has a lovely flavour too.

Yes, we tried stuffed lambs hearts and they were lovely!

There is a young girl, Julia, just started a restaurant in Hay on Wye called St John and we deliver there. She uses a lot of different cuts of meat such as tri-tips (an American term for a cut that is seamed off the top of the rump). We did those for her and the customers loved it. She is a hard working girl and is willing to try something different. Everyone that’s been there has said how good it is. It is a limited menu too which is a good thing and means that everything is cooked fresh.

People are willing to try cuts of meat at a restaurant that they maybe wouldn’t try at home. I had pigs cheeks for the first time at a restaurant and they were lovely. Do you sell those?

Yes Julia cooks those! Another thing that is coming back into the restaurants is ox cheek which are lovely, and breast of lamb – Julia has those too. Shanks of lamb are good for the restaurants too – very popular. We do sell them to customers if they are in the cabinet but not many people ask for them, but of course we can do them. We are supplying Julia with grouse next week which is also quite reasonable.

Yes, we had been buying breast of lamb for the dogs and Paul (a butcher at George’s) recommended that we try it and it was lovely. You can buy the stuffed breasts of lamb now in the supermarket.

What is your favourite cut of meat?

A sirloin steak or roast beef. As I’ve got older, I love lamb as well – the best end of neck boned out and rolled. I like pork as well.

Brian then asked me a question! How is it that you come out to Talgarth for your meat? How did you find out about us?

Actually I can’t remember how we first found out about you. We were coming on holiday to Hay on Wye for about 8 years before we moved here. We wouldn’t go anywhere else on holiday – we just kept coming back to a beautiful cottage at the foot of Hay Bluff. And of course the local producers – the meat especially – was so good and we have always loved our food. We used to go to the food festival at Abergavenny too. We had heard about George’s and so we came over to buy meat. We remember before the bypass was built and we used to drive through the town and Talgarth seemed very busy. It’s important for us to travel to get good meat if we have to because meat is such a big part of our diet now and we want it to be the best that we can get. We come from Brecon now but we don’t feel like it’s a long way to travel.

The thing that we loved when we first came to your butchers was how it is set out and how you can see the big slabs of meat and the big butchers block and people carrying carcasses back and forth.  And of course watching the butchers cutting the meat – we love to watch that – and everything is in front of you. I remember the first time we came in and thought ‘This is a real butchers!’

Back to Bryan:

Yes, you can’t beat London training for the butchers – especially Smithfield.

We did have the chance of getting somewhere in Brecon and in Hay. Of course Hay would have been good but then you can get too big. We would have to put a manager in each shop and then you get too big and lose control. We do get people come over from Hay. I think that the heart of the matter really is the slaughterhouse – choosing your own quality. It comes back to that every time, even though it’s a lot of hassle and a lot of expense. We have levy payments, offal disposal fees (£170-£250 per week, and sometimes over £300), meat inspection charges etc. all before it reaches the shop. Even a new pair of pads for the pig machine costs over £1000. That is why we kill some privates as well. If people have a couple of sheep to kill we do it for them because it needs to be done on licensed premises. Then they might sell it via the farmers market, at the farm gate or between friends. We do quite a bit of that and it helps to pay the overheads.

As this fascinating interview came to an end I thanked Bryan and Gaynor for taking the time to speak to us. We could have carried on for hours but of course they needed to be up early in the morning to start again.  As we left, it dawned on us how lucky we are to have people such as Bryan and his family. As Paleo becomes ever more popular and people strive to access the highest quality meat they can find, butchers take on an increasingly important role. Local butchers need supporting and their craftsmanship and history recognising. Speaking to Bryan and Gaynor confirmed that the art of butchery is not lost – it is alive and well in Talgarth.

An edited version of this article appeared at Way on Hye .

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