A year on from the horsemeat scandal, it seems our appetite for quality beef has been whetted and now knows no bounds, with demand up at least 25%.
This astonishing turnaround could not have been predicted at the height of the scandal last spring, when consumers were appalled to learn that the meat lasagnes, burgers, kebabs and other prepared frozen products they had been buying in supermarkets, fast-food outlets, pubs and restaurants actually contained - or consisted of 100% - undeclared cheap equine meat sourced from Eastern Europe.
The fraud, which involved a shockingly chaotic supply trail that criss-crossed Europe, was in breach of UK food regulations on traceability: the source of meat should be easily followed from field to fork. Arrests are ongoing.
One heartening result was that sales took an instant tumble: within weeks of the story breaking frozen hamburgers were down by 43% and frozen ready meals by 13%. Consumers switched from frozen to fresh and that, surely, can only be a good thing.
Actually, there are many who feel that the horsemeat scandal was the best thing that could have happened for the Scotch meat industry. David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative, which promotes produce from Caithness, Ross-shire and Sutherland, including the Mey Selections range of high-welfare beef and lamb, tells me that Sainsbury's is now its biggest client. The supermarket giant is selling its premium beef, branded as North Highland on labels, in 63 stores in London and the wealthy south-east of England.
Crucially, they are also using chuck and blade, or shoulder, cuts in their Taste the Difference ready-meals to help what's charmingly described in farming circles as carcass balance. It's easy to sell the fancy cuts but shifting the lesser ones can be more of a challenge, so this is a real step forward as farmers need all the returns they can get.
As a result NHI is slaughtering 150 cattle and 1000 lambs each week (up from around 30 and 300 two years ago), in a deal worth £16 million to the local economy. The Mey Selection range is matured for 21 or 31 days or more, depending on the cut and the client, being very much a specialist product used by top chefs.
Whiteford says Scotch beef was a great brand to start with due to animals feeding on grass with locally-grown cereals added to their diet to help develop marbling. It did well out of the horsemeat scandal, as its stringent quality assurance scheme means Scotland is unique in having all 12,500 farms independently audited. It's more successful than ever and recognised all over the world as the best.
Post-horsegate, people have realised they need to read labels more closely and that we have to expect to pay a bit more for quality.
Restaurants specialising in high-welfare beef have sprung up everywhere, along with quality street-food, takeaway and pop-up menus.
One of the newest, TwentyPrincesStreet in Edinburgh, offers Mey beef dry-aged for between 28 and 36 days, depending on the cut, and has seen demand increase by 25% in the last year. The popular Glasgow steakhouse The Butchershop Bar & Grill announces that it is "proud to source and serve only the very best dry-aged, grass fed Scotch beef" and says its butcher will hang its meat for up to 35 days until it reaches optimum flavour levels.
Competition is heating up, as the race to the top gains momentum. Now, I hear, the new big thing is not to have your beef carcass hang on hooks to dry-age it, but to sit it in separate cuts on racks in a "humidified maturation chill" at 3°c. Apparently this allows the meat to rest in its natural shape so the individual muscles separate and settle, making them ever more tender. Each piece has its own space and is rotated according to the client's order. Even when matured to more than 30 days, the meat is like butter to touch. This system was pioneered in Scotland by Campbell's Prime Meat in Linlithgow, and is now being copied elsewhere. Campbell's master butcher Gerry Neilson says the resulting black colour and musty smell are "the double rings of confidence".
Along with all of this, of course, is increased consumer knowledge. Even if they don't have butchery skills consumers know which cuts to ask for, and demand to know their provenance.
Campbell's, the largest independent supplier in the country of quality Scotch meat to top chefs, has started an online service to meet increased demand from individual consumers. Gerry Neilson tells me that unusual cuts are becoming all the rage now, such as the rump cap (top part of the muscle), fillet tails, and bone-in fillet steak (rare because it's very labour intensive and requires top butchery skills to separate the horizontal bones).
Hopefully this new generation of neigh-sayers will ensure we don't get another horsemeat scandal.
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