Our extensive sausage tasting has confirmed what we always thought; the best sausages come from animals which have been reared in a natural, high welfare environment. This is apparent from the sausage producers listed in our Specialist sausage producers directory and from the increasing availability of outdoor reared and organic sausages from the supermarkets.
We are not farmers and do not claim to be experts in this area. This short guide is designed to highlight why we are concerned about 'factory farmed' meat and what to look for when shopping.
We are strong supporters of rare breed and traditional meat. Put simply, we believe that the best sausages come from producers who provide high welfare to animals who are rare breed or rare breed crosses.
Invariably these sausages cost more because they operate a high welfare system and take greater care in the slaughtering and hanging of meat. You usually get what you pay for and by buying direct you cut out price increases caused by distributors and middlemen.
Lastly, we should not be concerned about eating rare breed meat. By eating the rare breeds we create a market and the vital financial justification for long term survival.
Lean = tasteless
Most of the pork we eat comes from animals which are bred to put on as much lean weight as possible in the minimum time. In order to do this they are fed a cocktail of drugs and slaughtered young.
The problem with lean meat is that it does not taste very good. It is an unavoidable fact we need some fat because it carries taste and succulence. This is why nearly all quality restaurants purchase free range or rare breed meat. Once the meat has been cooked, surplus fat can be removed, however these are often the tastiest parts!
Not only does factory pork score low on taste and succulence, there are issues regarding the treatment of the animals.
The vast majority of breeding sows are kept permanently indoors. They are reared in crowded factory conditions on concrete floors. The animals are packed together in large sheds with little (or no) room to move. This congestion leads to the routine use of drugs to help prevent the spread of disease and methods such as tail docking and teeth clipping to prevent fighting.
Factory farmed sows will have larger litters than other sows. Large litters lead to intense competition and fighting for milk. Given the chance, a piglet will suckle from the sow for up to 12 weeks. In intensive production the piglets will only be allowed to suckle for 3 or 4 weeks. This means that the sow can have another litter sooner but never fulfils her maternal instincts. Once a sow is 3 or 4 years old she is 'burnt out' and is used for low quality meat (such as cheap sausages).
The UK has some of the highest farming standards in the world, imported pork will have been subject to even worse treatment. We should always try to buy British pork.
There are four quality schemes:
- Assured British Pigs scheme
- Freedom Food Scheme
- Real Meat Company
The majority of British pork is produced under the Assured British Pigs scheme (and the equivalent in Scotland). This is factory farmed pork and as such the standard does not provide a guarantee of high quality (although the standards in the UK are considered to be far higher than in the rest of the EU). Having said this, there are farms which produce high welfare, outdoor reared pork but are only registered under this scheme.
The Freedom Food Scheme is operated by the RSPCA, it does not require outdoor production and tolerates a number of factory farming methods. An improvement over the Assured schemes is that Freedom Food requires straw for bedding. Overall this scheme is only a small improvement over the assured scheme and we should not pay a significant premium for Freedom food.
The Real Meat Company sells indoor and outdoor reared pork through mail order and 26 retail outlets. All meat is produced to it's own standards which provide humane, high welfare but do not emphasise outdoor rearing. Real Meat Company pork and sausages are excellent and they are one of our top 10 producers.
Organic meat is produced to very high standards of animal welfare and certified as such, the most common certifying body in the UK is the Soil Association. Organic pork can be kept indoors for at least part of the time.
There is no recognised scheme for outdoor reared pork. Many producers rear free range animals but are not members of any schemes. It is therefore important to talk to the producer or use our Specialist producers directory (link).
Outdoor reared could mean exactly that or could mean that the pigs have spent only a few months outdoors. This gives scope for customers to be ripped off and should be rectified by the introduction of a legal definition or at the very least an industry consensus.
This is why it is vital that we are able to buy from suppliers who we trust. Many of the suppliers listed in Specialist producers are small producers who use high welfare methods and (this is the important part) are open about farming conditions.