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White meat or dark? UK farmers had it all worked out, until now
[LONDON] On his poultry operation outside Manchester, England, Michael Bailey used to raise turkeys and sell them at Christmastime. The whole bird.
But most British customers now want their meat cut up, boneless and, most vexingly to farmers, white, not dark. So Mr Bailey breaks down his birds, leaving behind a pile of unwanted thighs and drumsticks.
"We've got a high-value turkey, and half of it — well, nearly half of it — they don't want," he said. "This causes us a major problem."
For decades, the answer to that problem was the European Union: a frictionless market with idiosyncratic tastes, in which eastern countries crave the dark meat that Britons do not. Along with the turkey leftovers, dark-meat chicken and ageing pigs from British farms often land on plates in Eastern Europe, while white meat travels the opposite way. Britons can eat what they want while farmers export what they do not.
But now, as with so many other areas of trade and business, Britain's impending withdrawal from the bloc, the process known as Brexit, stands to throw off the gustatory balance.
"We've had sort of 20 years of being able to eat what we want, when we want," said Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council. "That's a privilege. And I don't think that privilege has really been valued or recognised universally across the country."
Farmers know this little-noticed quirk of the meat trade as carcass balance: One country's leftovers are another's prized cuts.
Most industries fear Brexit because they need parts from across Europe, often delivered on a tight schedule, to assemble goods like cars or airplane wings. But British farmers are in the business of disassembly, and losing a major market for animal parts could be devastating.
Take the pork trade. Britons hunger for the loin and the leg. They eat about 23 million pigs' worth of loins annually, most of it in the form of back bacon, and 19 million pigs' worth of legs, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. But only about 10 million pigs are slaughtered each year in Britain, meaning the country needs to import those cuts.
By contrast, Britons eat only about seven million pigs' worth of pork shoulder, and belly meat ranks even lower, about five million pigs per year. If British farmers cannot sell their extra shoulders and bellies abroad, the pork market collapses.
"We need to trade with member states because some parts of the carcass command a better price there," said Ivor Ferguson, a farmer from Northern Ireland who once raised pigs and now focuses on sheep and cereal crops.
Inconveniently for farmers, providing more in-demand cuts means having to find more places to sell the unwanted cuts. When it comes to poultry, Mr Ferguson said, "If we want to increase consumption of breast meat in the UK market, we have to be able to get rid of the dark meat."
Leaving the European Union without some sort of trade deal would be disastrous for farmers. British pork could face tariffs of around 40 per cent, while beef and chicken could face tariffs above 60 per cent. Strict border inspections would also add costs and cause delays in many cases.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has promised that Britain will apply tariffs to food imports to protect British farmers. But he said delays at the ports would be dangerous.
"Farmers, especially small farmers, would face barriers to trade," Mr Gove told a farming conference in January.
But even well short of a no-deal split from Europe, Brexit will create snags in what is now a virtually seamless trading process, adding veterinary costs and border checks. And if farmers cannot make as much money as they once did from dark meat exports, they may be forced to raise prices for white meat chicken, creating what analysts fear will be a two-tier market in which only richer Britons can afford the best fresh chicken.
New trade deals could also open the British market to cheaper meat, none more alarming to Britons than chlorine-washed chicken from the United States.
Farmers are trying to adjust now, among other things by persuading Britons to start eating cuts they now ignore. Analysts have pitched dark-meat chicken as a healthier alternative to beef, and suggested furnishing Britons with more recipes for how to cook it.
Some companies are already slipping dark meat into their recipes. Mr Bailey, who processes free range and organic chicken, said he sells poultry to a maker of meat pies that for years bought only white breast meat, forcing Mr Bailey to find another taker for the remaining three-quarters of the bird.
But by promising better prices, he tempted the pie maker to try dark meat, too. Six months of cooking tests later, and with dollops of sauce disguising the chicken cut, the pie maker now buys dark meat, too, Mr Bailey said.
"In fact, it enhanced the flavour of the pie," Mr Bailey said. "It was a bit of a win in the end."
There is a long road ahead. Britain exports between 250,000 and 300,000 tonnes of dark meat chicken a year, about 70 per cent of it to the European Union, according to ResPublica, a British think tank.
Over the decades, since technology made it easy for producers to portion and debone meat, people not only developed a taste for certain parts of the bird but also forgot how to cook the whole thing, Mr Griffiths said. Reversing that trend could take years, he said, though Brexit could very well drive up the price of white meat chicken enough that people would no longer have a choice.
"We've built up a marketplace where we export dark meat and the value we get from it helps keep down food prices in the UK," he said.
The growing importance of the Asian market could soften the blow for pig farmers. China has become a significant buyer of the least pricey parts of the pig, like the feet, and losing the European market might be easier to weather than losing the Asian market. Some less popular cuts like pork belly are also appearing more and more on British restaurant menus, analysts say.