It is inevitable that customers and supporters may want more detail about why The Real Meat Company chose not continue beyond January 2012.
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What was the cause of the decline in turnover?
When The Real Meat Company was started in 1986, we were at the forefront of a national realisation of just how badly intensively reared farm animals were being kept. Journalists and protagonists such as us worked hard to inform the public as to just how bad things were.
Support for Real Meat in the early days consisted of people who had genuine concerns about animal welfare yet had not been able to locate a source of meat where their concerns had been addressed and people caught up in what became one of the zeitgeists of the 1990's and early 2000's.
As the zeitgeist inevitably moved on to something else - environment, global warming etc - it became clear that, when it comes to the state of British livestock production, there were two types of customer:
a) Customers who say they are interested in welfare, purity and quality.
b) Customers who actually are concerned about welfare, purity and quality.
Customers in group (a) are easily satisfied by the insubstantial claims made by supermarkets and artful butchers, farm shops and farmers markets. They are actually more focussed on price and convenience than the actual issues.
Customers in group (b) are much fewer and far between. They think through the issues and are justifiably sceptical when claims are made about welfare and purity by supermarkets and butchers.
Group (b) customers are and always have been Real Meat's core customers. Sadly, there are not enough to sustain Real Meat's structure.
What were the "big" costs within the Real Meat protocol?
The British meat industry is infested with deceit. It was worse in the eighties but is not much better now.
The problem divides into two areas:
a) Misleading claims like supermarkets claiming to operate "to the highest standards of welfare" or farm shops claiming that all meat comes from their farm,
b) Actual substitution where meat claimed to be "organic" or "free range" which may well have started out that way is switched during transport, processing or retailing.
The Real Meat Company was always owned and run by people of genuine principle who would do whatever was required to avoid misleading claims and also to guarantee that meat had not been substituted. The only copper bottomed method to prevent substitution was using DNA tracing methods. We pioneered the use of this technique back in the 1980's.
There are three real problems with an authentic policing system:
a) It is very expensive adding cost to the product. Most genuine supporters had no problem with it but anyone shopping on price alone would waver.
b) If you catch a felon, you lose a wholesale customer. When we caught our first cheat - a butcher in South West London - we terminated supply and informed the customers. The cost of the test which caught him out was around £600. But he spent more than £60,000 per year with us.
c) Well phrased claims lull less enquiring customers into believing that supermarkets and other retailers authenticate their meat also. This is simply untrue but the customer do not know this.
Over the years, The Real Meat Company has adopted a number of practices that are regarded as crazy by conventional, profit-motivated business people. Our security stance is a prime example.
Having a thorough yet expensive policing system which, if triggered, loses wholesale customers has not been adopted by other meat companies for obvious reasons!
Why was there no warning?
The food industry, like many others, is very sensitive to rumour and speculation. We desperately wanted our farmers, our retailers and, most of all, our customers to have one more Real Meat Christmas.
By reaching the 16th of January, our 26th birthday, we have traded for twenty five complete years. We feel very proud of this. For our founders, two sincere believers in a better way to farm, to take on the entire UK meat industry was one hell of an achievement.
Was there ever anyone who you thought got anywhere close to your standards?
This is because what we did was divided into two areas both of critical importance.
a) Setting and policing the highest standards of welfare, purity and quality. This is very tough to do and we never found any other organisation that was equivalent to us.
b) Of equal importance is a credible security system to ensure that the meat is not substituted between the farm and the retail outlet. There is no point in worrying about how the animals are reared if the meat can be substituted. No other organisation had anything like our system.
Why was the meat so expensive?
We never liked the term "expensive" implying that something costs more than it should.
Real Meat was not expensive. It simply cost more than other meat - with very good reason.
Genuine additive-free, high welfare and high quality livestock has all costs going against it. You need more labour, more space, more food - all hugely expensive inputs. Cutting back on any one of these will allow cost cutting but with the sacrifices being made by the livestock which has no choice in the matter.
This is why it is possible to find "free range" items that may seem quite cheap. Corners have simply been cut and the customer will never be able to find out.
Over a century ago, John Ruskin wrote:
"There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person's lawful prey.
It is unwise to pay too much, but it is also unwise to pay too little.
When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that is all.
When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything because the thing you bought is incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do.
The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot...
It can't be done.
If you deal with the lowest bidder it is well to add something for the risk you run.
And if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better."
Meanwhile, Friedrich von Hayek gained a Nobel Prize for economics for a theory which in drastic paraphrase goes like this: If you want the one piece of information about a service or a product which will tell you more than any other, go for the price.
Genuine high welfare, additive-free, quality meat will always cost a great deal. If you see it cheaper, the emotion to snap up a bargain should be resisted and the "So how is that possible then?" cynic emotion should be rolled out instead.