What's the difference between top-of-the range and economy? Is it just
ingredients or are the animals treated differently, too? Felicity Lawrence
Saturday May 10, 2003
All pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others, especially by
the time they have been turned into sausages. In fact the gulf between the
toothpaste tubes of flavoured pink fat that pass for economy sausages and
the best made bangers could not be wider. Yet in the Orwellian world of food
regulation and labelling it can be hard to tell them apart. Mass produced,
dependent on the industrialisation of livestock, the origin of its
ingredients frequently unidentifiable and debased, the cheap sausage is a
classic product of our system of 21st century food production.
Last year we consumed 1.7bn meals of sausages at home, according to market
analyst Taylor Nelson Sofres, and our appetite for them is expanding. Many
more were sold by caterers.
Until a few years ago manufacturers put all sorts of unmentionables into
their sausages. Diaphragms and spleens, tails and lips all counted as meat.
But since the trauma of BSE there have been much tighter restrictions on
which parts can be used for human consumption and processors have moved on.
The industry is now polarised between those leading a revival in top-of-the
range sausages (made with what most people would recognise as meat for those
who can afford around £3 a pound) and those operating at what producers
refer to as "the arse end" of the sector where sausages sell for 50-55p a
pound or for even less to caterers. Those who most need the best - growing
children, the elderly, those in hospital - nearly always eat the worst.
The secret of the successful "economy" sausage these days lies not so much
in strange offals but in fat and protein engineering. Pig rind is an
essential ingredient in the protein engineer's toolbox. Frozen, imported,
chopped to a slurry and soaked with hot water, it produces a bargain
blancmange which can make up 30-35% of the sausage and still be called meat.
Manufacturers' handbooks recommend rind emulsion because its high protein
content boosts the nitrogen counts which are the basis for tests to
determine the meat content of products.
The cutting edge now, however, is in fat technology. Fat is seriously cheap
and with the help of additives you can make it eat with a bit of chew, just
like meat. You can buy thick rectangular slabs of pork back fat for about
50p a kilo to make your economy sausage. But if you want to cut costs even
further, the cheapest stuff on the market is something called flare fat.
This is the highly saturated fat that collects around the vital organs of
the pig such as the kidneys. It was traditionally rendered into lard because
you couldn't put it into sausages without it running straight back out again
when they were cooked. It also clogs up your arteries. But now food
scientisits are developing ways to make it hard so it doesn't ooze out.
You might mix your fat with what people in the trade call the posh man's
MRM. Mechanically recovered meat has to be declared on the label and
shoppers have become increasingly suspicious of it. So, instead,
manufacturers have developed the LIMA machine. Unlike an MRM processor,
which crushes the carcass after the main muscle meat has been removed, a
LIMA machine can debone the last scraps of meat from a carcass by pushing it
through a stainless steel sieve at a lower pressure. Splinters of bone will
give it a higher calcium content than muscle meat in tests but the hard
bones are left behind and it doesn't have to be declared on the label.
For a bit of economy texture you would probably also add pork cheek or jowl.
Sausages were, after all, invented to use the offcuts of animals. The jowl
is the bit of the pig from the earhole to the end of the snout, which is cut
off, deboned, skinned and block frozen. But while many manufacturers use
jowls, some worry about including them. They contain the pituitary glands
and therefore tend to be where drug residues or disease are concentrated.
"Put it this way, you wouldn't knowingly fry them for breakfast," one
explained. Because it has been in direct contact with the animal's food, the
butchered jowl tends to have high microbiological counts and degenerates at
twice the speed of the rest of the carcass.
Add plenty of water, rusk (sometimes up to 30%), sugar in the form of
dextrose to make them go brown when cooked, flavourings and colourings to
mask the absence of anything we would recognise as meat, phosphates and soya
to bind the water and fat in, and you have the perfect recipe for big
Here is a recipe for a school sausage, given to us by a manufacturer who
prefers to remain anonymous. It is for what he described as a "pork product"
made "down to a price" to win a local authority contract. The sausage
contents: 50% "meat", of which 30% is pork fat with a bit of jowl, and 20%
mechanically recovered chicken meat, 17% water, 30% rusk and soya, soya
concentrate, hyrolysed protein, modified flour, dried onion, sugar,
dextrose, phosphates, preservative E221 sodium sulphite, flavour enhancer,
spices, garlic flavouring, antioxidant E300 (ascorbic acid), colouring E128
(red 2G). Casings: made from collagen from cow hide.
Bernard Hoggarth is a sausage manufacturer at the top end of the market and
he can't quite make sense of it. "We feed our pigs the best possible
wheatgerm, the best milk, the best soya. Yet people feed their children
rubbish. Funny, isn't it?" Hoggarth's business, Cranswick gourmet sausage
company, supplies Sainsbury's with its Taste the Difference range of
sausages, Prince Charles with his Duchy Originals, and Waitrose, Safeway and
Morrison's through a sister company, Lazenby. The wheatgerm for fattening
his pigs is the vitamin-rich, highly nutritious casing of the wheat which is
stripped out and discarded when wheat is milled to white flour - to make
white sliced bread, say. Cranswick sausages cost just under £3 a pound
because they use real ingredients. Prime shoulder and belly pork are mixed
with fresh herbs, delivered daily, or real wine, garlic and olive oil. The
store room in Hoggarth's Hull-based factory is packed with the sort of slabs
of meat, oils and green leaves most cooks would be happy to have in their
The food standards agency has proposed new rules to require clearer
labelling of meat content, so that added fat, offal, gristle and rind would
have to be separately identified and shoppers could tell more easily what
they are getting. The move has been welcomed by consumer groups but they are
also worried. The proposals will lower the legal minimum meat content, so
that pork sausages would only have to contain 42% meat as newly defined.
Manufacturers will no longer have to declare the amount of water they have
added either, which "gives them an opportunity for fraud and debasement,"
according to Shropshire trading standards expert, David Walker.
But it is not just in the quality of the ingredients that the difference
between the Cranswick sausages and the economy version is evident. Their
provenance encapsulates the gap between food that is produced with concern
for animal welfare and environmental impact and that which is not. All the
meat Cranswick uses comes from British outdoor reared pigs which have mostly
been fed by its own feedmills and have been slaughtered in its own abattoirs
so that quality can be controlled right down the line.
Not all swine do so well. Some are indeed more equal than others. Last
summer Dutch and Belgian pigs, many of which would have ended up being
imported in to the UK for manufacturing in to products such as sausages, had
particular cause for complaint.
They were found to have been illegally fed waste from the production of
hormone replacement therapy pills for postmenopausal women.
Residues of medroxy progesterone acetate (MPA), a synthetic hormone, found
in the pigs were traced back to Wyeth, an American owned pharmaceutical
factory in Ireland. MPA is banned from vetinerary use in Europe but is used
in the USA and Australia as a growth-promoting hormone to make livestock put
on weight faster.
A Dublin-based waste management company Cara had been collecting the water
used in the production of sugar-coated HRT pills from the Wyeth factory and
shipping it to a company called Bioland on the Dutch /Belgian border. There
it was converted into glucose syrup to be mixed into pig feed. Nearly 100
Dutch feed manufacturers used the syrup and exported it throughout Europe.
Dutch pig farms were closed down while their animals were tested and
thousands of pigs were slaughtered. Wyeth and Cara both deny responsibility.
Bioland is now bankrupt and its owners have been charged with breaches of
food safety legislation. Belgian authorities are still investigating how
widespread the use of illegal hormones in pig production is. Although the
effects on humans of eating pork contaminated with MPA are thought to be
short-lived, the scandal followed hot on the heels of others about animal
feed contaminated with cancer-causing dioxins, and did nothing, post-BSE, to
dispel the impression that Europe's meat industry is the dustbin of its food
A short and fully traceable supply chain is one of the reasons British
consumers, when asked, say they prefer British meat, and supermarkets say
they support British farmers. Yet the UK pig industry is dying on its feet.
Four years ago the British herd numbered 800,000 breeding sows. Now there
are barely 500,000. About 2,000 pig farmers have gone out of business in
that period and many predict the end of pork production in this country.
Although there were government subsidies in the 1960s to encourage
intensification and greater productivity, pig farmers have received almost
no subsidies from the EU. The trend in the UK in the last decade has instead
been to improve welfare, in response to apparent public demand. British
farmers, and legislation, are currently ahead of European competitors on
standards. But the strength of the pound against the euro has meant that
they have been heavily squeezed, and although many people, including
retailers, say they want happy pigs they don't put their money where their
mouths are. "All supermarkets take it as accepted that they will pay the
lowest price on the day. There is no other mechanism for them. Buyers cannot
buck the trend," Digby Scott, editor of Pig World, says.
The beginning of the decline can be traced back to BSE. The UK banned meat
and bonemeal in animal feed in 1996, so instead of making a bit of money
from selling the parts of the pig not suitable for human consumption,
farmers had to pay to dispose of them. This so called BSE tax was calculated
by the meat and livestock commission to be costing British pig farmers £5.26
per pig. In the rest of Europe they continued to use meat and bonemeal from
animals until 2000, when a ban was introduced. EU farmers have until 2005 to
implement it however. Outside the EU it is still legal, despite evidence of
BSE in Continental herds.
Mark Hayward is a pig farmer in Wickham Market in Suffolk. Like most British
farmers these days he is very angry. He is not above joining a convoy of
other farmers to blockade supermarket distribution centres when he hears
that they are importing Dutch pork while claiming to buy to British
He invested heavily in converting his pig farm from intensive production to
Freedom Foods standards a couple of years ago. His sows now farrow outdoors
and his piglets are fattened in outdoor straw pens. Out in the fresh air
rather than crowded 2,000 to a shed, they are less susceptible to the
respiratory diseases which plague intensive units and so he doesn't have to
use the routine antibiotics others do. Nor does he need to practise tail
docking, a routine mutilation made necessary when pigs kept in barren and
overcrowded conditions bite each other.
But responding to animal welfare campaigners' pressure has cost British
farmers their competitive edge, according to Hayward. Times are hard and he
is now getting rid of a large part of his herd of pigs in the hope of
To take an example, the sow stall was banned in the UK in 1990 and had to be
phased out by 1999, yet it will still be allowed in the rest of the EU until
2013. A sow stall is a crate with bars into which a pregnant sow weighing
300kg is pushed to remain for its breeding life. She can stand up and lie
down but otherwise not move, having only six inches in front of her and six
inches behind. Stalls are very efficient - a farmer can squeeze 50 sows into
the space he or she now needs for 10 animals, and feed and water them
easily, but they are immensely distressing to the pigs, according to Peter
Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming. Not only are intensive systems
cruel, but they make herds vulnerable to the rapid spread of devastating
diseases such as foot and mouth and swine fever. But abolishing them costs
money, which is one of the reasons British farmers' pork is more expensive.
Elsewhere in East Anglia, a pig farmer agreed to take us into one of his
intensive pig units, on the condition of anonymity. Walking down the
corridor of Stalag 13, as he cheerfully called it, brushing under the filth
hanging from the low ceilings and holding our noses against the stench of
ammonia, we peered through inspection hatches into darkened pens where pigs
were crowded on to slatted floors. The slats cause bruising and foot
injuries, the pigs are bred to grow so fast and large they frequently suffer
from joint and leg problems, and one in 10 births has to be assisted because
confined sows cannot exercise their uterine muscles.
The smell is a reminder of the environmental problems caused by this sort of
farming. Pigs which are intensively fed grain produce shit high in nitrates
and phosphates. In small quantities and spread over an adequate area of land
it is fertilising. But in the large quantities excreted by intensive pig
farms, it is highly polluting.
But as Bernard Hoggarth says, "you gets what you pays for"
Keeping Chickens At Home