Today, however, people's diets contain more processed meats, which means the public has become detached from where their food originates from. If a pig's trotter and a pork sausage were put side by side on a supermarket shelf or on a restaurant menu, most consumers would choose the sausage and never think for a million years to gorge on the animal's foot.
Food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart, speaking at September's Bpex/Eblex/Fabra Fifth Quarter conference, called for a major offal marketing initiative aimed at British consumers to revitalise UK consumption. The author of 'Waste uncovering the global food scandal', told delegates in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, that offal could be a great income provider for the meat industry and that money had to be invested in it to market it to consumers.
"There is an opportunity to stimulate demand for these products, to increase the economic incentive for using these products and basically to encourage consumers to eat them. I think the fact that the British public shun these edible and delicious parts of the animal is part of what I call the wider global food waste scandal."
He said the meat industry could market offal as environmentally attractive products. "It is a way of reducing the overall impact of livestock production if used more you will reduce the environmental impact per kilo of food and I think that works particularly well if you can find local markets for it so that you don't have to go to foreign markets."
Stuart added that offal consumption as a proportion of total meat consumption in the UK had halved in 30 years despite the recent slight increase in the last few years. "You only need to go over the Channel to find a culture that celebrates tripe and also these other parts of animals. The Chinese eat less than half of the meat per capita than do Americans but they still eat three times as much offal as them.
"If you look at the French they eat 100kg of meat per person per year and at the same time they will eat nine kilos of offal. Brits eat a little bit more meat as a proportion of meat consumption, but we eat two-thirds less offal than the French."
He added that some butchers in his local area were even paying to incinerate pig's heads when they could be selling them to the public. "I don't expect British customers to become, from having addicted themselves to ready meals, the kind of householder who will be happy to spend four hours boiling a pig's head on their stove.
"But I do think through a combination of marketing, of using the cultural tools we have, brawn can be marketed more on supermarket shelves."
Speaking at the same event, senior MLC Services consultant Christine Walsh said an important aspect that the meat industry needs to get right, if it wants to embrace fifth quarter, is education.
"Fifth quarter requires skill to produce good quality products. Some of these skills are not recognised at the management of the abattoir," she said. "There is one abattoir which saves £20,000 by going back and educating the operator who is removing the tongue [to improve quality]."
Educating processors about the types of offal is a must, even with commonplace fifth quarter products such as sausage casing. An integral part of the sausage is the casing, but this is a mystery to many in the supply chain, according to James Harder, managing director of Yorkshire-based natural casings supplier Harder Bros. At the conference, Harder said that even defining what a casing was confused many in the meat industry.
"Basically, casings have always been a bit of an unknown quantity. They've been mysterious in the sense that they weren't animal by-products although they have been associated with the gut room with all the other by-products in there. They weren't really meat, although obviously we're closer to the meat than we are with by-products, as the latter are not really fit for human consumption in most cases. So even though they have been around for thousands of years, the irony is that, until very recently, casings have been in a no-man's land. Casings are different to an intestine, although it's interesting that some parts of Europe such as Greece and areas of Spain, do consume the green offal at certain times of the year, albeit not on a large scale.
"Casings are the means to an end, the intestine is a means to an end and the end is the sausage manufacturer. What we have to remind ourselves is that casings suppliers are under a great deal of pressure from the supermarkets to keep their costs down; we are only as good as the sausage manufacturer, in terms of keeping prices up in the retail sector. So the only alternative we have, as we cannot increase supplies to the manufacturer, is to try and encourage more efficient products and that goes back to the abattoir industry to help us to have efficient and reliable intestine that is actually fit-for-purpose in the first place."
So the industry is sitting on a relatively untapped goldmine and although the UK is unlikely to consume offal at the levels of the Chinese or the French, it can always be exported, which is surely better than throwing it in an incinerator or being left to rot in a field.
A recent article in The Irish Independent ('Fifth quarter comeback is good news for butchers, processors and our livestock producers' 19/10/10) showed that across the Irish Sea, meat industry representatives are also eyeing the opportunities provided by fifth quarter sales.
John Shirley writes: "From an Irish viewpoint, that change cannot come quickly enough. As a country we produced over 130,000t of meat and bone meal last year. Seventy seven thousand tonnes of this is called 'category 1' and is used for incineration in Germany or at a cement plant in Kilbeggan, where a gate fee of 10 to 30/t is charged. Sixty thousand tonnes is deemed 'category 3' and can be used in pet food and as a fertiliser.
"Transforming this into product worth 250/t (at today's soya price) could deliver a significant payback on the fifth quarter of each animal."