Game for Game

Ethical, healthy, tasty – all positive arguments for eating game. And the proof of its increasing popularity lies in double-digit growth. So surely every butcher should have game in their cabinets. Carina Perkins reports

 

For a modern society increasingly obsessed with environment, animal welfare and seasonal food, game offers the ideal alternative to intensively farmed meat. Wild game, by its very nature, is free-range – and while some still object to the idea of eating rabbits, squirrels and deer, many are coming round to the conclusion that eating an animal shot after life in the wild is more ethical than eating one that has been raised intensively and slaughtered in an abattoir.

Natural advantage

Wild protein comes with other advantages. Unlike intensively reared farm animals, game has fed on an entirely natural diet, free of hormones, chemicals and animal by-products. This is reassuring for a generation of consumers plagued by the memories of BSE and panicked by media ‘exposés’ regarding practices on intensive farms.

Game also has a smaller chain than farmed meat – animals are shot and sold straight to the butcher, so the abattoir link is removed – thus reducing food miles and allowing better guarantees of welfare. Unsurprisingly, therefore, game has seen considerable growth in recent years. Last year, it was the only meat to see a year-on-year increase in double figures – a staggering 15.2%.

Alexia Robinson, director of promotional body Game-To-Eat says that although the market has slowed slightly this year, sales of game have continued to increase. “Game has enjoyed the most incredible spurt of growth over the last six years,” she explains. “This year, early figures indicate that growth has continued at a steadier rate as the industry consolidates – I’d guess around 8%.”

Better distribution

One of the key reasons behind this growth has been improved distribution. For many years, game has been the domain of the local butcher, with supermarkets unwilling to invest in an unregulated industry with unreliable supply. Following the recent renaissance in seasonal and natural food, however, supermarkets have started to bring in lines of game meats such as venison, partridge and pheasant. “Game is much more readily available, which has helped push up consumption,” explains Robinson. “Supermarkets have now taken over from butchers in terms of game sales.”

Consistency and quality of game has continued to improve as a result of EU hygiene legislation, introduced in 2006. A recent Game-To-Eat survey revealed that two-thirds of full-time keepered shoots now have a chilling facility, up from one-third on 2006. Over half have upgraded their chilling facilities since 2006 and half have registered their storage facilities with the local authority. Over two-thirds of shot deer are now inspected on shoot by a trained person – up from 57% in 2006. “There have been significant improvements in the quality of game meat, largely from how shoots have responded since the EU hygiene regulations were introduced,” says Robinson.

Consumer Awareness

 

Another factor driving sales has been improved consumer awareness about game and its benefits. Part of this has been down to the work of promotional bodies – in 2007 the audience reach of Game-To-Eat’s media campaign was 57m. “As awareness grows, consumers are changing from occasional to regular purchasers of game,” explains Robinson. “It is no longer just a niche product.”

Game has also received continued support from Britain’s celebrity chefs. For chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, game is the ideal antidote to the intensively reared meat that they condemn in their food programmes. There is a proliferation of programmes, books and recipes extolling the virtues of nature’s meat at the start of each season. “If we are going to make meat part of our diet, then wild meat is, for me, the least morally problematic of all,” proclaims Hugh on his River Cottage website.

Venison remains the most popular of game meats, and it epitomises many of the virtues of game. Deer management is essential to maintain the British countryside, and deer, having lived a free-foraging, truly wild lifestyle, are usually killed by skilled marksmen, so it is an ethically sound meat. “If we want to protect bluebell woods and the survival of wild birds, deer culling is essential,” says Nicola Fletcher, food writer and founder of venison business, Fletchers of Auchtermuchty.

Venison is also one of the healthiest meats available. “Venison is an extremely lean meat,” says Fletcher. “What is less well-known is that it has a very high Omega 3 content.” A big selling point for women is the fact that venison has the highest available iron content of any food.

While venison epitomises the good points of game, it also epitomises some of the problems. Although consumers are increasingly open to the idea of game meat, many are still unsure of how to cook it properly. Traditional recipes for venison all involve marinating of the meat, and many people believe that it must be wrapped in bacon or covered in lard if it is to remain tender.

“In the 19th century people ate wild venison from the hills of Scotland, which was of all different ages, so it became usual to marinade it. But there are lots of other ways to cook venison,” says Fletcher, whose book – Ultimate Venison Cookery – recently won Best Single Subject Cookery Book in the World at the 2008 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. “I wrote the book to try and nail some of the myths about venison,” she adds.

Venison can be very variable, however. There are all sorts of conflicting opinions about what breed of venison is best, but Fletcher insists that it is the lifestyle and handling of venison that has most impact on taste. “When dealing with a wild product, you can get the best and worst from any breed – it depends how it has been handled, whether it has been hung and how accurately it was shot,” she says.

Future outlook

Improved supply lines, better regulation and new product development mean that some of the problems with game are being resolved. Ready-to-cook products and ready-meals such as venison burgers, partridge breast and game pies have made game more accessible to consumers and standards of handling are better than ever.

Both Fletcher and Robinson are confident that game sales will continue to rise, even in the face of the current financial crisis. “Game does not face the same pressures as beef, lamb and pork, so it should continue to be an affordable, healthy choice,” says Robinson. “There is no reason why every butcher in the country should not have a supply of local, quality game in their cabinets.”

 

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