British butchers enjoy sales boost after horsemeat furore

Costas Pitas
Reuters Middle East

* Butchers report rise in sales after horsemeat furore

* People avoiding meat from supermarkets

* Many areas now lack alternative to big retailers

LONDON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - In one of Britain's oldest

butcher's shops, staff in straw hats are rushing to cope with a

surge in demand for pricey pies and sausages from customers

worried about a scandal over mislabelled horsemeat and rich

enough to buy peace of mind.

Founded in 1850, Lidgates in London's smart Notting Hill

district retains a Dickensian atmosphere, displaying beef from

grass-fed cows, organic chickens, and silver trophies won by its

products.

The discovery of horsemeat in food labelled as beef has

shocked the British, a nation of horse-lovers, and exposed a gap

between rich shoppers who can afford top-quality meat and those

forced to hunt for bargains at the other end of the market.

The current climate of economic austerity has squeezed

family budgets, forcing many to choose cheap mass-produced foods

containing often untraceable ingredients.

But Lidgates, where a whole beef fillet sells for more than

100 pounds ($160) and half a dozen sausages cost 6 pounds ($9),

is a world away from these concerns.

"Sales on items such as minced beef, pies, sausages went up

ranging 10 and 20 percent directly on day one," said Danny

Lidgate, 33, the fifth generation of his family to run the shop.

The trend towards upmarket meat appears to be gathering pace

elsewhere in Britain, where many people are so sentimental about

horses that they find the idea of eating their meat repulsive.

According to the Q Guild, which represents high-end

independent butchers, its members say sales of beefburgers and

meatballs have risen by 30 per cent since the horsemeat furore

started, with overall trade up by an average of 20 percent.

As the scandal deepened this week, the government played

down the health risks, saying it was doing everything to ensure

food sold across the country was safe enough to eat. Generally,

horsemeat is not a danger to health, but the damage to public

confidence has already been done.

RIB-EYE STEAK

Scrutinising a cut of rib-eye steak, Jacqueline O'Leary, a

housewife from the upscale Kensington district, said the

revelations about horsemeat had changed her shopping habits.

"I haven't bought lately (from supermarkets). I've just been

buying more here so they've probably seen me three times a week

and I buy sausages and mince from here now, it's just easier."

Upstairs in Lidgates' busy kitchen, a butcher completes a

cottage pie, the traditional British dish of minced meat covered

in a layer of potato.

Selling for more than 5 pounds ($8) a portion, the fresh

grass-fed or organic minced beef dish is rather more expensive

than the alternative from frozen food giant Findus, available

for just 1 pound from one supermarket.

After finding it beef lasagne contained horsemeat, the

British unit of Findus began recalling the product from

supermarket shelves last week on advice from its French supplier

Comigel, raising questions over the complicated nature of the

European food chain.

Elsewhere in London, Mark McCartney, another shopper, said

he would rather go to his local butcher than buy meat at the

supermarket.

"I trust this meat more than I trust anything out of the

supermarkets and you can pick and choose and give this man the

money." he said. "It's cheaper, it's better quality and it's

better people getting the money."

The loss of trust in supermarkets and processed food may be

temporary and will probably be restored gradually after the

scandal.

But the trend is still a worry for Britain's food and

farming industries, which contribute 88 billion pounds ($140

billion) to the economy every year.

Meat and meat products accounted for 1.7 billion pounds out

of Britain's total food and drink exports of 18.2 billion pounds

in 2011, according to farm minister Owen Paterson.

HORSEMEAT SCANDAL

Nearly half of British consumers said they would avoid

buying meat from supermarkets affected by the horsemeat scandal,

according to a survey this month for Retail Week magazine.

Family butchers may be experiencing a revival but it is

likely to be short-lived given the attraction of supermarkets to

busy shoppers.

In Britain, four supermarket chains together account for

over three quarters of the grocery market, according to the

Kantor research company.

Many family-run butchers have been hit hard in the past

decade, with many blaming high parking charges in towns as well

as increasingly time-poor customers.

The number of registered butcher's shops fell to around

6,800 in 2011 from more 9,000 in 2000, according to figures from

the British tax authorities.

At a bustling London street market, butcher Raymond Roe said

he had been in the trade for 37 years but at least eight of his

local competitors had close their doors since 1976.

Even though shoppers are angry with supermarkets now, he was

pessimistic about the future.

"They've lost their trust," he said. "I get a lot of people

saying they're not going buy from them (supermarkets).

"But the thing is, supermarkets are convenient for everyone

and most people haven't got much time. A lot of it is, people

don't cook no more."

Pointing behind him on the wall to diagrams of animals with

lines drawn to indicate cuts of meat, Roe described his role as

butcher, teacher and chef for his customers.

"I show them the charts where the cuts come from to try and

educate them because years ago, the older people - a lot of them

are dead now - they knew the cuts but no one knows nothing now,"

he said sadly. "They don't even know how to cook."

($1 = 0.6433 British pounds)

(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Giles Elgood)