Tuesday, March 6, 2012

European Quality Meats 1959-2012

Photo courtesy of Toronto Life
A recent article in Toronto Life magazine reported that a Kensington Market institution, European Quality Meats, will be closing its doors forever on April 7th. I have really mixed feelings about this butcher shop. They are clearly skilled butchers and there is a huge variety of cuts on offer. Their prices are hard to beat (I bought a whole chicken and two huge pork hocks for thirteen bucks!?). However, the provenance of their meat is unknown. What were the ethical standards of the farm from whence they came? The environmental record? These things are important to me.

A long time ago, people had several criteria when purchasing meat: things like the butcher's knowledge, the quality of the product, the customer service, the support of the local guy, their reputation, the cleanliness or lack thereof of the shop, and of course, there was price. Nowadays, when people buy meat there appears to be a single criteria - price. How else could you explain the tons of cheap, battery farmed chicken being sold by the skid-full out of Walmart grocery stores?

But can you blame the shoppers? No one cares where the meat came from - they are just trying to feed their families while getting the most bang for their buck. I've eaten plenty of cheap chicken from the grocery store - contrary to what a lot of granola crunchers might tell you, it doesn't taste awful. It doesn't make you sick (at least there is no compelling evidence that it does). I would like to think I could pick the local organic stuff over the cheap stuff in a blind taste test - but, then again, maybe I couldn't.  

Why would you pay more? Well, you don't have to. However, for me personally, it's really quite simple. The animal gave me its life; its flesh to enjoy.  At the very least, its few months of existence on earth should not have been pure horror. That's it. There's also the whole environmental reasons, but those are secondary. I'm eating the animal -  I want to make sure the animal was as happy as an animal can be, that is, not terribly stressed out.  Some say you can taste the stress in the animal - I'm skeptical of that. The happier meat seems to taste better anyway. So there it is.

After years of grocery store-stocked cheaply-produced industrialized meat, most consumers have been conditioned to think that an entire chicken should only cost a few bucks.  And here we have European Quality Meats:  skillful butchers, good service, yet rock bottom prices because they are using much of the same cheap industrial meat as the grocery stores do - they are just better at butchering it and processing it. Which, I suppose, is something. I would rather buy my meat from the guys at European Quality, then a typical, plastic-wrapped eight dollar bird from Loblaws.

Down the street from European Quality Meats is another butcher shop called Sanagan’s Meat Locker. It is a tiny, somewhat cluttered space with stacks of cookery books on the counter. They offer a much smaller selection of meat. Each little messy stack of animal flesh has a small, hand-written label indicating the farm from which the meat came. All are local Ontario suppliers. The meat has that slightly  dark and tacky look that only good well-aged, non-plastic wrapped meat has. Yet their prices, in some instances are very expensive. For the price of two or three large chickens from European Quality, I can buy one small squab from Sanagan's. Any investment analyst worth their salt would say this is no way to run a business. And yet, it is not Sanagan's that is shutting down, but the larger, more established European Quality butchers that have determined the downtown rent does not justify their existence any longer. 

There are many, many forces at work that have created, what I will call, a dysfunctional meat supply chain in Ontario. There is the quota system in place which makes it near on impossible for small players to enter the meat farming business. For example, Ontario's poultry cartel (they call themselves 'supply managers', but 'cartel' fits the bill just fine) is called Chicken Farmers of Ontario . If you want to get into the chicken business in Ontario, you have to guarantee the quota set by the cartel. For example, in Ontario, in order to legally sell chickens, you need to guarantee a minimum annual allotment quota of 90,000 birds - which will cost you a cool $1.5 million. Even more sinister forces are at work - the Chicken Farmers of Ontario have the legal right to inspect your farm if they have reason to believe you are raising chickens for sale that fall under this minimum quota and can ding you with a fine. Why do they do this? They say it is to ensure that the"supply of that commodity matches the demand for it." So if you want to raise heritage birds that take longer to grow, you need to come up with a lot of scratch to satisfy the cartel. What a mess. As, Mark Schatzker of the Globe and Mail wrote last month about this kind of supply management: "it is the enemy of deliciousness."

So this is one of the many reasons why little butcher shops like Sanagan's charge these extremely high prices - the farming game is stacked against the small players, and the margins become very small.

So, where do I buy my chicken? I don't have piles of money. I would love to raise my own chickens (if the wife would let me and I could figure out an effective raccoon baffle). I buy an organic chicken from Loblaws that is okay (Yorkshire Farms), but certainly expensive. Cumbrae's Butcher sells something called 'naturally raised' chicken which is quite good.  I even sometimes opt for the cheap stuff...especially when I order from Chalet Suisse. In order to quell my own tremors of hypocrisy, I have simply opted to eat less meat so that I know I can buy the good stuff more often than not. I also find that when you drop some serious coin on a bit of animal flesh, you tend not to scrape any of it into the green bin. Even the bones find their way into my soup pot. This kind of thrift might be a bit quaint, but it also feels right to me.

...but then again, I don't really want to wish to preach to anyone - after all, it's just food.

As for European Quality Meats, I decided to pay them a visit today on my lunch hour to take one last look. It was busy and noisy. It smelled of blood and garlic. It's amazing to think that this place is simply closing down. Perhaps in its place will be another butcher shop like Sanagan's Meat Locker. And just maybe, if enough Sanagan's come along or enough Yorkshire Valley Organic chicken farms open, the cartels will start to realize that they are indeed the enemy of deliciousness.

Post Script, March 2013: I've noticed that this post has picked up some traction lately (for reasons unknown to me). Nevertheless, I couldn't allow it to be read in the vacuum of the past and since writing this, in an almost perfect alignment to the stars, Sanagan's Meat Locker actually moved into the former space of European Quality Meats as I predicted might happen (the former Sanaga's location has been occupied by an ethical fish monger called Hooked). Also, since I wrote this, I have discovered that the best value chicken in the city is the King Capon farms bird sold at, you guessed it, Sanagan's Meat Locker. I am a very enthusiastic customer of their new digs: now an integral part of the market. Re-reading this is a blast from the past- how things have changed!

1 comment:

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