Small butchers across the state are fearful for their future as they struggle with strict new guidelines by Victoria's meat licensing authority PrimeSafe. This comes on top of increasing red tape and accusations that the meat industry regulator is bullying and intimidating family butchers.
Guidelines released several months ago about the age-old practice of dry-ageing beef – a traditional technique to make meat more tender and flavoursome – now requires expensive lab tests and dry-ageing rooms that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Several highly regarded farmer butchers have ceased the practice of dry-ageing their beef with one acclaimed butchery closing its doors and others reconsidering their future.
Two years ago Benalla butcher and farmer Sandy Leatham had a thriving business butchering sheep and cattle from her own farm. She dry-aged the prime cuts of beef and made pies from the trim. She had a strong clientele in her home town, where she employed three young people, and at farmers' markets in Melbourne. She was known for her beef that was dry-aged for 28 days and longer. When the new PrimeSafe guidelines came in she felt she could no longer dry-age her beef for longer than 21 days. With the loss of her dry-aged beef she lost her point of difference and profitability. Earlier this year, Leatham sacked her staff and closed the doors on her butcher's shop. This followed an uneasy relationship with the regulator. "I was being bullied," says Leatham. "I even had one customer intervene when one (PrimeSafe) inspector was in the shop."
One farmer who has been supplying his award-winning 60-day dry-aged beef from his three-year-old grass-fed beef herd to restaurateur Guy Grossi for the past year has stopped production overnight. Grossi is not impressed with the changes. "This is bloody ludicrous," he says. "If something is not done with our small butchers and meat producers there will be no one left and we'll all have to buy s--t meat from the bloody supermarkets."
Good Food has, over past years and more recently, heard reports from butchers about PrimeSafe inspectors' heavy-handed techniques. This includes destroying produce by pouring the butchers' own cleaning chemicals over meat, wrongly destroying cooked salamis suspected of being fermented, and refusing to assist butchers in complying with hard-to-understand bureaucratic documents. We spoke to more than a dozen butchers who, although they had grievances with PrimeSafe, refused to speak out publicly. They feared reprisals because butchers who, in the past, have appeared in the press havereceived further unwanted attention from PrimeSafe representatives.
Tammi Jonas from Jonai Farms and Meatsmiths, a small on-farm commercial butchery and farm gate, agreed to speak with Good Food. Last year she had the entire year's production of salami destroyed. "The inspectors threaten to prosecute you unless you co-operate," Jonas says. "They made us open up our ham hocks and pour poison on them."
The stress of dealing with the industry regulator, particularly in regards to value-added products, such as ham and fermented salamis, has seen some highly acclaimed boutique producers simply stop production. Some Victorian farmers with branded meat products avoid dealing with PrimeSafe altogether and ship meat to be processed into smallgoods interstate where there is a more business-friendly environment. One butcher we spoke to in northern Victoria is planning to move over the border to NSW to set up a smallgoods plant there.
Avoca butcher Duane Gibson from Pyrenees Gourmet Butcher is known for his award-winning smoked hams and smallgoods. He and his colleagues in the Pyrenees region have had enough. They are collecting signatures for a petition they are delivering to Jaala Pulford, the Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development.
"At Christmas time, if I want to sell 40 hams I smoke myself, I have to send five away for testing," he says. "We want to make safe product. We want to work with PrimeSafe. We also want a level playing field." He refers to the fact that the testing and paperwork regime is the same across the industry, from small family butchers to multinational producers. He, like many butchers, is also concerned that supermarkets do not fall under the jurisdiction of PrimeSafe. Instead, supermarket butcheries are policed by local councils.
"We are asking the minister to give small family butchers a fair go," Gibson says. "It costs me $1000 every quarter to send in samples. It costs me $400 every quarter in audits. I get audited during the busiest times of the year like Christmas and Easter. It's hard enough being in small business without being bullied. If things keep going the way they are going Victoria will lose the small butchers who are capable of doing these handcrafted niche products."
We spoke with the chief executive of PrimeSafe Dr Brendan Tatham who was aware of some of the "cultural issues" involved with his organisation and said he was confident PrimeSafe would become easier to work with over time.
Sandy Leatham now cooks meals and food she sells at farmers' markets and runs a cooking school. "I am now registered with local council," she says. "They are easy to work with and foster businesses that employ people," she says. "Like mine."