Richard North, 26/09/2021  

There are days when I am struggling to find a topic for my daily blogpost, but there are others – like today - when there is so much going on that I'm spoilt for choice.

However, despite there being much else worthy of comment, I cannot resist taking a pop at Matthew Parris's patronising, facile column in yesterday's Times, headed: "The state shouldn't be fixing all life's glitches".

Superficially a seductive theme, Parris writes about "where the responsibility for lies for life's ups and downs, the glitches, the things beyond our control, the innumerable bumps in the road…". Developing this theme, he asks (rhetorically, of course):
Did you know that if we can't get carbon dioxide to the slaughterhouses then pork and poultry may be temporarily off the menu, but lamb and beef won't? And do you think it's up to the government to guarantee your chicken dinner today, your leisure-motoring this weekend and the astonishingly cheap gas prices you pay to slip off the jersey and heat every room in your home through the coming winter?
From this, it is not difficult to guess that Parris is railing against state interference, outlining his concern that, "in public life, the voices and intellects that used to act as counsel for the prosecution of statism have fallen silent".

In principle, I might have considerable cause to agree with Parris, but his choice of topical examples, and his analysis, is so off-beam that proper evaluation is called for.

Taking his rhetoric about whether we think "it's up to the government to guarantee your chicken dinner today", the more pressing issue is the availability of Christmas turkeys, with fears that they might be in short supply because of the non-availability of carbon dioxide, and the cheap, migrant labour to process the birds.

On the face of it, it would seem sensible to argue that the supply of ready-to-cook poultry to consumers should be left to market forces, following Adam Smith's precept that work best without government interference.

But, of the present situation, what Parris neglects is the fact that the state, largely unseen and unrealised, and over a long period of time has being interfering massively in the production and processing of poultry, and in particular the processing of Christmas turkeys.

Aided and abetted by a singularly inappropriate and ill-founded piece of EU (formerly EEC) legislation, in the form of Directive 71/118/EEC, the British government has swept away thousands of small poultry producers – a process I partly illustrated recently - forcing a concentration of the industry into a very small number of giant factories.

Collectively, these small, often family-owned enterprises could have serviced the bulk of demand, to the great benefit of the rural economies. And while they adopted manual (but nonetheless efficient) processes, the obscene, state-sanctioned mega-plants rely on mechanical processing. In particular, some use carbon dioxide for stunning, for which plentiful supplies of compressed gas are needed.

When, as has been the case recently, gas supplies have been interrupted – in this instance as a direct result of state intervention in the energy market - urgent state intervention was needed to restore supplies. Without such intervention, poultry production – and in particular the all-important turkey trade – was at risk of being held up, with Christmas supplies limited.

The point, of course, is that if state intervention had been more intelligently designed – half a century ago - with a view to permitting small-scale production, the need for carbon dioxide would now be minimal. State intervention on the heroic scale of which Parris complains would scarcely have been needed.

As to the labour situation, these small-scale, farm based units could often rely on locals, who would welcome the employment and form a flexible workforce. But, as the production have been stripped from the farms by over-zealous legislators, employment opportunities have dwindled and the villages have emptied of workers, their cottages bought up and gentrified by urban commuters. No wonder employers have to resort to migrants.

Back with carbon dioxide in the meat industry, this is also used for flushing pouches into which meat portions are inserted, which are then vacuum-packed and refrigerated (or frozen) in order to arrest the growth of spoilage organisms acquired during the state-mandated "hygienic" slaughter and processing.

In traditional red meat processing, such techniques are neither used nor needed. I witnessed once a slaughterhouse owner, claiming for a bet that he could produce a carcase and keep the meat for a month, without refrigeration, and it would still be marketable. He won his bet.

The old-fashioned plants were entirely naturally ventilated. Here in Yorkshire, they would be orientated with the prevailing wind, with beehive vents along the ridge lines, ensuring a continuous flow of air through the building - even on windless days when convection would keep the air moving.

The crucial requirements in good meat processing are to keep the air flowing and the meat dry. Once relative humidity climbs above 90 percent, growth of spoilage organisms increases exponentially. Hence, in stately homes preserved for display, you may see "meat safes", perforated zinc cupboards, often kept outside, in which meat was stored at ambient temperatures.

Then along came the pink-faced vets, armed with their sheaves of EU law. Fresh from their coloured crayon courses, they were imbued with a pathological fear of fresh air and an amateur obsession with visible cleanliness – which they confused with hygiene.

They had the slaughterhouses and cutting plants hermitically sealed, and the insisted on lining durable, concrete-rendered walls - hard-wearing but unappealing - with "pretty", white plastic cladding and stainless steel sheets. Behind these, all manner of organisms festered, beyond the reach of cleaning hoses.

All internal working spaces were refrigerated and, in use, were washed and scrubbed continuously, as was the meat at multiple stages during processing. Relative humidity soared (creating, incidentally, the perfect environment for the spread of Covid-19) and the shelf-life of the meat plummeted.

Technical interventions such as gas flushing and vacuum packing thus became essential to compensate for the depredations of these amateur hygienists, without which most of the product becomes slimy and discoloured, long before it reaches the consumer.

Parris, though, emboldened by his overwhelming ignorance, is happy to complain about the plebs who expect the government to "guarantee their chicken dinner", without knowing or caring that state intervention reaches back more than fifty years and is so pervasive that, as one slaughterhouse owner complained to me, the only operation decision he was allowed to make was the colour cheque he used to pay his official vet bills.

Ignorance, though, is a fine and worthy thing. It enables columnists such as Parris to earn a living without having to trouble themselves with finding out what is happening in the real world. And no matter how shallow their analysis, his likes can always rely on an equally ignorant constituency, ready and willing to applaud their efforts.

On the other hand, working out where the margins of state intervention should lie, and the constraints that should apply, takes knowledge – and effort. How much easier it is to throw up a thousand-odd words of extruded verbal material and walk away.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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