With the number of confirmed outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease around the country rising on a daily basis, regional inconsistencies seem to be emerging with regard to supply, availability and pricing of meat.
As Chef went to press, chefs in the South and South-east in particular reported a steep increase in the cost of lamb. David Ryan, chef-proprietor of Bistro on the Bridge at Christchurch, Dorset, saw a rise in the price of lamb shanks from £1.65 to £2.29 in the course of 24 hours due to the scarcity of the meat on the market.
London-based butcher CST - which supplies many of the capital's top hotels and restaurants - confirmed that lamb was in short supply. "Our buyer wasn't able to get any lamb at Smithfield Market midway through last week. It's an absolutely crazy situation, because farmers have not been able to transport to abattoirs," commented the company's director of operations, Terry Day.
Day added: "I had two chefs bidding against each other a few days ago on the phone for two racks of lamb. They were offering me double the price that we would charge per kilo normally. Instead of around £6 per kilo they're fetching £11.90 and upwards now."
He refuted any suggestion that CST was profiteering from the crisis, explaining that the company was being forced to purchase lamb at higher prices because of the growing scarcity of the meat. "We have to look beyond the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth. Our relationships with our customers are long-term and we will keep prices down as long as possible. That's why as soon as we heard of the outbreak we bought up meat supplies so that we could continue to provide our customers with meat at normal prices," he said.
Day reported no problems in CST's supply of beef and pork as yet, but he was concerned that if the crisis continued and the restrictions on livestock movement first enforced on 23 February remained in unaffected areas of the UK, there would be a problem within the next two weeks.
However, Nigel Humphries, food production manager and executive chef at Warwick University, has already felt the financial consequences of a growing local shortage of pork. "The price has gone up by 55p per pound and we've had to raise prices to the students. Bacon sandwiches have gone up by 10p to 99p. But this is a very price-sensitive market - if bacon prices go higher we will have to think about taking it off the menu," he said.
A number of chefs also reported a steep rise in the price of fish and poultry. Adrian Jones of London restaurant Jak's said that he was paying about £1.20 more per portion for sea bass. CST confirmed that poultry had increased by 50%, while Ryan said that his butcher (Springfield's in Poole) was predicting that New Zealand lamb would go up by as much as 50%, and that root vegetables would also be affected in a similar manner because of the restrictions on movement of produce imposed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Top West Country chefs Michael Caines (head chef and co-director of Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon, and chef-director of Michael Caines at the Royal Clarence in Exeter) and David Everitt-Matthias (chef-proprietor of Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham) reported no supply problems or price hikes for any meat two weeks into the crisis.
For several years both have used small local suppliers and butchers who hang meat to their specification, which means that both Caines and Everitt-Matthias order beef, lamb and venison from two weeks to a month in advance of use. The meat distribution crisis, therefore, has not affected them. "All my meat comes from farmers who keep a tight control on their herds," commented Caines, who is still carrying pork, lamb and beef on his menu.
Everitt-Matthias, too, is continuing to put out dishes using chump of lamb and several different cuts of pork, including pig's heads, tails and trotters. Like Caines, he reported no downturn in business as a result of public panic or misconceptions about foot-and-mouth disease. "I think people understand that it only affects hooved animals and isn't a danger to them," said Caines.
The only knock-on effect so far in terms of business, said Everitt-Matthias, was the cancellation of a booking for a group of Irish visitors on the first day of the Cheltenham National Hunt racing festival - a result, he assumes, of the Irish racing industry's decision to withdraw all its horses from the event.
Commenting on the possibility that the festival itself would be cancelled because of the racing community's voluntary restrictions on the movement of racehorses around the country (horses cannot be infected by foot-and-mouth, but can transmit it), he said: "We get a lot of business from the race meeting, but life's too short to worry. If it happens, it happens."
In Dorset, Ryan also experienced no dropping off in bookings. "Actually, I've had people ring up just to reassure themselves that we've got beef on the menu," he said.
by Joanna Wood and Amanda Afiya