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It was January 2013 when Irish food inspectors reported the first large scale discovery of horse meat found inside packs of frozen beef burgers. Within just months contaminated meat had been found across Europe, touching most of the major supermarkets and food suppliers and stretching all the way from Ireland to Germany, France to Norway.
The scandal highlighted the sheer complexity of the meat supply chain across Europe and showed how, even after strong regulation and many promises of tighter control during the early 90s outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (aka Mad Cow Disease), Europe’s supply chain was all too easily infiltrated and contaminated by a number of unscrupulous criminals wanting to make a quick buck.
We all questioned the burgers in our freezer and many a butcher was paraded on television news calling for a return to a ‘local supplier we all can trust’. In Sweden, where the scandal also touched, 2014 Entrepreneur of The Year Britt-Marie Stegs realised the business she had started in 1999, a business to try and provide ethical meat across her home country, was about to become very relevant.
Ethical vegetables, ethical restaurants, ethical fish and ethical eggs. The word ethical has been applied to almost all ingredients in the food chain and, as more and more of us express a need to understand where and how our food is sourced, the ethical movement continues to grow. Stegs like all good entrepreneurs spotted this trend early and started Hälsingestintan, a company dedicated to the ethical supply of high quality meat in Sweden.
“We had our own farm where we bred animals, 300 kilometres North of Stockholm. It was 1999 and we had been members of the European Union for four years in Sweden, before that we were quite protected from the markets, explains Stegs, “suddenly we had lots of minced meat from Ireland and it was half the price of the Swedish meat and we thought the consumers would really choose the Swedish meat but they didn’t because they wanted cheaper options.”
Stegs says that Sweden’s entry into the EU was one of the catalysts that made her start the business. “It was quite a shock for all the farms in Sweden and the meat business because we weren’t used to competition at all. Quite a bad thing happened as local farmers just quit producing meat, I looked in the grocery stores and all I saw was this meat with no traceability, no quality, just big signs with cheap prices and I thought this isn’t good.”
Having grown up around farming and knowing too well the taste of high quality beef, Stegs formed Hälsingestintan and started supplying local grocery stores with meat directly from her farm. Choosing the best quality cuts, hanging it and supplying it alongside details on the animal’s breed, gender and exactly where it came from, her business quickly started to expand. “This was quite uncommon in Sweden and the business started to grow very good… after a short while I had a need for 200 farmers.”
Stegs was happy with the business but purely controlling the conditions of the farms and how animals were raised wasn’t enough for her goal of truly ethical meat so in 2011 she decided to go a step further. “I started to know what consumers really like. I knew that there are a lot of people who care for about how the animal has been bred and they really didn’t want animals to go in animal transport, it’s a big issue in Sweden… it’s a thing that Swedish consumers always speak about, they don’t want bad transport for their animals.
“I also wanted to have traceability all the way and it was very difficult for me to speak with the big slaughterhouses because they are not interested in developing anything like that. It’s very expensive and they have big economic problems in Sweden so they don’t want to do anything that will cost them a lot.”
Faced with this issue Stegs decided to develop a innovative solution in the form of a mobile slaughter house, the first in Europe and something she believes is more technologically advanced than anything else in the world. A design comprising of different sections that allows Stegs to travel directly to farms and slaughter animals on site. The sound of such a vehicle, a mobile monster driving down the motorway equipped to stun, gut, butcher and skin cows, might sound cruel but Stegs is certain it’s the only way to truly give meat the ‘ethical’ label.
As she explains, “We come to the farm in the evening and we put the slaughtery in place. That means that we have to connect the first part with the second, and also connect them to the refrigerator truck. At the back of one of the cars is the stunning box and the farmer is at the beginning and he can walk in with the animal into the cart - it’s always the farmer that goes with the animal and speaks to them. They know the voice, everything is very calm. The animal goes into the stunning box and we open a door so they can see outside and think they’re going through, they really want to go in here.
“After they’re shot with the stun gun and we immediately chain them up and let the blood drain. We take the skin off, we take out the entrails, then we cut the animal and there is a veterinary assistant who is on site to check the liver and all parts of the animal.”
Stegs is certain that this process not only gives her control on the humane slaughtering of the animal, the traceability and the sourcing of meat but that the lack of stress displayed in the cows before slaughter also helps to improve the quality and even the taste of the meat. Something backed up by Bo Algers, a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences who works at the Department of animal environment and health. Algers, who is helping Stegs create a number of experiments to understand the effect her system is having on animals, says there is “lots of research that shows if you’re able to reduce stress that you can improve the quality of meat.”
They will now work closely together as Stegs wants to conclusively prove that conditions of traditional slaughter - where animals are made to unnaturally walk up onto trucks for transport, are placed with other animals from many different farms and often spend days in the slaughterhouse waiting to be killed - not only offer inhumane practices but also have a negative effect on taste and tenderness of meat.
“They have a demand to kill so many animals a day so they are meant to get animals in and kill them quickly, they are often pushed into the stun box and that’s why when they’re stunned their muscles are very tense, this can even affect how sour the meat can be. If the animal is very stressed you can feel it when you go to cut the meat - it’s not common you can see it with your eyes but you can feel it, it’s not tender anymore.”
Now Stegs will work to prove this over the next few years as she looks to expand the project that has many calling her one of the most exciting business women in food.
“Now we’re waiting for the results from the university so we can prove this theory. The next thing for me is to increase this in Sweden so we can show how we breed animals, good animal welfare, stress free slaughtering and when I’ve done this very well in Sweden I will try to implement it in other countries.”