International velvet

Examining the NZ stag velvet industry, Byron Pace says we should think more carefully about the origins of animal products and whether they are held to the same welfare standards

Last year, my production company received a commission to film and produce video guides on the prevention of gross contamination in the food chain. The focus was particularly on deer, splitting the guides between upland and lowland methods, red and roe. It was a joint project between Scottish Venison, Best Practice and SNH, coming on the back of an E.coli outbreak in Dundee back in 2015 with raw venison products. All these films are now online for everyone to watch, having already been mentioned in SR news pages over previous months. Simply search for Scottish Venison on Youtube. They are not step-by-step gralloching guides, but instead highlight the potential risk for gross contamination in carcase preparation, and how best to avoid this.

Making instructional films is always difficult, with multiple parties providing input, and we got some inevitable negative feedback from armchair hunters about some intricacy they disagree with. At the end of day, there are a number of ways to safely shoot, eviscerate, transport and process a carcase, all of which will result in safe food production. What we aimed to highlight in these films were the potential risks of contamination during the process, and how best to avoid them.

Deer stalking in the UK is rigorously quality-controlled – but what about elsewhere?

To be honest, it is not something I had thought about much, having always been a person to take pride in delivering a clean carcase to the chiller. Most of what I shoot I consume myself, so there is a vested interest, but even when this isn’t the case, I treat every animal as if it were going into my freezer.

The reason I bring it up this month is because of an experience I had in the few days before I wrote this article. I wasn’t hunting myself, but on another filming commission, out hunting pretty much every morning and night. As it serves no purpose in these pages, I won’t mention exactly where this took place, but it wasn’t in the UK.

It became clear that with a few exceptions, the calibre of ‘stalker’ being employed was questionable. It was a different experience to hunting with the seasoned professionals in the hills of Scotland. That said, I have no qualms with fitting into the local way of things – it is the joy of hunting new locations, and something I relish. But that only lasted until it came to extracting carcases. It become highly apparent that there was limited consideration as to what was acceptable in terms of hygienic methods.

Putting meat into the community is one of the big benefits of hunting

It was painful to watch some of the practices, and though I intervened on occasion, it was clear the efforts were a waste of my time. In the first instance, a stag was dragged without care through a field of cows, making no efforts to dodge the cowpats strewn like landmines every few metres. It got worse when we got to the bottom of the hill and on to the wet, extremely muddy track we had walked in on. The carcase, open from jaw to pelvis, simply ploughed on through, scooping up debris en route.

I cringed at the waste of meat, and had already long since packed my camera away, unable to film what I was witnessing. I assumed that the lack of care spawned from discarding the carcases, which is itself beyond ethically questionable. However, I would be shocked even more yet when returning to the larder. Despite making it quite clear I didn’t think the carcase was in any way fit for human consumption, with black sludge pouring from the chest cavity, the head of the outfit didn’t seem to share my analysis. Instead, he set about hacking away the visibly contaminated pieces of the carcase, washing out the evidence as best as he could. This meat wasn’t just set for the food chain – most of these were shipped to England!

We all need to insist on high standards in meat processing

This got me to thinking about something that had been playing on my mind since I returned from New Zealand a few months ago. How much are countries of origin held to the same standards as we are here in the United Kingdom? Clearly, as the example above demonstrates, this kind of carcase treatment wouldn’t pass muster at home, and though I am not claiming everyone is perfect here, I have never witnessed anything close to this in home countries.

The reason I mentioned NZ is because of the way their red deer industry functions. The backbone of this revolves around the velvet industry, with the venison and ‘trophy’ aspects of the red deer business spawning from this profitable enterprise. The issue here lies in the fact that velvet harvesting has been banned since the 1980s in the United Kingdom on animal welfare grounds. The process involves the repeated harvesting of soft antlers in velvet, cutting the live tissue from stags. The demand for this lies primarily in Asian markets for medicinal purposes. If we accept the findings of the committee for the Welfare of Livestock in the 1980s (which I believe have never been questioned since), we have to consider carefully the fact that we import venison from New Zealand.

Do we know enough about where our meat comes from?

Yes, it is true that some deer farms may play no part in velvet harvesting. It is also true, especially historically, that a lot of venison from NZ was supplied through wild harvesting, WARO (Wild Animal Recovery Operations). But as far as I understand, there is no chain of origin once it’s shipped out as NZ venison. There is no way to tell if the NZ venison you are eating is part of a system of velvet harvesting or not.

It is right that we hold ourselves to high standards, both in ethics and game meat processing. It has to be this way. However, we need to consider more closely the importing of meat into this country. There shouldn’t be double standards, and animal welfare should always be at the core of
our decisions.

Every animal should be treated as if it is going into the freezer

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