Allegra McEvedy, the Footprint Award-winning chef, talks about animal welfare and the challenges of championing sustainability.
When did you first become interested in animal welfare?
Allegra McEvedy: Fairly quickly after I left college in the early 90s. I was lucky enough to fall into some great forward-thinking restaurants that understood the value of good animal husbandry – both ethically and flavour-wise. Places like the River Café, where I worked in my early 20s, taught me the importance of rearing animals in natural surroundings. I became aware that it was not OK to just order blindly from suppliers (usually to an answerphone late at night after service). That was the industry standard at the time, and to some extent still is.
How much of a priority was animal welfare at the high-end restaurants you used to work in?
AM: It’s now much more on the agenda. Back in the day it was rare, now it’s commonplace and it’s definitely had a dribble down affect. But we are nowhere near where we want to be. About 10 years ago I did an article with the Guardian about British veal; at the time there was absolutely no awareness around the fact that male calves born from dairy cows were just killed – often brutally – at just a day or two old as they had no value to the farmer. Today British rose veal is proudly written on menus, as well as being stocked in Waitrose, so there is progress.
You work with some leading retailers currently – can you tell us a bit more about that?
AM: That’s where the real story is – the big guys – they are the ones who have the real challenges to face. Cost drives people into a corner because they have to produce food at a particular price point for the majority. Big businesses and high street caterers are really challenged. They know what they need to sell their food at to stay competitive in the marketplace and then you have the NGOs maintaining a hardline stance that quite simply does not add up financially for them, so they end up doing less than if there was a more softly-softly, step-by-step approach.
As someone who cares, understands and is a believer in the importance of ethical farming, I think the way forward is for NGOs to help the mega-players to try to find the middle ground, rather than digging their heels in. That’s why I think that Compassion in World Farming does such a great job with its Farm Animal Welfare Awards.
You once said you turned from doing posh food for posh people to the best food for most people. Do you think ‘ethical’ food still has the stigma of being expensive, and why?
AM: It’s all changing a bit but it’s still the case that good food costs more. Giving hens space to cluck around in, pigs to pig around in, it all costs money. Intensive farming is there to drive down the price. It is cheaper but it’s not nice. Trying to make the best food for the most people is a good guidance point for me so you go for the best chickens at the best price.
What have you done in your business to ensure there are high levels of animal welfare down the chain?
AM: I always visit the farms and the animals. When we were setting up [London bar and restaurant] Blackfoot we knew we needed to find the right pigs. Our main supplier is Dingley Dell – and every member of our team has been to their farm in Suffolk. We really believe that they can’t talk about the food and feel happy with the way our pigs have been treated unless they’ve seen it with their own eyes.
What have been the benefits?
AM: The fact that our team can all talk about our pigs with first-hand knowledge and absolute certainty that they’ve had a good life definitely gets through to our customers. I haven’t straw-polled it but my instinct is that most of our customers do care, want to know, and are happy to pay a bit more in the knowledge that the animals had a good life.
What other aspects of your business’s sustainability have you focused on?
AM: Fairtrade has always been there – I’m their patron now but even years ago it was something I banged on about. It just seemed so wrong that the people at the end of a long supply chain made all the profit and those who did all the initial hard work reaped so little reward. Last year I was lobbying supermarkets about the unfair price squeeze they’ve put on Fairtrade banana producers. I tend to try and focus on anywhere where you feel you might be heard: pick your fights to make the biggest difference.
Is the government doing enough to promote sustainable, ethical food? If you could change or introduce one policy what would it be?
AM: No. They could always do more. In my opinion, they should abandon “sustainable intensification” – even the words seem like a contradiction – and work towards returning to genuinely sustainable farming methods that produce food we can trust. We’ve known for decades that at the current rate of population acceleration we are running out of food. But on the other hand there is growing awareness that all the quick-fix methods of production is just not sustainable. We are doing it wrong and the issue is: how do we feed our ever-growing population? It’s a question we all need to address. I think we all have a responsibility to talk about these issues.
Has winning the Footprint Special Achievement Award made an impact on the work that you do or how you view it?
AM: This amazing award sits next to my MBE, which I got for “promoting healthier eating and ethical sourcing in the UK”. They are sat looking at each other. It has made me more committed but day-to-day it doesn’t change anything as it’s already a commitment I made to myself some years ago.
As well as the day-to-day stuff, I try to do something every newsworthy every month. I’m going to Palestine next month to meet an amazing group of women Fairtrade olive oil makers – these are ladies who despite their inclement surroundings seriously deserve to win. They have a fabulous product; all I try to do is to give a bit of support to those who deserve it.