James Whetlor of Cabrito tells Footprint why he believes British goat can be the next big food trend. By Nick Hughes.
It was serendipity that led James Whetlor to supply British goat meat to the foodservice sector. Whetlor had worked as a chef in top London restaurants for 12 years when he was offered the chance to look after a piece of land back in his home county of Devon. The land included an overgrown paddock that Whetlor initially planned to manage with pigs, but his neighbours – who were looking to sell their property – were not supportive of having porcine residents move in next door. As chance would have it Whetlor was put in touch “with a man who had some goats”. He took four of them and put them to work on the land. Come October the goats were ready for slaughter and so Whetlor, who was working at River Cottage at the time, put them on the menu. They sold well and Cabrito was born.
Whetlor’s business, which is largely still a one-person enterprise (“I do the social media, the deliveries, pretty much everything”), now supplies goat meat to about 150 largely high-end restaurants along with a number of catering and retail butchers.
Anyone flicking through a foodie magazine or supplement in recent years will in all likelihood have seen goat meat tipped as a hot food trend. Whetlor says it’s particularly popular in modern Indian restaurants; but it would be a stretch to say that goat meat has penetrated the mainstream food market. Whetlor reveals he has had many meetings and conversations with large foodservice companies over the years but as yet none of them have taken a punt on British goat meat.
Yet many proponents believe that goat meat has a good sustainability story to tell. It has solid nutritional credentials – high in iron and protein and low in fat – and there is a nice ethical angle too. While nanny goats are valued for their milk, billy goats have historically been euthanised at birth because of a lack of demand for their meat. Whetlor estimates that 50,000 billies are still euthanised each year, but the number is declining as businesses such as Cabrito help build a market for their meat. “It felt like we were pushing against an open door because of the food trends and people being much more open to new foods, but also because of people like Hugh [Fearnley-Whittingstall] and Jamie [Oliver] raising awareness of food waste. We have benefited from that.”
Added to all of that is a dairy industry that, Whetlor says candidly, “knows it’s got this massive problem of knocking billy goats on the head” and wants to find a solution. “Once we’d been around for three or four years the people that run the dairy industry realised that we weren’t going anywhere and they then got involved, invested in us and helped us grow.”
Cabrito now works with Delamere Dairy, which accounts for about 50% of the UK goat’s milk market, and its farmers to supply the goat meat. And Whetlor believes his experience of the restaurant trade has been a key asset in developing relationships at the other end of the supply chain. “There are other people doing what we are doing but they’re on the farmer side so it’s much harder to access the market. I was aware of the kind of catering businesses that you might not be aware if you were a farmer in Gloucestershire. I provided that link between the supply and the market.”
Whetlor admits the market for British goat meat is still fledgling, and identifies supply and price as two related factors that are holding back growth. Current market capacity depends on the market for goat’s milk because the two supply chains are inextricably linked. With demand for milk relatively stable there seems little prospect of a surge in supply of meat any time soon.
Goat’s premium price is another barrier. Aside from a period a few months ago when the unseasonably snowy weather brought the price of lamb in line with goat, the latter generally commands a 100% premium over the former, something that Whetlor believes has prevented goat meat from breaking into the mainstream food market.
He explains that goats are expensive to produce because the economic driver of the industry is dairy, “so as soon as the animals are born, rather than being kept on their mums, the kids are reared on a milk powder. A six-week-old goat will probably have £60 worth of milk powder inside it, whereas a six-week-old lamb won’t.”
Despite the popular perception that goats eat everything – from old boots to prized rosebushes – Whetlor says they are in fact quite fussy eaters and as such are reared largely on cereal crops, such as barley, grown on farmers’ own fields. Cabrito’s goats are also reared indoors, for good reason according to Whetlor. “Goats were first domesticated in the mountains of Iran on hard, dusty, dry ground which means if you keep them in northern European wet fields you deal with an awful lot of foot problems. And you also need to manage their diet because they don’t have the natural immunity that sheep and cows do having eaten our pasture for thousands of years.”
Whetlor says his goats are kept in “bright, airy barns” as opposed to the intensive facilities that often house pigs destined for the mass market. Nevertheless, the rearing of goats for meat inevitably raises ethical and environmental questions. While the moral case against euthanising billies at birth seems hard to counter, the resource efficiency of feeding cereal crops to animals is just one of several complex and contentious trade-offs that must be considered.
“For meat eaters, switching to goat meat could be part of an overall ‘less and better meat’ agenda, but only if goats are allowed to live a life worth living, and can be reared in a low-impact way,” says the Food Ethics Council’s executive director, Dan Crossley.
As Crossley alludes to, the greenhouse gas emissions generated by rearing goats for meat are another potential tension. Because goat meat is eaten in such small quantities in the UK it tends to be excluded from analyses of meat’s carbon impact but, as ruminant animals, goats are likely to sit alongside sheep at the upper end of the emissions scale rather than alongside monogastric animals such as pigs.
Whetlor, to his credit, doesn’t duck the sustainability question. “I do accept there is a debate about resources in versus meat out which is worth having,” he says. But his standpoint is that, given that the market for goat’s milk already exists, male offspring are going to be produced regardless of demand for goat meat. “You can have a conversation about whether we should have a dairy industry in the first place but I’m dealing with the world as it is and if these animals are being euthanised then it’s surely better to engage with that process rather than pretend it’s not happening.”
The high number of billies still euthanised at birth means there is plenty of scope to respond to fresh market demand should it materialise. Brexit could be one potential trigger for future growth, according to Whetlor, if it disrupts the trade in cheaper goat meat from southern Europe. In any case, Whetlor believes that it will take just one big contract caterer or supermarket to take the plunge and start putting British goat on menus or shelves for the industry as a whole to follow suit: “If company X started selling it then company Y will want to sell it too. It’s the fact it is expensive that has kept goat off the shelves; I don’t think it’s anything to do with the fact that it’s unusual.”
It was a perfect storm of events that brought Whetlor into the world of goat meat. Will another storm create the ideal conditions to bring goat into the food mainstream?