Butchery: nourishing tradition or culture of cruelty?

These days the knives are out for meat-eaters, but those who prepare their succulent feasts are confident the future is theirs. Jasmine Gallone reports.

John Salvo will tell you that people have a serious misconception about butchery. The trade, he insists, is “not all blood and guts”.

So what else does it entail? A hard slog, overwork, long days – with many butchers on their feet up to 90 hours a week – and being undervalued by society.

For the vast majority of his colleagues, a regular day involves getting up with the sun. “On a normal day, I wake up at 5.30am. Sometimes there are 10 beef bodies looking at you ready to be cut,” he says.

On an average morning, Mr Salvo’s task consists of slicing up an assortment of beef, lamb and pork carcasses. That’s not to mention 200 chickens a week.

Mr Salvo says much of this effort goes unrecognised, and that “a lot of the public have no idea about how much preparation goes into getting the meat into a bag for a customer to take home”.

Butchery: nourishing tradition or culture of cruelty?

Preparing cuts for window display takes meticulous and arduous practice, as traditional butchers are required to break down carcasses from scratch.

But the face of butchery is changing. In the past few decades, boxes of pre-cut meat have come to be preferred over full carcasses, more than halving the workload.

“In a sense, traditional butchery leaves a more sustainable footprint,” says John Daltorio, who has been 29 years in the trade.

Breaking down carcasses from scratch, says Daltorio, traditional butchers waste less product than others do by buying pre-packaged meats and using only “preferred cuts”.

“When you break down your own carcasses, you get a better product.”

Happy to be tagged a traditionalist, Daltorio says pre-packaged meat handled by the big distributors is simply not of the same quality as customers get from their local butcher “personally handpicking the product” and “cutting it the way that you like”.

Another benefit he cites is that it’s more profitable for a butcher to buy whole carcasses, despite the labour of chopping and carving them up.

Even as methods of dissection go in and out of favour, his fellow butcher Salvo does not believe a butcher’s work will ever be done as “people still love meat”.

For Simon Anderson, an apprentice with two years in the trade, the biggest challenge is “getting up in the mornings”.

What initially attracted him to butchery was the chance to work indoors in an environment that wouldn’t be hazardous to his health. Besides, like most trades, it offered a viable alternative to further schooling.

General knowledge was all a budding butcher needed to start out with a few decades ago, Anderson said, but nowadays “both experience and qualifications are essential”.

Those, and perhaps a certain type of temperament. According to a 2009 survey by Galaxy Research, butchers are ranked as the happiest members of the workforce, with the highest satisfaction rating of any occupation.

Salvo certainly enjoys many aspects of his job and, despite his discontents, would “happily do it again”.

What drew him to the trade in the first place keeps him there – the culture. A butcher’s shop is “anything but a dull environment – always lively and interactive, with lots of joking around.”

With their specialised knowledge about many cuts of meat and “delicacies”, he says, butchers play a vital role in carrying on cultural traditions.

“Food is the core of many cultures. Often people from all sorts of backgrounds come together to eat spits, make salamis or eat asado (South American-style barbecue).

K.C. Viselka, who has been a vegan activist for the past two years, sees the “culture” as a harmful one, with butchers more likely to see meat instead of recognising an animal.

“At the end of the day you must acknowledge that it is just their job,” she says, but adds that it is important to create awareness of their industry’s “cruel” aspects.

For Salvo, it is not a culture of death but a way of life – and, more than that, “almost as being artwork, just like a carpenter can perfect timber …”