Adam Henson on British bacon

Adam Henson reveals how your rashers are made, and says that if you want to support UK farmers and be sure of welfare, buy British.

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Bring home the bacon. What a lovely, old-fashioned way to describe earning a living for your family. Like the meat itself, the phrase has a certain Britishness about it. It was coined, so it’s claimed, from the age-old tradition of the Dunmow Flitch where married couples in the Essex town of Great Dunmow have to prove they haven’t rowed for a year and a day in order to win a side (or flitch) of bacon. More prosaically, no full English breakfast would be complete without a couple of rashers, fresh from a sizzling pan. 

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Bacon comes from the back, belly or sides of the pig and is cured using salt, either in brine or as a dry mixture spread across the surface. Then it’s often smoked to enhance the flavour, although it’s not to everyone’s taste, so butchers, meat counters and manufacturers make a point of distinguishing smoked from unsmoked products. Meat from the back of the pig is, unsurprisingly, called back bacon while the streaky variety comes from the belly or side. Gammon (sometimes called gammon bacon) is the meat from the hind legs of the pig removed from a whole side of bacon and cured in the same way, then sold uncooked. Lardons are small chunks of diced bacon used in dishes such as coq au vin.

By law, all products labelled British must come from pigs that have been born, reared and slaughtered in the UK. The British pig industry is not having an easy time. Costs have risen in the UK as producers comply with strict welfare legislation, and cheap imports have put pressure on farmers. For instance, narrow cages called sow stalls were outlawed in the UK in 1999 to bring a halt to the practice of keeping animals confined for the majority of their lives. But even though an EU-wide ban came into force in January, it’s thought about half of European countries have failed to comply with the regulations. Similarly, British pigs are not allowed to receive growth-promoting hormones, and antibiotics can only be given with the permission of a vet and under strict directions, but that’s not the case in every country. As a result, shoppers buying imported bacon can’t be certain that it was reared humanely.

Important questions

Figures from The National Pig Association (NPA) reveal that around 60 percent of the pork products eaten in Britain are imported. After the horsemeat scandal, there was pressure for supermarkets to stock more British food, and they responded with highly publicised pledges to do more to support farmers here. But the NPA has claimed that one major retailer has admitted that its size means it’s impossible to source all its bacon from the UK. It raises some interesting questions: could supermarkets try harder? What would help pig farmers to expand? Should and could the Government step in?

The truth is that we vote with our feet. While I’m a passionate campaigner for British food and farming, as long as they know what they’re putting in their baskets, shoppers are free to buy bacon from Denmark, or anywhere else. After all, Danish bacon remains popular, it’s inexpensive, tasty and has a long heritage.

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That said, on the whole, British bacon will have travelled far fewer miles to reach the shop so has a lower carbon footprint than its foreign equivalents. And campaigners and high-profile pig farmers, such as TV presenter Jimmy Doherty, will tell you that choosing British rashers means employment for the people whose work helps keep the countryside the way it is. That’s bringing home the bacon in more ways than one.