Butchers prepare and sell meat and meat products.
Butchers work in the meat industry, which, in the UK, is worth several billion pounds. Traditional butchers either buy meat directly from an abattoir or independent producer/supplier or obtain it through a wholesaler. The butcher will then prepare the meat for sale to customers, who include members of the public, caterers, restaurant employees and retail outlet employees.
Butchers also often produce fresh and cooked meat products such as sausages, hams, pies, faggots, and black pudding. Despite a growing interest in quality meat and locally sourced produce, local high street butchers are in decline, facing competition from independent grocers, direct sales outlets (including farm shops, farmers markets and box schemes) and, overwhelmingly, supermarkets.
In the UK, the vast majority of meat is bought in a supermarket. According to the Red Meat Industry Forum, only about 12% to 15% of beef, lamb, and pork is sold through traditional butchers. Remarkably, it is estimated that supermarkets account for up to 70% of total meat sales. So, if you are considering entering the butchery trade, the likelihood is you will end up working in a supermarket.
This is a traditionally male-dominated industry, but you can certainly succeed as a female butcher. Recently, a shortage of butchers in France has brought about a revolution. Now, over one hundred women in the country are certified butchers (see the newspaper story about female butchers in France for more details).
As an apprentice or trainee butcher, your starting salary will be in the region of £10,000 to £12,000 a year (this is around minimum wage). With a couple of years of experience under your belt, this figure could rise to between £13,000 and £20,000 a year. Experienced butchers and butchery managers or owners can expect to earn over £30,000, whilst successful butchers who own a chain of butcher shops can earn well in excess of this figure.
A butcher's role and responsibilities will depend largely upon the type of butchery being performed and the number of staff employed in the store. In a traditional set-up, the butcher will be equally involved in meat preparation, ordering, and customer servicing, whereas roles in a larger shop or supermarket will be specialised.
However, all butchers will be involved in performing several of the following tasks:
- Sourcing and buying stock (meat, meat products, and other items such as eggs, preserves, and condiments)
- Taking delivery and/or collecting stock
- Storing meat appropriately (eg. hanging meat, cold storage at correct temperature)
- Preparing game, including plucking, skinning, and boning
- Preparing and weighing meat for customers (including cutting, boning, slicing, and trimming)
- Using machinery to prepare meat
- Serving customers over the counter and/or delivering meat to customers
- Offering advice on suitable meats, cuts, and preparation/cooking techniques
Butchers will also be required to adhere to stringent hygiene regulations and to undertake general cleaning tasks in the meat preparation and serving areas.
No specific qualifications are required in order for an individual to gain a position in the meat industry, since full training is always given. However, all trainee butchers will need to complete a Foundation/Basic Food Hygiene Certificate (this can be completed on a one day course). Having this qualification will not do your future employment prospects any harm.
You can find details of courses near you on the Coursefinder section of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health website. The Meat Training Council also offers a Foundation Certificate in Meat and Poultry Hygiene. This course is basically the same as the Basic Food Hygiene Certificate, but only covers topics relevant to meat and poultry.
In a traditional apprenticeship system, trainee butchers acquire the skills required over a period of time, and will be unlikely to change jobs. Today, with more mobility in the workforce, it is essential to have accreditation in order to show a new employer what skills you possess. The most useful and widely recognised qualifications in the industry are NVQs levels 2 and 3 in Meat and Poultry Processing.
The Meat Training Council also offers equivalent courses – the Intermediate Certificate in Meat and Poultry (equivalent to NVQ Level 2) and the Advanced Certificate in Meat and Poultry (equivalent to NVQ Level 3).
Details of all Meat Training Council courses can be found on the Meat Training Council (MTC) website. The MTC also offers short courses in butchery and meat processing which you can attend in order to learn new skills or simply update your repertoire.
It goes without saying that any potential butcher should not be squeamish about handling and preparing raw meat, dealing with carcasses, blood, and meat products. In addition, butchers will need to possess the following skills and qualities:
- Safety-conscious approach
- Good practical butchery skills and hand-eye coordination
- Good spatial awareness/judgement
- Mental arithmetic skills
- Attention to detail and dexterity
- An interest in meat and meat preparation, and food in general
- Good knowledge of the product (where it comes from and the “story” behind it)
- Reasonable level of physical strength and stamina
- Excellent personal hygiene and cleanliness
- Customer service skills
- The ability to work well as part of a team
- Creativity and general awareness of how to present and display meat
Specialist butchers may require particular skills and knowledge. For example, Halal and Kosher meat must be prepared in accordance with the methods dictated by Islam and Judaism respectively. For more information, visit the website of the National Halal Food Group.
Most butcher shops are open between 9am (or earlier) and 5pm Monday to Friday, with an earlier closing time likely on a Saturday. This means butchers work around 40 hours per week. Meat deliveries and preparation often take place in the morning, so you may be required to work for several hours before the shop opens to the public. Supermarkets are generally open for longer and the trend for 24-hour stores means that shift work is becoming the norm. Supermarket meat counter workers will usually have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes on a rota, with days off provided midweek.
Butchery can involve hard physical labour, with a lot of lifting and carrying of heavy carcasses and joints of meat. Despite the growing reliance upon machinery in butcher shops, a lot of meat preparation is done by hand and you will spend a lot of your time standing, which can be hard on your feet and back.
Since meat has to be stored at low temperatures, the working environment is usually cool, particularly when moving meat to/from a cold store or refrigerated vehicle.
Meat industry workers must wear personal protective equipment and clothing when preparing meat in order to avoid injury. Protective clothing, sometimes including a hat and/or hairnet, is also worn to avoid contamination of meat.
Apprenticeships and trainee positions are open to those with no experience, but around two to three years of previous experience is required before individuals are allowed to apply for a professional butcher's role. As well as the number of years in the industry, you can show a potential employer your experience and professional standards by joining the Worshipful Company of Butchers’ Guild. This is the official professional body for butchers in the UK and you can join at Affiliate, Associate, or Graduate level. The level will be determined by your previous qualifications and experience.
There has been a decline in the number of operating high street butchers over recent decades, with many independent stores driven out of business by the rise of the supermarket in the UK. Independent butchers usually have a small team of staff and are not major employers, even on a local level.
Ironically, many supermarkets have now resurrected the idea of buying fresh meat from a butcher rather than lifting it off a shelf in pre-packaged form. The following supermarket chains have in-store butchers or meat counters and therefore offer employment opportunities for trained butchers:
According to research carried out in 2008 by Plimsoll and the British Chamber of Commerce, the meat industry as a whole is not currently in the best of shape. The report estimated that many meat businesses are likely to contract by 30% or more, leading to the imminent loss of up to 7000 jobs. Having said this, there is currently a shortage of skilled artisan butchers in the UK. This means that there are opportunities available in the meat industry, but with experienced workers being made redundant, competition for jobs is currently very fierce and the emphasis is on specialist skills.
Opportunities for progression in traditional butcher shops can be limited because the workforce may be small. Starting your own butchery business is one solution to this issue, or you could move sideways into a related profession – meat hygiene – which offers good remuneration and career opportunities.
As they are large companies, supermarkets offer excellent opportunities for career progression and have a clear training and promotion structure.
Ieuan Edwards runs Edwards of Conwy, a successful meat business in North Wales. He is both a businessman and butcher – a combination which has led to a very successful career. He gives us an account of daily life as a butcher involved in the meat industry:
“I grew up on my parent's farm in the Conwy Valley and am very proud of my agricultural upbringing. At the age of 14, I began my apprenticeship with a butcher in Llanrwst and have never looked back! Seven years later, I had my own butcher's shop. Since I took that step at the age of 21, I've built up a flourishing business which employs almost 50 staff. Customers come from far and wide to buy our top-quality Welsh meat and award-winning sausages and pies, and we supply several major supermarket chains. We also offer products that you won't find in other butchers - cooked meats, marinades – and we have a takeaway counter offering hot food.
I trained abroad, studying in Holland and Switzerland, and I was amazed by the skill of butchers there. That European perspective has been very influential and has allowed me to stay a step ahead of the competition at all times. I'm committed to Welsh food and passionate about the quality of the meat I offer. My sausages became so popular that in 2003 I established my own meat manufacturing enterprise - the Traditional Welsh Sausage Co Ltd. Although we make the sausages in a factory, each one is still a traditional artisan product. We select the best ingredients, and we don't use machinery if it affects the quality of the product. All the sausages, for example, are hand-cut. To me, being a good butcher is about not compromising on quality.
My success is due in large part to putting an emphasis on quality, consistency, and customer service. I also wanted to exceed people's expectations – to show that a butcher can do more than just cut meat. On the continent, butchers are also chefs – so why not here in Wales?”