British meat traditions

The traditionally-minded in Britain and much of the “West” who espouse the virtues of meat-eating as patriotic. Millennials generally and the occasional Generation X parent who raised them are more and more frequently scoffing at such dogma: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs statistics show that overall consumption of meat and meat products in Britain in down 15.5% since year 2000 and 32% since 1980.

We will freely admit that Britain does indeed have quite the long tradition of meat-eating and quite a few cultural touchpoints mark the influence of animal consumption on British society itself. Naturally, not all of these are exactly pride-inducing – unless you’re the sort of carnivore who justifies his/her overconsumption of resources for a taste of (probably chemically adulterated) flesh. A look at a few of these British meat traditions runs below.


Historically, British folks have been among the world’s leaders in animal breeding. Nearly every major domesticated animal (cats, dogs, sheep, goats, etc.) now have at least one British breed known worldwide. And in terms of the bovine, the British may be Earth’s undisputed master, with perhaps only the Texans competitive in this area.

Indeed, the British may take credit for the entire international meat cattle-breeding industry. Rather than primarily breed cows for milk production, the British of the 15th century producing the Hereford and the Aberdeen (or Black) Angus.

The Beefeaters

Recognised internationally for their colourful uniform and presence at the Tower in London, those colloquially known as “Beefeaters” hold the distinction of being the first inextricable link between British culture and devouring cow was forged. Officially known as the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, these royal servants rose to prominence thanks in no small part to a foreigner – funny how frequently that happens in the history of British culture…

In any case, the first mention of the term in reference to the Yeoman Larders was made by Cosimo de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1669. While visiting the Tower, Cosimo noted that “A very large ration of beef is given to [the Yeoman Larders] daily at the court, and they might be called Beef-eaters.”

The name soon stuck and since then, that name has subsequently been stuck to dozens of brands, including those of gin, restaurants and rock bands.

Les rosbifs and Old England

In 1731, the song “The Roast Beef of Old England” was penned by Henry Fielding for the musical "The Grub Street Opera". This famously patriotic ditty enjoyed a spell of immediate popularity lasting some 25 years, with various songwriters and common folks occasionally creating new lines or verses. Richard Leveridge remade the song some 10 years after Leveridge, and the song ultimately became a sort of theatre-goers anthem, as it was sung by the audience before performances.

And here are the first two verses, well representative of the lot, packed to the hilt as they are with nationalistic fervor and justification for unhealthy habits:

"When mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food,

It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.

Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good

Oh! the Roast Beef of old England,

And old English Roast Beef!"

"But since we have learnt from all-vapouring France

To eat their ragouts as well as to dance,

We’re fed up with nothing but vain complaisance

Oh! the Roast Beef of Old England,

And old English Roast Beef!"

Perhaps due in no small part to the overwhelming popularity of this anthem, the French soon applied the word “rosbifs” to Englishmen themselves. While the term’s targets might have worn the epithet as a badge of honor, the Francophones typically used “rosbifs” in a derisive sense as synonym with uncivilized behavior.

Modernized pig processing

It’s not all about eating cow in Britain, as the U.K. on the whole is one of the world’s top per-capita consumers of bacon. Unsurprisingly, then, Britain and the U.K. were ahead of the curve in terms of industrialized pig-processing techniques in the 20th century. In fact, by the 1930s, Britain-based pig farms were overwhelmingly large-scale, high-productivity factory-style operations of the sort that wouldn’t be the norm in Europe until after World War II.

The British pork industry fondness for such porcine concentration camps continues to this day. Whereas most European nations have reduced purely indoor operations to a low minority amount, just 30% of sows in Britain live outdoors. On the plus side, individually tethering pigs within stalls, a common practice worldwide, was banned in the U.K. in 1999.

Mad Cow Disease

No pride-inducing, chest-swelling, tear-welling piece about the noble history of meat-eating in Britain would be complete without mention of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease, and its variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Before delving into another remarkable proud first for Britain, i.e. the first nation to demonstrate proof that red meat will kill you, let’s dissect the key team “bovine spongiform encephalopathy.” “Bovine” is of course an adjective form for the cow species; “encephalo” is a suffix for “brain”, while “pathy” means a medical condition or disease. And “spongiform”? It means “form of a freaking sponge”! Thirty years since British beef came with a warning label reading approximately, “Eating British beef may cause your *fucking brain to assume the shape of a sponge*”, we can be amazed that people still shrug at the threat.

Maybe it’s all about the numbers. In 1987, cases of BSE were first detected in cows in Britain; soon thereafter, victims of bad meat were revealed to have become drooling near-idiots who’d live out their last few months of life with no control over body or mind. “Ennobling our brains and enriching our blood,” eh…? By 1993, nearly 1,000 cases of BSE were reported in British cattle weekly. By the mid-1990s, culling of hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle plus quarantining meant that the patriotic diet of red meat was almost entirely imported – mostly from ever-exploitable ostensible archenemy Argentina.

The sick thing about the Mad Cow Disease outbreak? The cause is believed to be rooted in a practice much touted by managers of large-scale farms on either side of the Atlantic for its efficiency: Namely, the spinal cords, brains and other livestock bits not deemed edible for humans are ground up and fed to cows. It doesn’t matter how much one loves one’s country, taking pride in turning a vegetarian ruminant into a poisonous carnivore in the name of patriotism seems an utterly indefensible position.

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