This truly ancient career traces its roots back to when humans first began to domesticate animals and the organised slaughter and subsequent preparation of livestock became so common that butchery emerged as a viable occupation. So valuable were the skills and expertise of butchers to the local community that professional guilds dating back as far as the 1270s have identified in parts of England.
Obviously much has changed since the first butcher raised a tentative cleaver and set to work, but the importance of the role, the skill it required and its place in the bedrock of local communities remains much the same.
But what exactly is a butcher?
A foolish question you might think, but most people tend to judge an occupation based on what they see of it, and I can assure you there is much more to being a butcher than what you experience in your local high street shop.
Technically speaking a butcher is a person who is involved in the sale of meat within a retail environment. But of course this is an incredibly simplified description and the activities involved in the role are numerous and wide ranging. Some of the things that you could be expected to carry out on a day to day basis are;
- The general tasks which are associated with maintaining the stock levels of the shop including sourcing, buying and ordering of goods.
- Taking an active role in the receipt of stock, checking that all goods delivered are correct and the the level of hygiene used in their transportation meet industry standards
- Ensuring that all meat and poultry received adheres to the highest level of sanitisation and has not (and will not) become contaminated,
- Being highly knowledgeable in all areas of food safety and hygiene but especially with regards to raw and cooked meats.
- Ensuring that all meat stored on the premises is done so with strict reference and adherence to HSE (Health and Safety Executive) guidelines and regulations.
- You will need to take a proactive approach to maintenance of the butcher’s retail spaces, preparation areas and storage facilities to ensure the risk of cross contamination is minimal and that all surfaces including walls, floors and ceiling are kept stringently clear and as germ free as possible.
- Preparing meat and poultry so that it can either sold whole or used to make other products for customers to buy.
- Using precise and highly honed skills in butchery to cut, portion and trim large cuts of meat, which will often include whole or half carcasses.
- If you work in a specialist butchers you may also be required to create more complex products from the stock for sale as ready prepared meals or ‘just cook’ recipes.
- Creating attractive and hygienic product displays
- Providing excellent customer service as well as advising customers on best practices for the storage and cooking of meat.
- Providing additional services to customers when they request them such as tying a roast joint or deboning poultry.
As you can see from the mammoth list of day-to-day activities, being a butcher is about so much more than simply knowing how to debone a chicken breast or trim a saddle of lamb, and these activities demand that a butcher holds a repertoire of varied and precise skills. Some of the most important skills for a butcher to hold are;
- Good general administration skills which will allow you to effectively hardly the day-to-day tasks which come from any retail environment including; dealing with orders and deliveries, ensuring that all stock is maintained, keeping regular diaries and logs concerning food storage, temperature ranges and sell by dates.
- A very clear and mature understanding of the utmost importance of maintaining good health and safety practices at all times.
- The ability and desire to continually seek to improve standards in the storage, preparation and sale of meat and poultry.
- You should have a very high level of manual dexterity which is essential for the proper and safe preparation of meat products.
- You should have the ability to lift and transport heavily pieces of meat
- Outstanding customer service and an understanding that the role of a butcher differs from that of a supermarket cashier. You are not only there to hand over goods and receive cash, but many customers will expect you to share with them your expert knowledge, tips and advice.
- The desire to continually seek to improve your professional skills
- The ability to monitor culinary trends and provide customers with the goods that they desire.
- You must be someone who is meticulous, with an eye for detail who is only willing to sell products which have been prepared to the highest standards.
Working conditions, hours and salary.
Not surprisingly a butcher spends most of his / her time within the butchers premises, whether it is on the shop floor or in the press ration and storage areas. As a butcher you will need to get used to working in conditions which are often much lower than room temperature, since to keep the meet fresh the shop front, preparation and storage areas are normally chilled. You must also be a person who doesn’t mind spending much of the day on their feet since very little of a butcher’s work involves sitting down. It also goes without saying that in order to have a fulfilling career as a butcher you should be someone who isn’t too squeamish about handling animal body parts which will not only include traditional cuts but also internal organs such as liver, kidney, stomach, heart and (depending on where your shop is located) even brain.
A butcher’s hours of work differ slightly from the ‘standard’ working week that most people complete. In a full-time position you will generally work around 40 hours per week, with your day beginning early in the morning in order to ready the shop for opening. Butchers are usually required to work on a Saturday (and often a Sunday) but you will receive time off during the week as compensation for this.
The salary that you can expect to receive as a butcher is largely dependant in the number of hours that you work, the business that you work for and whether you are self employed. Generally speaking a trainee butcher working full-time can expect to receive around £12,000 per annum and with increased experience and expertise you could expect this to rise to around 20,000. If you are employed within a managerial position you could reasonably expect to receive around 30,000, although these figures are only an estimate so be sure to check with individual employers for more specific salary details.
Technically there are no qualifications which are required in order to become a butcher. Most employers will stipulate their own minimum level of education with regards to exams such as GCSEs although others may not require these at all, so be sure to check the essential and desirable criteria before you make an application.
Many butchers will however require that you hold a Level 2 Award in Food Safety for Retail (or Catering or Manufacturing) Certificate, which is available to be completed as a one day course and is administered and regulated by the CIHE and RSPH.
Most people will begin their career as a trainee butcher or as a butcher’s assistant and progressively work their way up the ranks by gaining experience and skills on-the-job. You should check with employers to see what their particular requirements are!
If you still fancy becoming a butcher then best of luck, if not then you might like to check out some of the other great guides in our career directory.