As It Happens

What Boris Johnson got wrong about Melton Mowbray pork pies

Boris Johnson said Britain's failure to sell Melton Mowbray pork pies is an example of unfair U.S. barriers to trade. But Matthew O'Callaghan, head of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, says Johnson has it wrong.

British PM blamed red tape for keeping the delicacy off U.S. shelves, but the pie maker says that's not so

A traditional handmade pork pie from the town of Melton Mowbray in the Midlands, England. (Stocksolutions/Shutterstock)

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The biggest threat to the Melton Mowbray pork pie isn't American red tape — it's a no-deal Brexit.

This, according to Matthew O'Callaghan, head of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, the organization that represents certified producers of the distinctive British meat pastry. 

The pie made headlines this week after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on the sidelines of the G7 summit in France that Britain's failure to sell Melton Mowbray pork pies to the U.S. is an example of unfair trade barriers. He said the pies are sold as far away as Thailand and Iceland.

Not so, says O'Callaghan. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

What is a Melton Mowbray pork pie and what does it taste like?

It's one of Britain's most iconic foods, and actually it comes from our association with Stilton cheese.

The pigs were fed on the whey of Stilton cheese and then turned into pies. And Melton was the capital of hunting at the time, so the huntsmen then had these pies and then they started to be exported to London.

So a Melton Mowbray pork pie is chopped pork and put into a hot water crust pastry casing, sealed, and then baked in an oven free standing. And then a sort of bone-stop jelly is injected into the pie to fill all the cracks and crannies, and then it's left to cool.

What did you think when you first learned about Mr. Johnson's remarks and his apparent championing of your pork pies? 

He was in the middle of the G7 summit. You know, you've got the Amazon burning, you've got Iran, you've got the China issues, Russia, Brexit, all these sort of things.

And in the middle of it, up pops Boris and starts talking about Melton Mowbray pork pies. 

It was quite a shock — but a very welcome surprise and a blessing. We'll pop off a box of pies in the post to him.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought Melton Mobray meat pies into the headlines at the G7 conference this weekend. (Frank Augstein/file photo/The Associated Press)

Johnson said ... "Melton Mowbray pork pies, which are sold in Thailand and in Iceland, are currently unable to enter the U.S. market because of, I don't know, some sort of Food and Drug Administration restriction." Are your pies sold in Thailand?

There was an attempt a while back — I think we're talking about four or five years ago — to look at exporting very small quantities ... to one or two countries, but it really didn't take off.

It's a delicate product. It has a very short lifetime. Five days. And to that extent, you know, it probably wasn't economic. So not currently sold in Iceland or in Thailand.

So how do you think Prime Minister Johnson came to that conclusion?

I think one of his perhaps office members looked at some old reports ... and assumed that they were still being sold. I mean, an easy mistake to make.

His point was, I guess, that he wondered why the pies weren't able to be exported into the United States. Are you currently interested in trying to get them there?

At the moment, no. The focus is actually on consolidating the U.K. market.

One day I dare say there would be the opportunity to look at the U.S. market, which could potentially be a huge market.

We would probably send the pies over there frozen, so that then they would be baked locally, and that would then get around some of the regulations and the difficulties with the shelf life of the Melton Mowbray.

What we don't want to do is to develop the markets in the U.S. for the Melton Mowbrays and get everybody ramped up about, you know, these delicious pies, only for them to be made in, you know, in Ohio or Kansas or wherever.

What we would hope for is that if and when we do export, then the protection that they currently have in the U.K. and Europe would then extend to the U.S.A.

Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are shown during a visit to Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton Mowbray in 2011. (Rui Vieira/Reuters)

Let's talk about that protection. Because I understand you personally worked quite hard to get this special status to protect the pies. What was involved in that?

We did it at the stage where, unfortunately, the Melton Mowbray pork pie was at risk of being lost. People were making it not according to the proper recipe. They were making it outside of Melton Mowbray. All sorts of things.

So we applied to the European Union. It has to go through the U.K. government first. And then, of course, a number of producers outside the area objected, saying that it was just a generic product that had no special link with the town and the recipe ought to be able to be changed.

We won the case, and so then it went to the European Commission. And I think it took about 10 years for it to get approval.

And what did that win do for Melton Mowbray producers?

It meant that supermarkets who wanted to change it ... could no longer do so. And if they wanted the Melton Mowbray, they had to get it from one of the local manufacturers.

Prime Minister Johnson is a big champion of Brexit. What kind of challenges does Brexit present for your product?

I chair the U.K. Protected Food Names Association in addition to the Melton Mowbray pork pie. Our products — there are about 80 which have got protected food name status in Europe — are worth about a quarter of the U.K. total food and drink exports. 

If there's a no-deal Brexit, then the following day these products lose their protection in Europe. And so anybody can then make a Melton Mowbray pork pie or Stilton cheese or whatever within Europe.

A no-deal Brexit, it would be disastrous for us.

What do you want [Johnson] to know? What could he do that would really be helpful?

We are a major exporting element of the British economy and we represent, you know, the icons of British food. So let's continue in some deal or other the protection of these products within the European Union.

Any plans in the future to ship any pies to U.S. President Donald Trump?

I'm going to be talking to the producers tomorrow to see if we can get a box of pies over to Mr. Trump, and I hope he likes them and develops a taste of them.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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