Producers knew an exposé on poor welfare standards on British pig farms would be the final nail in the coffin, while retailers knew a positive endorsement of pork products would give their fresh meat categories a welcome shot in the arm. What nobody knew was which way Oliver would swing.
After gaining access to a preview of the long-awaited Jamie Saves Our Bacon programme (to air on Thursday 29 January at 9pm on Channel 4), The Grocer can reveal that Oliver will urge consumers to buy British, champion 'cheaper' cuts of pork, and attack retailers on their country-of-origin labelling.
Given Oliver's immense public profile, the programme's positive angle couldn't be more significant for the beleaguered UK pork industry. Last week's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee report on the state of the English pig industry concluded that years of disease, onerous legislation and high feed prices had brought the industry to its knees. It also criticised retailers, catering suppliers and government for their systematic failure to support home-produced pork. It called for a change in sourcing policies and better consumer education on the welfare benefits of domestically produced pork.
So will Oliver be the industry's knight in shining armour? During the 80-minute programme, he makes a compelling case for buying British by unmasking the second-rate practices of foreign producers.
He exposes the use of sow stalls in Danish pork production. "This is Europe's cheap and efficient way of producing your bacon," he says. "Whatever you think of the lowest British welfare standards, it's nothing as bad as this."
He also stresses the importance of finding a better carcase balance, enabling producers to extract as much value as possible from the whole pig. This means finding a market for those cuts that are less popular with consumers, in addition to those that are most in demand such as loin and leg.
Oliver takes his audience through recipes that use unfashionable cuts, including neck fillet steaks, shoulder, and belly joints. "For my Sunday roast, I cook shoulder because of its wow factor and it's cheap, cheap, cheap," Oliver says. "And that's great for British farmers 'cos it's more money for them," he trumpets. "If we can send sales of these cuts through the roof then together we might be able to save our bacon."
Retailers know full well that cash-strapped consumers will find it difficult to resist Oliver's credit-crunch charm offensive and are already poised to cash in on his cheap cuts crusade.
Morrisons is particularly well positioned as its fresh pork supply is 100% British. But Tesco says it will be encouraging shoppers to try less well-known and cheaper cuts of pork. With promotions such as save £2 on stuffed belly joint and shoulder steaks for £4, which it confirmed are made from British pork. And Sainsbury's is introducing four new Freedom Food pork lines including belly, neck fillets, shoulder joints and mince. Trotters will also be making a début on its fresh meat counters.
Is it all good news?
Yet there could be a bittersweet twist to Oliver's campaign. A sudden surge in the popularity of cheaper cuts could only cannibalise sales of higher-value pork, but according to one pig industry source, some retail buyers believe pork may be set to steal market share from lamb and beef, meats already under pressure as consumers tighten their purse strings.
Beef and lamb prices are rising and pork prices are steadying, explains British Meat Processors Association director Stuart Roberts. "Cheaper cuts of pork may well be perceived as better value than more expensive cuts of beef and lamb in the current climate," he says.
Debbie Keeble of sausage specialist Debbie & Andrew's agrees. "Pork is very good value for money compared with lamb and beef, but then it is quicker to produce," she says.
There is also an issue over sufficient supply. As The Grocer revealed last week, with a depleted national pig herd (the UK herd shrank 40% between 1997 and 2007), producers may struggle to meet demand .
While the National Pig Association says it has done everything in its power to ensure the supply chain knew what was coming, it admits that supply shortages could be on the cards. "If the reaction is huge, we may well run out, but that's a good sign," says general manager of the National Pig Association, Barney Kay.
Making labelling clearer
Pork labelling is another contentious issue Oliver isn't afraid to tackle - an issue made all the more acute following the recent Irish pork dioxin scare, which highlighted a severe lack of transparency in the way retailers communicate the sourcing of their pork.
After taking viewers through a selection of clearly and unclearly labelled products, Oliver tells consumers to "look for the Union Jack and if it's not there, complain, whinge, complain".
With limited UK supply, retailers will, of course, continue to stock pork from a number of countries.On the issue of country of origin, therefore, they have two choices, says Andrew Baker, group chief executive of Duchy Originals. They may support European pork and say "actually it's really wonderful, Danish has always been a great brand". Alternatively, they will be forced to "invest in some way in the British industry, create jobs, encourage farmers, create farmer groups and set standards", he says.
"But," as he points out, "who's going to use the 'invest' word in recession?"
As The Grocer went to press, Tesco was carefully standing its ground. In a statement, a spokesman said: "All pork sold at Tesco is from farm-assured sources. In addition to this our Finest pork complies with the RSPCA Freedom Food requirements and our organic pork, which is free range, is accredited to organic standards. And Asda said: "It could not be clearer where our product is from."
One thing all parties agree on is that any momentum the programme will generate is sustained not just in the months that follow, but in the years ahead.
As Keeble says: "Improving the British pork industry requires continual support and education.
"It's all right talking about it, but we need to do something about it as well."
"Be proud that British welfare standards are way better than most of Europe. Look for those Quality Standard marks, the Freedom Food mark, the red tractor. And make sure the pack's got a Union Jack on it."
"Go out this week and buy the cuts of pork I told you about. Remember the delicious shoulder, belly and neck fillet steaks? Cook 'em for your friends and family and they'll love you, I'll love you and the British farmer will love you."
Nine million pigs are produced each year in Britain but the pig herd fell 40% between 1997 and 2007. Welfare standards are far more stringent than in Europe. Bpex estimates 66% of imported meat would be illegal if produced in this country.