Interview: Prime cuts – why it’s time to rethink our meat habits

The new head of Eating Better wants businesses to back a target to halve meat consumption by 2030. Simon Billing tells Footprint why the ‘less and better’ message is starting to cut through. By Nick Hughes.

Nick Hughes: You’ve been with Eating Better for almost six months now. How do you assess the strength of the alliance?

Simon Billing: What’s really impressed me is the real diversity of organisations across the alliance from animal welfare, environment and health. We now have over 50 member organisations and we’re growing all the time with the RSPCA and Nature Friendly Farming Network joining this month. The food system is complex and it needs to deliver many complex outcomes, from the most basic of feeding people and ensuring good health to land management and conservation. We will only make significant progress by bringing different perspectives together from across the food system. The exciting thing about Eating Better is the range of perspectives and impetus for healthy and sustainable diets. Changes to our diet can deliver such big changes to our health and the environment, it is really worth uniting around. It will need the health community, farmers, businesses, government and investors to shape that future.

NH: Where do you think we stand currently with progress on the less and better meat agenda?

SB: The alliance was really the first to talk about less and better meat as a framing for meat reduction nearly five years ago. Now, following the IPCC report, the less and better approach has been widely communicated demonstrating the widespread adoption of the narrative. That’s brilliant. But are we really reducing meat consumption? I am not sure we’re on that trajectory. Chicken consumption is growing as well as meat-based convenience foods. This is definitely not less or better.

NH: Given this, how do we move from a point where there is good evidence and recognition for the need to choose less and better meat to a point where it is the norm for people to actively seek out a variety of different protein sources as part of their everyday food choices? What role do you see for Eating Better in supporting this shift?

SB: Creating a new normal with less meat and more diversified protein sources will require many positive movements from many of the key players who shape the way we eat, from foodservice players to retailers, government and producers. We need to move beyond making arguments for the case, and move into firing up an array of solutions. Let’s not leave it with people, but support them to do it in a way that is ubiquitous across their eating patterns. There are lots of mechanisms for doing this which make good business sense. The plate needs to look different but still taste amazing and bring pleasure. We could start with portion size and reducing the meat on the plate. We need to power a revolution of amazing plant-based dishes, and we have the culinary excellence to deliver. But this needs to go hand in hand with the presentation of the menu, using descriptors that are indulgent and exciting, rather than worthy and healthy. We need government to support this in procurement where it has influence, from feeding the military to hospitals and schools. We want to help set that agenda of what needs to happen in a positive way and hold a mirror up to business and government to track that movement for change.  

NH: You put out a report earlier this year which tried to bring some clarity to what we mean by “better” meat, but it’s still a hugely complex and contested question involving many potential trade-offs and I wonder whether businesses, and especially consumers, are yet in a position to navigate this complexity and choose better options?

SB: First and foremost, better meat doesn’t work without first talking about significantly less meat in our diets. That not only builds the environmental and health case, but also addresses the business case and the affordability issue for people. For example, I heard of a school caterer that made 80% of its menus plant-based and used the money saved to buy the very highest standards of meat for the other 20% of its meals. If meat is repositioned on the plate then we are certainly looking at a significant transition, and it’s much easier to do. We need a race to the top on animal products, not a race to the bottom where we continue to demand higher standards without properly compensating producers.

Eating Better was one of the first to really take a holistic view on better meat with the report this year. It is a first start in defining better meat, and is without doubt complex for consumers who will rely on standards and labels to navigate the market. No one standard fits neatly across better meat but Organic, Pasture for Life and RSPCA Assured have many of the attributes. This is an area that businesses should take more of a lead on, and clearly many retailers and foodservice business have the opportunity to build in the principles of better meat into their offering. And government has a critical role to play in setting standards and supporting better production systems.

NH: You’re testing the idea of setting a 50% meat reduction target by 2030. Why do you believe a firm target is needed and what role would you expect businesses to play in contributing towards the target?

SB: We need a long-term reduction target to really help us focus on less and better meat, which will require a significant cultural change. We can’t go on producing and eating the way we do now with greater volumes, lower prices and lower standards. We need a new direction, really growing alternatives to meat and valuing meat. Food businesses are critical in helping us change direction as gatekeepers to where we purchase and eat. And if we can make less and better meat tasty, desirable, and accessible then we will drive more support from government.

 

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