UK CONSUMERS have become ‘squeamish’ about eating certain cuts but a new report argues that meat – including offal – needs to be valued rather than wasted.
Fergus Henderson will be pleased. A report published last month by WWF- UK and the Food Ethics Council (FEC) claims that food companies, consumers and the government must place a greater value on meat. Valuing meat as a precious resource, making the most of each carcase and reducing the amount of edible food that ends up in pet food, incinerated or in household rubbish are all advocated as ways of improving meat consumption in the report, “Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat We Eat”.
In an exclusive interview with Footprint last year, Henderson – the chef renowned for his creativity with offal, pictured below right – argued much the same. “These animals are reared to be eaten, but we need to make sure we eat the whole beast,” he said. “Surely that makes sense?”
Environmentally, it does: rearing livestock has a considerable environmental impact thanks to the production of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – so using more of the meat from each animal would reduce the damage. Economically, it does: better carcase use could benefit producers who currently have to look overseas to sell certain cuts of meat. But how about socially?
The report notes: “While there may be opportunities here, there are also challenges in engaging UK consumers who might be ‘squeamish about offal’ and are used to eating a significant proportion of meat in pre- packaged and processed forms.”
UK producers are faced with a diminishing home market for certain cuts of meat – by 2020 the market for edible offal is expected to have fallen from 165,500 to 130,500 tonnes and half that again by 2050 – as they home in on very specific tastes.
So what is the meat to eat? The researchers identified nine ways to define “better” meat consumption including “better for human health”, “better for the environment”, “better for farming profitability”, “better for taste and quality” and “better for reducing waste”. Offal falls into the last category, and anything to reduce waste in the food system is widely supported. However, defining what is better for the environment, better for farmers and better for health is more complex. The report states: “We recognise that climate change, environmental and producer benefits from less but better meat consumption are only potential benefits, as the relationship between consumption and production is not clear.”
Mark Driscoll, WWF-UK’s head of food, is fully aware that defining what is meant by “less, but better” meat is a difficult nut to crack, but moving the debate from the more simplistic “less” could resonate with consumers and benefit producers. “We know there are good reasons for reducing our meat consumption in the West,” he says. “However, a simple ‘less meat’ message could have unintended consequences for farmers’ livelihoods, rural communities and landscapes and runs the risk of alienating consumers who want to eat meat. Some have suggested ‘less but better’ meat could be the answer, but no-one has really looked into what this means.”
Farming organisations have welcomed the report, albeit tentatively. Nick Allen, sector director at EBLEX, suggests encouraging people to eat less meat in the UK “makes little sense” given that it’s “an efficient place to produce beef and lamb”. What does make sense is WWF-UK’s “considered approach to these issues rather than the usual ‘meat is bad, so eat less’ message”. He adds: “All too often it can appear that meat produced is not valued by the consumer or, in some instances, the retailer.”
The consequence of disregarding the quality of the meat we eat was highlighted by two scandals which grabbed the media spotlight in recent weeks.
The discovery of horse DNA in burgers supplied by the food manufacturer ABP to the likes of Tesco and Burger King was followed in early February by revelations pork DNA had been found in halal pies and pasties supplied to prisons. As Footprint went to press, food distributor 3663 had identified McColgan Quality Foods as the source of “the very small number of halal savoury beef pastry products” found to contain porcine protein. Islamic law forbids the consumption of pork and 3663 said in a statement that it was “shocked” by the discovery.
Others have been less surprised. “If you have a competition that says: Who can sell the cheapest stuff? Inevitably at a point in time you will get something like this,” said the Waitrose chief, Mark Price, in an interview with Reuters.
Perhaps consumers and suppliers will be more prepared to consider quality as well as price in the
wake of these scandals. If so the impeccably timed “Prime Cuts” report will offer them food for thought – and perhaps ensure that another repeat is not inevitable.