Analysis: Business leads the way on veggie alternatives

With a DEFRA report on cutting meat consumption mouldering in the archives, there’s no point waiting for the government to set the agenda. By Nick Hughes.

In July 2013, at the height of holiday season, DEFRA quietly published a report whose conclusions – if acted upon – would have radically shifted the direction of government food policy. The report was titled “Sustainable Consumption” and had been commissioned as a follow-up to the coalition government’s now defunct Green Food Project.

The report contained a set of principles for a healthy, sustainable diet that included recommendations to moderate meat consumption and eat more plant-based foods. It was based on compelling evidence of the health and environmental benefits of following a largely plant-based diet and was developed by a diverse working group that included food NGOs alongside representatives of the farming, manufacturing and foodservice sectors.

The group knew this would be a challenging message for a government which had until that point shown little inclination to tell consumers what to eat, less still to tell them to eat less meat given the importance of livestock farming to the rural economy.

They were right to be cautious. The proposals were never adopted as government policy and the report now withers in the DEFRA archives accompanied by a statement that makes clear that the conclusions were developed and owned by the working group – not by the government itself.

But while the report may have been consigned to the policy scrapheap, businesses themselves have not been so ready to ignore its conclusions. On the contrary, a recent report by the NGO Eating Better listed 20 businesses that have responded positively to the “less and better meat” and “more plant-based eating” message by developing or trialling new products, reformulating recipes and being creative in the way they display and market food.

One of the standout examples is Pret A Manger, which has recently opened its second veggie-only outlet in Shoreditch, London. It follows the success of the first Veggie Pret, which initially opened in Soho last June as a pop-up, but was later turned into a permanent fixture after customer demand surpassed all expectations.

Pret’s CEO, Clive Schlee, says Pret never imagined the store would be around for more than a month but found that customers were asking for more vegetarian and vegan options. Chefs have subsequently been experimenting with new ingredients and flavours to satisfy demand.

Pret’s experience of growing consumer demand for plant-based alternatives aligns with Eating Better’s research which found that 44% of people in Britain say they are willing or already committed to cutting down on or cutting out meat eating, with the proportion even bigger among young people.

Businesses see this demand and act upon it – the result being Ikea’s “green” meatballs, Sodexo’s Green & Lean meals; Asda’s Lean & Bean mince; and ABP Food Group’s Flexilicious sausages. The list goes on.

DEFRA, meanwhile, remains stubbornly silent on the issue of sustainable consumption, leaving campaigners exasperated and journalists demanding to know the government’s official position.

Yet there’s a risk that NGOs and the sustainability media become overly obsessed with the need for the government to set the green agenda, while ignoring what’s happening in the real world.

The plant-based eating agenda is a great example of where companies have seen for themselves that a clear business case exists and have proceeded accordingly, in spite of not because of government policy.

Of course there will be laggards, but it will be lost customers, not government guidelines, that will ultimately push them towards offering more plant-based options.

Ultimately it’s about giving the public what they want – something businesses tend to be far more effective at than politicians.

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