Foodservice leaves door ajar to US meat

Foodservice and hospitality brands say they will shun US meat unless it is produced to domestic standards, as an exclusive Footprint survey reveals dramatic differences in the amount of meat sourced from within the UK and Ireland. By David Burrows and Nick Hughes.

The full survey results are available HERE

Some of the UK’s leading high street restaurant chains, hotel and pub groups and contract caterers have pledged not to source US meat produced to lower standards than are currently required in the UK.

However, companies including KFC, Aramark, Compass UK & Ireland and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) said they would consider sourcing US meat if a future trade deal requires exporters to meet UK standards of production.

The position of many other brands, including McDonald’s, Greggs, JD Wetherspoon and Starbucks is unknown. This “rings alarm bells” said campaigners who noted foodservice is a more likely route for US exports than supermarkets since there is no requirement to label the origin of meat served to customers.

The exclusive Footprint survey of 25 fast food and coffee shop chains, hotel and pub groups and contract caterers, revealed that while some businesses source 100% of their meat from UK and Irish farmers, others rely on Europe and the rest of the world for the vast majority of their chicken, pork, lamb and beef.

Nando’s, for example, sources 100% of its chicken from the UK and Ireland, whereas at KFC the figure is 53.9% – with 46.1% coming from Europe, Brazil and Thailand.

Contract caterer BaxterStorey sources all its meat from the UK and Ireland – bar 3% of its lamb that comes from New Zealand. Aramark, by comparison, sources 80% of its chicken, 65% of its lamb, 55% of its beef and 50% of its pork from countries in Europe, South America, Australasia and Southeast Asia.

Across the firms that provided data, 90% of the beef comes from the UK and Ireland, compared to 70% of the chicken, 69% of the lamb and just 58% of the pork.

Campaigners commended those that provided information, but warned those that didn’t – which included McDonald’s and Burger King, Starbucks and Greggs – that the lack of transparency could erode consumer confidence. “It is vital that consumers can be assured that what they eat in canteens and restaurants is of a good standard,” said Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain. “The lack of labelling means they have to trust companies so transparency is vital.”

Simon Billing, executive director at the Eating Better alliance added: “The fiercest critics of the foodservice industry would say they like to mask behind a lack of scrutiny of meat sourcing – a race to the bottom in price not a race to the top in terms of standards. The trend on white meat sourcing [revealed in this survey] paints that picture.”

All but one of the companies sourced at least 85% of their beef from the UK and Ireland. However, Mitchells & Butlers (99%), IHG (80%), Elior (53%) and Aramark (50%) all source at least half their pork from the EU. Elior said its bacon is often sourced from Denmark and is “fully compliant with EU legislation and animal welfare in its respective country”.

Aramark, Compass, ISS, KFC and Sodexo all source some chicken from outside the EU, from countries including Argentina, Brazil and Thailand.

The amount of pork and chicken being sourced from outside the UK and Ireland “rings alarm bells”, said Hird. “The UK is far from perfect but long sourcing chains can only lead to concerns about safety, standards and provenance,” she said.

A number of firms also source beef from South America, a region that WWF and the RSPB have identified as at high risk of deforestation.

Of the 25 companies approached by Footprint, 11 provided detailed breakdowns of their meat procurement and 13 provided their position on the question of sourcing meat from the US.

The UK government is hoping to strike a trade deal with the US following Brexit. However, on a number of key environmental indicators, including antibiotic and pesticide use, US food production performs poorly in comparison with the UK.

All respondents said they would not source meat reared in the US to lower standards than here. Five said they would not buy US meat even if it were reared to equivalent production standards, while five would consider it. "This survey is hugely valuable but it is worrying to see so many companies not replying,” said Hird.

The major supermarkets have already committed not to source US meat, however experts believe foodservice is a more likely route for US exports since there is no requirement to label the origin of meat served to customers.

The position on sourcing meat from the US is unknown at 12 of the companies approached – including fast food brands McDonald’s, Greggs, Burger King and Subway, coffee shops Starbucks and Costa, pub chains Greene King and JD Wetherspoon and hotel chains Accor and Whitbread. Contract caterers Atalian Servest and Interserve also declined to comment.

Fourteen firms would not or could not provide a breakdown of where their meat comes from. Campaigners commended those that had disclosed information but said the findings do little to assuage fears that meat of the highest standards is not regularly being procured.

“The results from the ones who reported show there is some commitment to British sourcing and basic standards like Red Tractor,” said Billing, “but it doesn’t give us great confidence in the direction of travel.”

While a significant majority of UK-sourced meat is certified by the Red Tractor scheme, campaigners expressed concern that higher environmental and welfare standards were not prevalent. A Red Tractor certified beef supplier was recently suspended from the scheme after footage emerged of farm workers abusing animals.

Greener UK, a coalition of environmental groups, recently highlighted how “quickly and quietly” UK standards could be eroded. The group cited Friends of the Earth analysis that revealed a regulation passed last year deleted hundreds of standards governing antibiotic levels in livestock. The government denied claims the changes would permit the creation of new, weaker standards.

“Despite the Conservative manifesto commitment not to compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards, there are, as yet, no legal commitments to back this up,” noted Agathe de Canson, a policy assistant at Green Alliance working on the Greener UK policy unit, in a recent blog.

Peers in the House of Lords have been pressing the government to put a safeguard on standards into law. Next week the Trade Bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords, with the Agriculture Bill set to reach report stage soon. De Canson said import standards would be high on the list of priorities for peers. “It is crucial that the government amends the bill to reflect its own assurances on non-regression,” she wrote.

The full survey results are available HERE


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