Tough decisions on ethical meat

Would you customers still eat your food if they knew where it came from? If not, you’re at risk. Amy Fetzer reports from November’s forum on animal welfare.

Three-quarters of consumers rank animal welfare concerns as the top issue which makes a company ethical, according to research firm Mintel. But is it a priority for foodservice and what are companies doing to reassure customers? Last month’s Footprint Forum in association with TUCO asked a panel of experts for their insight and here’s what they said.

Question your supply. Dan Crossley, the executive director of the Food Ethics Council, posed this question: “If customers could see the conditions your animals are reared, kept, transported and slaughtered in, would they still eat your food?” He answered it himself: “If the answer is no or you’re not sure, you’re doing something wrong, whatever the market is telling you.”

Be transparent ... Communicating best practice isn’t always easy, however. Serving staff need to be aware what’s going on up the chain. When staff “slap food on a plate in front of a customer”, they should know it’s been ethically reared and produced, “and that there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes”, said David Nuttall, the catering manager of Harper Adams University.

... but careful. David Clarke, the CEO of the Red Tractor assurance scheme, recounted an anecdote about American consumers which highlighted that many don’t want to be reminded that they’re eating dead animals, so be careful how you connect them to your supply chain.

Factor in fish. Both farmed and wild fish are often forgotten in the animal welfare debate but it’s critical they are included, argued Crossley, as fish can be treated cruelly too.

Ethics is expensive. In October’s Footprint, chef Allegra McEvedy highlighted how cost had driven caterers into a corner because they have to produce food at a particular price point for the majority. This is definitely a big headache. Nuttall observed that there is a failure to educate consumers that ethics need to cost more. He noted that higher-welfare animal products are one of his biggest costs as catering manager, but customers always want the cheapest price. Clarke agreed that farmers can only do what people pay for, but while the majority demand it, very few vote for welfare by price.

Keep an eye on imports. The UK’s failure to be self-sufficient leads to increasing reliance on imported meat products, argued Tony Goodger, the head of operations for NCB Foodservice. But are imported products produced to the same standards? If prices are lower, is it through compromising welfare or other elements in the supply chain? High UK standards create a demand in the UK for certain welfare standards, and to play in our market, products should have to match those standards.

Less meat is more popular. Goodger observed that societal trends are changing. While China’s meat consumption has quadrupled in recent years, meat will become more expensive in the future. In the UK, fewer people eat beef with a knife and fork, street food is on the rise, and these trends will knock meat from centre stage. This should lead to a reduction in how much meat is consumed per portion. This could help shift people towards eating less but higher-welfare meat products.

Difficulty in definition. Julia Wrathall, the head of science and farm animals at the RSPCA, said: “People have different definitions of what is acceptable. The RSPCA vision is that all animals should have a good life ultimately – but we’re striving to ensure they have a life worth living.” From the difficulties of agreeing what is acceptable, to the statistic that we’d need the area the size of Wales to rear all UK pigs outdoors, solutions need to be practical and achievable.

Caterers have to choice edit. Clarke noted that animal welfare “doesn’t matter to all of the people all of the time. It will matter to most of the people, some of the time. And to some people all of the time.” Supermarkets can reflect that range of interest with their offering, but caterers can’t, so it is necessary to work out what the majority of your market want and to provide it.

 

 

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