Insights Michael Baker

Where’s the beef?

When people like Gordon Ramsay suggest they’re going to “give this vegan thing a try”, it shows that times are changing. Does the meat and dairy industry have the stomach for the challenges ahead?

The sustainability of the meat and dairy industry as it is currently constituted is under serious threat.  The days of the “meat and two veg” dinner are over and the entire category now has to fight for its place on our plates. Competition from plant-based alternatives has opened consumers’ tastes to products like almond and coconut milk that barely existed five years ago. The potential for meat grown in laboratories, said to be just months away from market, could change and disrupt rural and remote communities on a scale not seen in centuries. The question is whether the industry even realises the challenge ahead and whether it has the stomach for it.

For a long time, producers re-assured the buying public that a red tractor or Union Flag label demonstrated quality and stood for high standards of animal welfare.  But the horsemeat scandal showed consumers that there was less surety in supply chains than these labels suggested. More recently, undercover films exposed workers at some companies altering slaughter dates on crates of chicken and putting poultry which had fallen on the floor back onto the production line.  Other aspects of the realities of mass food production, such as egg producers throwing male chicks into grinders because they have no use for them, have caused genuine shock among the public.

The fall in trust in the sector has been seized on by campaigners that want us to ditch meat from our diets and who have opened new lines of attack that go beyond animal welfare. Rearing livestock for food is blamed for contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global climate change. And when the World Health Organisation says some meat products are as carcinogenic as cigarettes, it’s no wonder that some campaigners’ claims – that eating eggs is as bad for our health as smoking for example – are causing some people to think twice about what they eat. These products and the way they are produced are painted as neither good for the planet or our own moral and physical wellbeing.

The industry maintains that all this is having a negligible impact on the quantity of meat we consume – about 79kgs per person per year in the UK.  But other indicators suggest more dramatic changes afoot. Interest in veganuary – where people commit to a plant-based diet for the month of January – has soared since launching in 2014 with people aged under 35 making up 60 per cent of those who signed up on the official site this year.  Data from Kantar show that 29 per cent of Brits’ evening meals are now vegetarian. When people like chef Gordon Ramsay, who have dismissed vegetarian diets for years, tweets that he will “give this vegan thing a try”, it shows that times are changing.

But it’s not just the threat of changing patterns of consumer behaviour that auger badly for the industry. Lawmakers have shown that they don’t trust the sector to self-regulate and from this spring, slaughterhouses will need to install CCTV cameras in a bid to clamp down on the abuse of animals.  Campaigners also lobby for meat to join other ‘sin’ taxes such as tobacco, alcohol, plastic bags and sugar to pay for the alleged costs to the planet and our waistlines.

Although lab-grown meat could render many of these criticisms toothless, it would begin enormous change in the market where the incumbents will be at significant disadvantage over nimble new entrants backed by science rather than centuries of tradition.

The first step towards tackling these issues for the industry must begin with accepting the legitimacy of debate and competition. As in other industries, established monopolies are collapsing, and consumers have greater choice than ever. Instead of launching a battle for our hearts, minds and wallets, meat producers have engaged in a legalistic war of words to stifle the market.  Trying to persuade EU and US lawmakers that consumers are misled by vegetable alternatives that use terms like “burger” and “nugget” shows considerable audacity, given the bucolic images of country farms used on many meat and dairy labels are hardly representative of modern farming. It suggests an industry struggling to come to terms with fair competition and does nothing to build consumers’ trust and confidence.

Far from representing a rural idyll, the meat and dairy industry is on the frontline of some the forces shaking up markets and consumer behaviour across our economy.  Vested interests stand the most to lose from this disruption, challenge and innovation. America’s largest meat producer, Tyson Foods, has sought to mitigate some of the challenges it faces with its recent investment in a lab-grown-meat startup.  But the reality is that the supply chains that link the food on our fork to the farm it came from have already been blown open.  It’s time to recognise that we’re now in a world where we want to buy things – including our food – that reflect our own ethics and values. The meat and dairy industry needs to catch up.