Red and processed meats had a bad month in October. Mind you, they’ve been taking a bashing for a while and it’s not just on health. Beef and lamb are portrayed as being anti-social for environmental reasons (cattle and sheep are famous for their flatulence) and, for hogging scarce arable land – grain-fed beef cattle consume 8 kgs. of cereals to produce a measly1 kg. of meat. Then, of course, there are burgeoning consumer concerns about animal welfare issues. Bye bye global meat industry? Far from it, as world meat demand increased by 20% between 2000 and 2010 and is expected to increase by close to the same amount again by 2020. However, the world of meat is dichotomous: in most rich countries, per capita meat consumption is static at best or declining; whereas, in lower income emerging countries, meat consumption is sharply on the rise.
It’s never going to be positive for your industry when bodies with names like the World Health Organization release statements calling for consumers to reduce processed meat (often, pork-based) consumption sharply and to moderate red meat intake overall because of perceived risks associated with colorectal cancer.
What’s more, the World Cancer Research Foundation recommends we cut back our red and processed meat intake to 500 grms. per week – this wouldn’t simply amount to trimming consumption for most Europeans/North Americans/Australasians. It would require them to slash it by at least one half!
But folk in rich countries already seem to be on a meat reduction course driven by factors such as: an ageing population reducing overall food consumption, but particularly meat, as they come to terms with their mortality and seek to correct the food abuses of a lifetime by upping their intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, whole grains and other self-righteous victuals; non-meat proteins are firmly on-trend with whey and pulse demand rocketing; and niggling guilt about the environmental and social impact of beef and lamb production. Be assured, the green lobby has its tail up and articles on the detrimental impact of meat production flood the snootier newspapers; whereas the tabloids, such as UK’s The Daily Mail prefer their time-tested “shock, horror” approach – e.g. “Bacon and Sausages: Killers in the Kitchen” (October 26th, 2015).
The meat industry has always struggled with its public image, all the way back to Upton Sinclair’s exposé of meat packing in Chicago 110 years ago. “Horsegate” didn’t help and, most recently (November 5th), the European consumer watchdog agency (BEUC) published its report outlining the many and various deceptive meat labeling excesses of the industry. Worldwide, the meat industry tends to be reactive rather than proactive, defensive rather than offensive. Organizations representing livestock farmers are, often, riddled with internal politics and incapable of working in a concerted fashion with “competitor” meats. The meat processors are obdurate and loathe to invest any of their thin margins on positive public relations. Retailers simply put meat on their shelves and prefer to duck down below the parapet hoping that what it says on the meat package is what is actually in the package!
So, what’s the future of meat in higher income developed countries?
Per capita consumption is very likely to continue to drift down; as it will for lots of other food products such as high butter fat dairy – it is no bad thing for most of us to eat less of almost everything in our diet, with the exception of angelic fresh fruit and vegetables (and, even then, go steady on the high sugar fruit!). But, here’s the really good news. We’ll eat less meat but, when we do, we shall want to eat better meat. As a starter, it should be REALLY tasty. Secondly, it should be in a form that meets our lifestyle requirements – the “half shoulder of lamb knuckle on” that looks like the aftermath of a nasty car accident and requires an advanced degree in mechanical engineering to carve will rightly become an ancient food museum artifact; but pre-prepared slow-cooked (pulled even) lamb with Greek oregano is a winner. Thirdly, it should be wrapped up in a delicious, convincing story that pulls heart strings and stimulates saliva!
Importantly, if consumers are to pay a premium for less meat but more stories about its provenance, method of production, breed, etc., then, the extra attributes in the products must be guaranteed. The litany of food safety and integrity disasters in the global meat industry have eroded trust. Traceability and transparency in the chain from farm through to consumer sale must be paramount. Finally, is the world going vegetarian? No, we’re omnivores and irrespective of the advice of international health organizations, we shall continue to enjoy bacon sandwiches. Mind you, bacon is so addictive it could be easily slipped into the Schedule 1 list of Drug/Substances!