Phew, it’s the end of January. It can be a tortuous month as one comes to terms with under-achieving on all those rash New Year resolutions made in haste on guilt-laden, leaden early-January days where we promise ourselves to do less (e.g. eating, drinking) and more (e.g. exercise, mind-expanding reading). Retailers are quick to exploit our soft under-bellies!: Ocado with its “Resolution Boosters” and Aldi with treasure trove offers on fitness DVDs, exercise bikes (doomed for the garage), and “fitness tracker watches”. Not only have we been exhorted to have a “dry” month and eschew alcohol, also, we’re being asked to reduce meat intake – Veganuary not January, Sainsbury’s incurring the wrath of farmer organisations by planning to place meat and non-meat alternatives together in what was solely “the meat cabinet”, Waitrose giving its much-admired food magazine a front cover on “Eat Veg”.
What on earth is going on? Eating meat, particularly cooked meat, accelerated human evolutionary progress from gibbering vegetarian homo habilis 2.5 million years ago to our big-brained meat-eating homo sapiens ancestors a mere 200,000 years ago. Now, Northern European governments and special interest groups are recommending we don’t just shave our meat consumption but slash it drastically for health and planet-saving reasons:
Claptrap or what? Well, the global food industry believes consumers are ready for dietary change and are on a plant-based foods splurge. Flexitarian diets are in vogue and, frankly, have their attractions. Here’s a secret: we’re both vegetarian … well, every other Thursday we are and, anyway, David doesn’t count bacon and Miguel doesn’t include jamón as meat! The fact of the matter is that there are, increasingly, some brilliant vegetarian products available. Gone are the days when vegetarian fare was akin to wearing a hair shirt and thrashing oneself with birch twigs – remember those gritty soyburgers and appalling nut roasts?
So, do we expect to see per capita meat consumption dwindle? What we eat at home and away does change but slowly. In the UK, white fish consumption, the centre piece of our iconic national dish, has halved over the last 40 years and, God forbid, we drink half as much tea as we used to. But, then, we gobble down salmon fillets and sushi, and prefer fancy coffees and herbal teas. The white bread doorstep sandwich is in steep decline, but wraps and artisan breads are hot to trot. Per capita meat consumption in most high income Western countries is at best static and probably will edge down over time. Crucially, however, for those with some income latitude, when they eat meat they might eat less but they’ll certainly want to eat better meat. The challenge for the meat industry is to work out exactly what 21st century consumers value in their meat products and what will they pay more for?
And the excitement pervading plant-based proteins – are they bone fide competitors to “old-fashioned” meats or a Guardian-reading, chattering class flash in the pan? In the 1990’s, meat dominated the centre of the dinner plate. “What’s for dinner, Mum?”. “Beef” was the response received with enthusiasm. Now, it’s much more likely to be “pizza, Chinese, Italian, tapas”, with the species of meat being very much secondary. Millennial consumers are much more likely to respond “Dinner, what’s DINNER?” as they graze on snacks and mini-meals through their socially networked day. Our perception of the world of protein is and will continue to expand. Meat has serious competition to deal with from plant-based foods, algae, myco-proteins like Quorn and even insect protein. It will require the red meat industry in particular to drag itself out of the primordial soup and offer consumers snack and meal solutions which are consonant with their lifestyle requirements and values, and which are rich in stories that delight their senses as much as the taste delights their palates.