We all know the standing joke about giving up meat: you may not live longer, but it certainly feels like it. Well, it seems attitudes are changing. Interest in vegan and vegetarian diets is steadily increasing, even in traditional ‘meat and two veg’ Britain. Last February’s British Social Attitudes survey revealed 29% of us are trying to eat less meat.
And this weekend, Sainsbury’s revealed plans to further encourage our burgeoning love affair with ‘flexitarianism’. As part of a research project with Oxford University, the supermarket will dedicate selected branches to helping us cut down on meat consumption. Customers who stock up heavily on their 5 a day will receive loyalty points and rewards. Meat-free recipes will be on hand for those of us who like the idea of vegetarianism, but don’t know how to cook dishes that don’t involve a large slab of beef or chicken. And on the meat aisles, there will be a selection of meat-free alternatives placed nearby – for example, your regular beef mince will sit next to a pack of Quorn mince that could just as easily make a chili con carne.
The principle is undoubtedly commendable. The Oxford University research is funded by a £5m Wellcome Trust project called Our Planet, Our Health to promote a more sustainable way of living. The idea is to improve the environment and our health by reducing practices such as meat consumption. Considering Sainsbury’s focus on being a sustainable retailer –underpinned by its 20x20 Sustainability Plan, which names ‘respect for the environment’ as a key value – the project seems a solid fit for the brand.
Some will question whether it is the job of a supermarket to influence our eating habits. But the mults have come under fire from all corners (from the government to the NFU) for not doing enough to promote fruit and veg consumption, so it seems hypocritical to chastise this one for promoting a higher-vegetable, lower-meat diet. Meat producers may not be happy about the potential loss of sales, but then confectionery producers must have been similarly peeved when retailers removed snacks from the checkout areas. It all forms part of the same drive to be a responsible retailer.
So will the approach have the desired effect? A campaign to boost vegetarianism – a touchy subject among some dedicated meat-eaters – could go either way. Done well, it could open up customers of all persuasions to new meal ideas that don’t necessarily involve meat. But any perceived piousness over meat-eating – for example, giving veggies more loyalty points than someone buying meat for a barbecue – will risk infuriating some customers, who may decide to take their carnivorous custom elsewhere.
It also seems a tad ironic that this announcement has coincided with a report showing Sainsbury’s animal welfare standards have dropped during the past year, falling behind the likes of Tesco, Greggs and McDonald’s. If Sainsbury’s is to encourage its customers to take a more ethical, sustainable stance, it must first lead by example.