The latest scandal to expose the broken nature of our food system is the revelation of horsemeat in ‘value’ burgers and other ready meals.
When consumers bought these products, they expected value for money. They didn’t expect a challenge to the values they hold dear - their respect for animals, and the trust they place in the retailers selling them the food they eat.
These recent revelations have led to much talk about food safety, traceability and meat production. People are beginning to ask: ‘what’s in my food?’ ‘where does it come from?’ ‘how were the animals reared?’ and even ‘how will eating this food affect my health and the environment?’
Such questions will encourage the drive for greater transparency along the supply chain. We think people should be thinking about meat consumption too.
NGOs have these issues firmly on their agenda, and retailers can expect to hear increasingly strident messages from them about sustainable diets. Government has a stake in the issue, too. Defra’s Green Food Project, involving a range of food businesses, trade bodies, NGOs and growers, is currently focusing on sustainable consumption. So the pressure’s on for retailers.
“Pursuit of profit inevitably leads to other values being compromised”
For the past three years, the Food Ethics Council and WWF-UK have been unpicking some of the knotty problems surrounding meat through a series of dialogues with producer organisations, government, academics, retailers and NGOs.
We’ve been looking at what role changing our meat consumption can play in combating climate change. We’ve also explored what messaging might work for consumers, retailers, producers and government.
Our latest report in these ‘Livestock Dialogues’ is ‘Prime cuts: Valuing the meat we eat’. We’ve put the emphasis on valuing meat because we think it could help consumers and producers understand and engage more positively with a sustainable consumption message.
Retailers are vital to this debate. They have a responsibility to their customers to help them make sustainable choices and to producers to encourage them to talk about meat consumption issues.
We think ‘less but better’ meat consumption is a better message than a simple ‘eat less meat’ message. Adding ‘value’ to meat isn’t just about the bottom line. It’s about acknowledging the care and effort that’s gone into raising the animal, and valuing the human health, environmental protection and animal welfare win-wins that eating ‘less but better’ may provide. Retailers have a vital role to play alongside producers in explaining those values to their customers.
Although “lower-quality” meat products appear cheap at the point of sale, the fact is we’re already paying a lot for them through our taxes, the impact on our health of eating poor quality, or too much, meat and through environmental damage.
Horsegate illustrates how a dominant value - pursuit of profit - inevitably leads to other values being compromised and short cuts being taken. This should be a wake-up call: the food industry and government must act now to stop this happening again.
Dan Crossley is executive director, the Food Ethics Council