The Co-op has challenged other supermarkets to follow its lead in axing all non-British fresh meat, after releasing figures showing meat imports into the UK have doubled in the past 20 years.
The new research coincides with the retailer’s move to become the first UK retailer to switch to 100% British only fresh meat.
Pointing to UK Customs import data, The Co-op, which announced its decision to chop the last non-British fresh meat from its stores in September, said since 1996 the quantity of meat coming to the UK from the European Union and other countries has soared from £3bn to £6.2bn.
More than £5bn of meat is now shipped from EU member states, while Asia and Oceania countries account for £804m of imports followed by Latin America at £345m.
Asian and Oceanic imports have seen their exports to the UK almost treble from £304m in 1996. The biggest imports from that region come from Thailand (£423m) and New Zealand (£291m).
Ireland was the biggest beneficiary of EU meat trade with the UK, with £1.45bn of meat arriving in the UK from across the Irish Sea.
From today, Co-op stores will provide only 100% fresh British bacon and lamb - dropping Danish bacon and New Zealand lamb. Almost a 10th of all meat imports into the UK come from Denmark, which exports £550m of meat into Britain each year, while New Zealand lamb accounts for £291m of UK imports.
The Co-op already only sells British beef, chicken, ham, pork, sausages, duck and turkey and only uses British meat in all its own-label chilled ready meals, pies and sandwiches.
“British consumers will be shocked to see how meat imports have grown while at the same time retailers hang out the bunting and claim to back British farmers,” said Co-op retail chief executive Jo Whitfield. “Only the Co-op offers 100% British fresh meat all year round and not just in the meat cabinet but also in our sandwiches, our pies and our ready meals.
“We can do this because we’re owned by members not shareholders and can invest long term in what matters to communities, not what provides the fastest shareholder return. I call on other retailers and food providers to do more to help our farmers, particularly as they head towards uncertain times.”
The Co-op is to launch a £10m campaign this week focusing on the benefits of sourcing from British local farmers. Full-page prints ads will appear in national newspapers while a TV campaign airs later.
National Pig Association chief executive Zoe Davies said: “Around half of the pork consumed in the UK is imported. Fluctuating currency markets and imports that are cheaper because of lower welfare standards can significantly impact the cost of home-produced pork, making it harder for farmers to make a living.
“We call on more retailers and food providers to back British and either source more UK pork or follow the Co-op’s lead and go 100% British.”
The NFU also backed the Co-op’s move. “The Co-op has long supported British farming, but this bold move now puts farming right at the centre of its business – for that we must applaud them,” said NFU vice president Guy Smith.
“Shoppers tell us time and again that they want to see more British food on supermarket shelves. With the latest consumer trends showing an increase in convenient meals, the Co-op has generated an opportunity for the British sheep industry by extending its commitment further than fresh meat, into pies, ready meals and sandwiches.”