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Is the end of eating meat in sight?
  1. Adele Waters

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Earlier this month the US brand strategist Arwa Mahdawi declared ‘meat is dead’.

Writing in The Guardian, she predicted that by 2050, in the same way that we are now horrified that people used to smoke in offices, there is a good chance that it will be socially unacceptable to eat meat.

Consumer attitudes about meat are changing

While you may disagree, what is absolutely clear is that consumer attitudes about meat are changing.

UK consumers are increasingly interested in eating ‘meatless meat’ for health, environmental and animal welfare reasons.

A study in this week’s BMJ, for example, reinforces the health imperative. It finds that increasing red meat intake, particularly processed red meat, is associated with a heightened risk of earlier death. Reducing red meat intake while increasing healthy protein sources, such as eggs and fish, whole grains and vegetables over time may lower the risk.

There is a commercial imperative at play too. The demand for vegetarian/vegan options has transformed from a fringe or niche interest to a significant movement with pound signs attached.

Take for instance Greggs plc. It saw its share price double this year after launching a vegan sausage roll, which proved incredibly popular and expanded very quickly to all its stores.

UK supermarkets are increasingly offering new meat alternative product ranges. Just this month, for example, the Co-op introduced two new products from the British-based Meatless Farm Company. Last month, the global food giant Kentucky Fried Chicken said it was exploring a plant-based protein alternative to chicken.

As a society, we are being encouraged to eat less but better meat. That was a key message in the BVA’s position on sustainable animal agriculture, published in April. It argued that by reducing overall meat consumption but maintaining spend, consumers could support the production of higher quality meat – one that maintained high welfare standards.

Rather than fear this societal change as something that threatens veterinary work, this can be an opportunity for vets to advise and promote. Vets, therefore, should be encouraging people to eat less meat and other animal-derived products, the BVA suggested.

That view was also reinforced at last week’s Animal Welfare Foundation Discussion Forum in London. There, speakers debating farm welfare standards agreed that eating less meat would drive up standards and produce higher quality animal products. Britain’s meat offer must be in terms of better and more expensive, they said (p 729).

Professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University, California, Jim Reynolds advised the UK to hold on to its position on high welfare standards and not join ‘a race to the bottom’ in pursuit of a transatlantic trade deal.

David Main, professor of production animal health and welfare at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, pressed the point further, saying the UK should be looking to improve its welfare standing and perhaps emulate New Zealand’s ambition to obtain world-leading status for on-farm animal care in order to drive exports.

It is against such a backdrop that Reynolds’ comments about the weak veterinary voice in the US are so pertinent (p 727).

Unlike UK farm vets, US livestock veterinarians don’t speak out about their welfare concerns, he said. In many dairies, for example, animals are largely ignored and their medical needs are not noticed by vets who rarely visit. When they do, they are too task-focused (not providing holistic care) and ‘business-bound’ (more concerned with keeping the client than optimising welfare).

In an aggressively commercial marketplace where the only word that matters is ‘productivity’, it is unsurprising, then, the US food production market has seen a race to the bottom price. But if Mahdawi is right, it may need to rethink its whole approach.

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