A demand we need to meat

While many sympathise with those protesting against live animal exports, it should be noted that meat consumption is actually on the increase. By George Pitcher

SBHD: While many sympathise with those protesting against live animal exports, it should be noted that meat consumption is actually on the increase. By George Pitcher

Thirty years ago, I would never have thought that one day I would pick a fight with Brigitte Bardot.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with adolescent testosterone. I was ten years old in 1965 and she 30, so it wasn’t until her middle age that I discovered what she looked like in her youth. It was a bit like visiting Versailles just after the French Revolution – I should have been there a decade earlier.

So this has less to do with the loins of a young male pig and more to do with the loins of pork and beef that I ate then and still do now. I just happen to think that there is room for a businesslike discussion of the marketing of meat, by way of balancing what is in danger of becoming – in the light of recent events surrounding the export of live British calves – an entirely emotional issue.

Let’s not be glib. The veal issue has united a coalition of socio-political British profiles – from the county set to Class War – as diverse as anything we have seen since the war. And a young animal-rights protester, Jill Phipps, has been martyred to the cause. This is not a story that can only be told in bald business statistics.

Nevertheless, we are entitled to examine the commercial facts that lie behind the hysteria which some political elements have an interest in fanning irrespective of the interests of British farmers, our dietary habits and food marketers.

The issue has reached such a height in British social consciousness that The Sunday Telegraph, perhaps not best known for its soya-extract vegetarian credentials, splashed the front cover of last weekend’s Review section with an article entitled “The death of meat”.

The piece raised the question of whether we are “living through one of those profound, secular shifts that characterise the history of consumption. To put it bluntly: is the Meat Age drawing to a close?”

Evidence of the demise of waistcoat straining, roast-beef guzzling John Bull came in the form of statistics that demonstrate that, in 1992, we British ate about half the beef and veal that we got through 30 years ago. Consumption of mutton and lamb has fallen even further – by about two-thirds – over the same period.

Intriguingly, the Telegraph noted that “we actually consume less red meat today than we did in the lean years of the Depression – less even than during the World Wars and the post-war years of austerity.”

Vegetarianism is driving us from being a nation of “rosbifs” to a bunch of nut-cutlets.

Well, up to a point. One really ought to take into account the principles of supply-and-demand within meat categories during the post-war years, as well as overall meat availability. Let’s not forget that the humble chicken, very much the modern undergraduate stand-by for Sunday lunch, used to be considered a rare delicacy, commanding a premium price.

Closer examination of meat market figures shows that the sector has not exactly wasted away. According to the Meat and Livestock Commission (which, interestingly enough, supplied The Sunday Telegraph’s figures), we British actually ate rather more meat in 1994 than we did 30 years ago – 63kg per head per year last year, against the slightly less than 61kg per head averaged across the years 1960 to 1964.

In fairness, it was the shift away from red meat over the period – what we might call the Red Shift – that particularly exercised The Sunday Telegraph, though even here the decline may not be as steep as suggested in some quarters.

Consumption of beef and veal in 1994 stood at 16kg per head, against 22.4kg in 1960 to 1964. No halving here.

More drastically, mutton and lamb consumption over the period dropped from 11.1kg to 5.8kg per head. The British intake of pork, meanwhile, rose from 9.4kg to 13.8kg. That of poultry rocketed from 6.5kg to 20.4kg.

Clearly, the shift to whiter, healthier meats has had its effects on beef and lamb farmers and marketers. However, to suggest that meat as a whole is in decline – or even that beef has had it, since we still eat more of it than pork – is just plain wrong.

Now to the extremely emotive issue of veal. It is worth noting that the British eat less than 0.1kg per head of veal – 25 times less than the French. In Britain, it is a narrow, niche market in catering. It is, frankly, a bit rich for a French actress to lecture us on the subject.

British veal protesters, of course, are objecting not to our consumption of veal but to the export of live calves to veal enthusiasts such as the French. There is merit in this argument, and agriculture minister William Waldegrave this week attended the European Council of Ministers with an agenda to improve livestock transport conditions – a move that he doubtless would not have been required to make without the protesters.

It is also worth examining what gave rise to this situation in the veal market. Not only did we ban continental-style veal farming in Britain some five years ago, but we also insist on calving to achieve a high milk yield in the dairy industry. With falling beef consumption, that leaves some 500,000 surplus male calves in Britain a year.

The standards of transport in the resultant export market can (and should) be challenged. But it is worth remembering that the market is of our own making. Let no one suggest that it is a market created by carnivorous diehards which has been inherited from the past – the figures show otherwise. I repeat: we eat more meat today than we did 30 years ago.

To meet that demand, the challenge for food marketers is to reflect changes in public taste, in particular the Red Shift. That means more processed products, with value-added, higher margins. Much of any future growth in the meat markets will come from prepared products – such as lasagne and pizza toppings – that may contain as little as ten per cent meat. (It is odd that a veal-eating nation such as Italy should be teaching us this.)

I’m told that for every animal slaughtered for beef, a ú1.90 levy is raised for British Meat promotion.

The consequent budget helps to pay for D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles’ Recipe for Love commercials. It would be nice to know how many resources are also being directed towards

the industry’s research and development of new, processed meat products to match modern tastes.

The effort is clearly worth making because, despite efforts to prove the contrary, the market is still very much out there. The past 30 years have changed some of its characteristics, but not its fundamentals.

George Pitcher is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendragon.

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