Where next for the UK meat industry?

The onward march of plant-based diets continues, and with it a period of soul-searching for meat manufacturers, reports Thomas Lawrence

In the pitched battle between the meat industry and insurgent vegan manufacturers, few would deny the momentum is on the side of the latter, certainly in the UK.

The latest coup for the British vegan sector came in the form of a House of Lords committee report, which, in response to impending EU regulation on the topic, found no evidence consumers were being misled by meat-free products. “Witnesses were unanimous in the view that current naming conventions around vegetarian burgers and sausages in particular are clear and easy to understand,” said the Committee.

The British Meat Producers Association had argued in written evidence that some meat alternatives were “subtly fooling” consumers. Plant-based producers had been worried; that legislators in the UK appear to be siding with them will come as a blow to carnivorous corporations.

Changing times, changing diets

According to GlobalData’s Q3 2018 survey, 76% of consumers stated that environmental and ethical factors influence their food choice. And a Q4 2017 survey found 34% of consumers would consider eating vegan meat for health reasons. Taken together, it’s predicted these developments could make flexitarianism the dominant dietary choice sooner rather than later.

By some measures, meat’s stagnation is already setting in. MarketLine data suggests the global meat and livestock market reported a downturn of 3.5% between 2013 and 2017. And while around 1% of the US population reported they were vegan at the start of the same period, the figure had increased to 6% by the end.

Whether the meat market’s decline and veganism’s growth are linked or merely correlated, it doesn’t bode well for operators in the sector. From village butchers to small-scale importers, uncertainty reins amid Brexit volatility. Add in longer-term dietary shifts and there’s little room for optimism.

Science to the rescue

If the House of Lords findings are repeated in Europe, wresting control of historically meat-laden language could prove a dead-end in the quest to rein in the vegans. But there are other avenues to explore.

Innovation is drastically reducing the trade-off between meat consumption and environmental conscientiousness. Angel investors have cottoned onto the possibilities. Wealthy investors such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson are pumping resources into start-ups specialising in lab-grown meat.

Although still prohibitively expensive for the time being – Memphis Meats has valued its culture chicken meat at $9,000 per pound due to the costly in vitro biomass cultivation process – prices are falling all the time. And, most importantly, it’s planet friendly. A life cycle assessment by New Harvest found the process could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% across the entire production line.

Additionally, big-names are responding creatively. Consider the Sainsbury’s “meat-free butcher”, launched as  popup in London’s East End in June. It’s a great example of a brand exploiting curiosity around meat-alternatives. And the welcoming, familiar guise, eases the “sense of trepidation about cooking with them,” according to Sainsbury’s buyer James Hamilton.

Is meat for the chop?

Old methods of mass-agriculture – overhung as they are with a big ecological question mark – may well be on the way out. But alternatives abound for frontline operators.

The question is, will they take them? The short-term could well be rocky. Basic costs aside, huge marketing capital will need to be sunk into making lab-grown meat a tempting replacement for its farm-reared forerunner. And it’s hard to imagine committed vegans nipping into the butchers for a beetroot burger anytime soon.

But over time, costs will fall and consumers will adapt. Whatever the future holds for individual businesses, it certainly seems that exploring the opportunities of the plant-based movement – rather than policing its language – is the way ahead for the sector. Consultants should take note.

Thomas Lawrence

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