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Lies, damned lies..... and headlines

The meat industry was in the dock again last week as the media reported that thousands of us are set to abandon our carnivorous ways.

“How the British fell out of love with meat” screamed the Daily Mail. “Meat consumption declines following cancer warnings” and “Britons turn away from meat after health scare” were headlines in the Independent and The Times respectively.

Apparently, 44 per cent or just under half the population either ‘don’t eat meat’, ‘have reduced the amount of meat they eat’ or ‘are considering reducing the amount they eat’.

What was the source of this latest meat industry doomsday scenario? Why, it was none other than that trusted source of impartial information on the nation’s meat eating habits, the Vegetarian Society, which had commissioned some special research within the NatCen British Social Attitudes survey and a report entitled 'Are We Eating Less Meat?'

According to all the press reports, many of us have heeded the warnings of the report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), published in October 2015, placing red and processed meats in ‘carcinogenic’ and ‘probably carcinogenic’ categories. Remember those headlines comparing bacon and sausages to tobacco, asbestos and plutonium in terms of their cancer risk.

A more diligent journalist might have noticed that the latest NatCen report was based on interviews which took place from June to November 2014, a full 12 months before the publication of the WHO/IARC report. But why let facts (or research surveys) spoil a good story (headline)?

Compare this gloom and doom scenario with the more up to date results from the AHDB Tracker published yesterday, based on YouGov research. This was a more sober assessment, suggesting that the majority of us are a tad more relaxed about our carnivorous ways. Just eight per cent of respondents felt they eat too much meat and the majority (55 per cent) felt they eat the right amount – and six per cent even said they do not eat enough red meat.

Of course, both these research reports are drawn from information obtained from ‘omnibus’ surveys, based on statements of claimed, rather than actual, behaviour. We’d all concede that there is often a gap between what we say we do and what we actually do – remember the opinion polls at the last UK General Election? This is usually a significant factor when questions (especially ‘loaded’ ones) are asked about some of the more contentious aspects of modern living. Sadly, from our point of view at least, much of the media seem to regard meat eating as thoroughly dangerous and anti-social behaviour.

As for what constitutes a ‘loaded question’, we’ll leave that one for another day. For the moment, let’s remind ourselves of the eternal truth that ‘statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support not illumination.’

Did the launch of the WHO/IARC report in October, and the attendant media coverage, have an impact on meat sales? Some published research has at least suggested that there may have been a short term blip in sales – not surprising in the light of the weight of negative publicity that followed the launch of the report. In reality, it is too early to say whether there has been a long term impact. In the final analysis, it will also be very difficult to disentangle the effects of the many other factors which may have a more direct impact on sales of the different meat species and the many product categories within them – product availability, relative price, advertising and promotional activity and so on.

Information from large consumer panels and retail-based data provide a fairly robust measure of in-home consumption. However, as many will testify, it is far more difficult to track sales in the many different sectors of the foodservice market, and it is estimated that ‘out of home’ consumption may account for up to a third of all meat sales.

Probably the most reliable measure of overall consumption of meat is the somewhat crude figure of the net supplies of meat arriving on the domestic market, divided by the estimated population, to provide a figure of average per capita consumption. This approach will take into account meat eaten in-home and ‘out of home’, as well as fresh meat, processed meat and meat used in ready meals, either a major or minor ingredient.

AHDB data shows that average per capita consumption of beef, lamb, pig meat and poultry was just under 80kg in the year 2000. In the year 2014 it was…… just under 80kg per capita. How about that for a headline?

During this period, poultry consumption increased, consumption of lamb declined and consumption of beef and pig meat remained fairly steady over the period. Of course, there have been major changes in the types of meat products eaten, with more processed products replacing traditional ‘meat and two veg’ meals, and more meat eaten ‘out of home’. But it appears that there has been virtually no change in the average amount of meat consumed per individual.

The meat industry still has much to do to bring more balance to the public debate and encourage more positive perceptions of the role of moderate consumption of meat within a healthy lifestyle. But surely it is not unreasonable to ask our good friends in the media to subject some of the information presented to them by those with a clear ‘anti-meat’ agenda to more rigorous challenge.

So, for those of us within the meat industry, there’s no room for complacency but, in difficult times, we’d do well to follow the advice from Britain’s favourite butcher, Corporal Jones, ‘Don’t panic’.

25th February 2016