March 13, 2013, by Fraser

Meat scares and the gains for food security

Dr John Strak, Honorary Professor in Food Economics at The University of Nottingham, discusses how the horsemeat scandal has dented trust in the food industry and what this means for food security.

Are we eating too much processed meat?

Meat consumption is dominating the news agenda these days and the latest headlines concern the risk of cancer from eating processed meat. New data comes from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study (covering 10 countries and around half a million people) indicating that high consumption of processed meat is associated with an 18% increased risk for all-cause mortality.

However, the risk was much lower with red meat than with processed meats – indeed no statistically significant link between fresh meat consumption and mortality was found. This distinction was hard to find in the tabloid headlines and the storyline was, “sausages and bacon are bad for you”.

Past peak meat consumption

Regardless of the tabloid’s reporting of these new  findings, if we stop and look at the statistics more widely it may be that consumers in developed economies are already reducing consumption of meat even without the latest news from EPIC.  In the USA per capita consumption of meat has fallen by about 10% in the last 5-6 years and in Europe per capita consumption has levelled off. In the USA some commentators believe that the country is now past “peak” meat consumption.  That news may come as a shock to Texas cowboys but the numbers  are there to back this claim up.

There are also reasons to believe (horsemeat scandals, recession, etc) that meat consumption is also falling in some European countries.  The latest Which?  survey supports this in the UK and notes that consumer trust in the food industry has dropped by 24% since the horsemeat scandal broke. 30% of shoppers are now buying less processed meat and 24% are buying fewer ready meals with meat in, or choosing vegetarian options. The retailers have suffered in all of this: before the scandal broke, nine in 10 felt confident when buying products in the supermarket. This has dropped to seven in 10.

Food security policy

It would appear that consumers’ perceptions about health and food safety procedures in meat production and consumption are leading them to reduce consumption  and change their shopping habits –  almost regardless of the scientific evidence.  This has implications for food security policy.

Meat consumption in Asia and China has grown rapidly recently and the impact of meat production on climate change is acknowledged to be significant. Our Global Security Forum in Shanghai last year had several papers that demonstrated these aspects of meat production and consumption.  And from these papers and the Forum’s discussion some solutions and ideas for research were generated. Amongst these were low carbon productions systems and less resource intensive diets (less meat consumption).

However, one lesson that we might draw from meat consumption statistics and consumer behaviour in the West (if we agree that less meat consumption is needed)  is that consumers in Asia may slow their growth in meat consumption because of health and food safety issues if their meat providers and media allow the creation of negative perceptions. Even without the scientific evidence global peak meat consumption may arrive sooner than we might have thought.

Posted in meattraceability