We’ve seen the newspaper headlines linking too much red and processed meat with cancer. And we’ve known for a long time that saturated fat in meat and meat products increases our risk of heart disease. We know about meat’s role in climate change. We know the cheap price tag on those two perfect-looking industrial chicken breasts in the supermarket is hiding its true cost in cruelly low animal-welfare standards. We’ve even seen Jamie Oliver’s revolting recipe for chicken nuggets.
And in a survey by Toluna for the Jellied Eel, nearly three quarters of Londoners said they were aware of campaigns telling us to eat less meat. Yet only ten seconds later, almost exactly the same proportion admitted they hadn’t changed their meat-eating habits as a result.
Bargain basement prices is certainly a big reason, according to our survey results: 40 per cent said they would eat less if it cost more. “People are really bothered about what they are paying for their meat,” says our cover star for this edition, Charlotte Harbottle, better known in the twittersphere as @girlbutcher. “The first thing anyone ever asks me is ‘are you expensive?’,” she says from behind the counter of O’Shea’s in Knightsbridge. “It’s another reason people prefer to buy their meat in a supermarket rather than a butcher. Plus, they find it less intimidating…lots of people are happy to eat meat but don’t want to know it comes from an animal.”
According to Sue Dibb, newly-appointed executive director of think-tank the Food Ethics Council, it’s hardly surprising we aren’t embracing the idea of cutting down on meat. “So far the government has totally sidestepped tackling our consumption of meat and dairy, because of all too familiar concerns about nanny-statism. And although our climate change targets are tied to emissions from food production, food consumption doesn’t figure at all in the calculations. On the food industry side, while there has been some great progress on sustainable fish, it’s a less convincing story with meat. Businesses are aware of the nutritional and environmental evidence on why we should be eating less, but aren’t ready to have a conversation with their customers about it.”
In fact, it’s not entirely true that our appetite for meat is insatiable. Though the stats are tricky to pin down, per capita meat consumption has been increasing steadily over the last twenty years, but appears to have decreased slightly in the last few. Some put this down to the rise of the ‘part-time carnivore’ or ‘flexitarian’; the segment of the population that market researchers refer to as ‘meat reducers’. Certainly there’s been a flurry of cookery books aimed at the responsible carnivore; from Rachel de Thample’s ‘Less Meat, More Veg’, featuring recipes for people who want to eat less meat without turning vegetarian, to US chef Mario Batali’s ‘Molto Gusto’, which treats meat as a spice. Celebrity chef Batali even introduced ‘Meatless Monday’ in all of his restaurants across the States - not an insignificant step in a country which makes our own meat intake look meagre. “It’s not really meatless, but rather offering more vegetarian options,” explains Jonathan Safran Foer, author of factory farming expose Eating Animals (see full interview with Jonathan), “but that doesn’t actually matter. What matters is Batali is making a statement.”
But public health nutritionist Dr Helen Crawley, of City University, says in her experience eat less meat promotions are unlikely to have a significant impact. “Evidence shows that we can cut down on meat and for most people it won’t have a big impact nutritionally, and the links between eating too much red or processed meat are now well known. But when you start suggesting meat-free days people often can’t imagine an alternative, so you have to sell meat-reduced meals on their own merits, not on the basis they have no meat in.” Her top tip for encouraging people to eat less meat? “Don’t make a big deal out of it. If you create lots of good things they can cook or eat with little or no meat in them that taste good they won’t notice!”
A third of our survey said they would cut down on meat if there were better vegetarian alternatives, and Safran Foer agrees we should be better at promoting how vegetarian is less expensive. “The elitist argument is often used against high-welfare meat. And it is true that eating meat from smaller family farms is impossible for an awful lot of people, maybe most people. But in any restaurant I’ve ever been to in my life, the cheapest option is the vegetarian one.” But he also adds that there isn’t any one answer to how we get the messages through. “Different people have different levels of comfort, different reasons to change, and we have to resist the temptation to look for the one thing that’s going to be right for everybody.”
One of the latest suggestions of an easy way to reduce the environmental impact of our meat habit, is increasing our appetite for offal. Literally ‘off fall’ from the butcher’s block, offal is widely eaten around the world, and was once a regular feature on our own dinner plates. A new focus on frugality, and intolerance for food waste, means it is now enjoying something of a renaissance, aided by London restaurants like the Table Café in Southwark, whose menu features items such as ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toast’, Brawn in Columbia Road, and, of course, the temple of nose-to-tail, St John.
Anissa Helou, Lebanese author of 2004 cookbook ‘Offal: the Fifth Quarter’, which has just been republished due to renewed interest, says we have St John’s Fergus Henderson to thank for the resurgence in interest in offal in the city, though ethnic places have always sold it. “When my book came out in 2004, it was considered disgusting. Now there is a new excitement. But it saddens me how offal’s not part of culture here,” she says, adding that one of the main reasons is our butchers don’t know how to prepare it. “The offal you buy is often inconsistent - tripe will be over-boiled or bleached, pig’s heads will be full of snot and covered in hair. People already aren’t keen, and if what they buy is smelly or unpleasant in texture, that’s going to put them off completely.” Our survey seems to support this idea - Londoners said they would be more likely to eat offal if it tasted better, or they knew how to cook it.
Girl butcher Charlotte agrees. “Offal - people are scared of it, so we all need to raise awareness of what delicious things can be done with it.” “Everyone needs a good education,” she says, “butchers included.”
Extremely cheap and incredibly close
Jonathan Safran-Foer, author of acclaimed US factory farming exposé ‘Eating Animals’, talks exclusively to the Jellied Eel about what this country can learn from the American experience.
Meat, milk and the city
A ‘food history’ walk around inner London reveals little hints that animal welfare and food safety concerns are not just a modern issue, but go back to the 19th century.
Flounder and chips (40)
The butcher’s banger (39)
Thin end of the veg? (39)
The Hunger Game (38)