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Meat choices

February 18, 2013
Rare breed cattle

Rare breed cattle in the Cotswolds, UK

Suddenly we’re all shocked that value burgers, lasagne and other processed food products in the UK have something other than beef in them. It’s 23 years since the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) scandal, when it suddenly came to our collective conciousness that perhaps cows didn’t live long and happy lives out in fields and eat grass. As a nation (and lets not pretend this wasn’t happening in other part of Europe but Brits are sticklers for upholding the law) we had become so disassociated from the way animals for food were reared that a whole industry, with its focus on delivering cheap meat to consumers and maximum profits to shareholders, that it was an enormous shock to most people that vegetarian cattle were being fed other species ground up in meal, to enable them to put on the pounds of lean protein we demanded.  The age of innocence was over it seemed.

So, over two decades on, how has it now come to pass that our food chain is more obfuscated and opaque than ever and on the faces of all politicians and industry representatives there is the look of mock surprise? Genuine surprise, or a feeling of being completely let down is the response of many consumers, finger waving and moralising from others (often those with bigger budgets). As food writer Trish Deseine says:

For me, the collective, vicious circle of obsession, illusion and denial is well and truly exposed and  exploded and there’s no going back. Read more here.

In these straightened times, when there is food in seeming abundance (so much so that millions of tons of it ends up in landfill), ordinary families are often faced with difficult choices.

Jules from Butcher, Baker blog sums it up:

Imagine this: you have a family to support, you work every hour under the sun to put food on the table. You can’t shop at the butchers as they are only open when you are at work (my local butcher only opens 10-3 Monday –  Friday). You don’t own a car due to rising petrol prices so the supermarket a short walk away is only option. With the cost of domestic fuel rising dinner needs to be quick to cook, you can’t afford to have the oven on for an hour or two cooking a delicious home-cooked meal from a frugal yet tough piece of meat. At the supermarket you have a choice: 4 x £1 value lasagne that cooks quickly in the microwave or £6 worth of ingredients that means you are 90min away from a meal. You know you are compromising on taste and quality but remember food is now fuel.

Don’t believe the Daily Fail hype that people living like this don’t exist. They do. I work with children and families who are just like this. They are not scroungers or people wasting money on frivolous things like Sky and XBox, they are struggling to make ends meet let alone eat. Read more here.

Joanna Blythman makes this point:

The very essence of food processing is taking apart natural foods and reinventing them in a value-added form that is more lucrative for their makers. The horsemeat fiasco has merely provided us with a snapshot of just how under-policed, and liable to fraud and adulteration, manufactured ready meals and processed meat products really are. Read more here.

I don’t believe that providing people with safe, nourishing food should be left solely to the vagaries of market forces (voluntary pledges and commodity trading). The industrialisation of farming in agriculture and animals (including the failed promises and potential catastrophe of GM crops) and the pervasive spread of increasingly processed foods in the hands of fewer and more powerful corporations and retailers is one of the most sinister threats of our age. So what can we do?

Sarah Emily Duff, author of Tangerine and Cinnamon explains:

Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably. Read more here.

Like most consumers, I make difficult choices every day when shopping for food, with the added complication that I live in a country where most of it has to be imported. We eat meat once or twice a week, in small quantities and I do my best to ensure it comes from the best source possible (and budget permitting). Spinneys now label some of their beef as grass-fed, Prime Gourmet also sell grass-fed beef, but my preferred choice is Carrefour as they stock OBE organic beef.  The OBE group unites family farms in the Channel Country of Australia, these cattle have been free-range for generations and they are left to graze on a range of 250 types of grasses, herbs and plants that grow naturally. I met with some of the people who run OBE a year ago and a planned short chat turned into over an hour where we talked about everything from the cows seeking out medicinal herbs when they were sick to the way they form family groups.

Some time ago I was given some of the meat to try. It comes in a range of cuts and is mid-price range (for Dubai). I cooked several meals and the meat tasted very good. I was going to give you a range of recipes and some nice pictures of the finished dishes (and will do in the future). But in the context of the last two weeks, I feel there are more important points to make. I don’t pretend that the whole answer is to just change our shopping habits, but it’s the only area where most of us have any impact.

If you are in Dubai, OBE is at Gulfood, a large food industry exhibition, 25th-28th February 2013 if you are visiting and want to know more. It’s a rare opportunity to talk direct to the producers of our meat – which, if we’d done more of, might have helped shape a better future where we could rely on food to be safe and nutritious and not at the expense of animal welfare or our environment.

Wherever you live, what choices do you face and decision do you make about food provenance, meat in particular?

Postscript: Three new articles appeared just as I posted this. Very well worth a read:

Horse meat – The hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault (The Making Progress Blues)

Meat-free every day (The English Can Cook aka Ms Marmite Lover)

‘everymeat’ bolognese (The Riverford blog)

33 Comments
  1. February 18, 2013 12:21 am

    Sally, it’s such a complicated issue, isn’t it? And one that you and I have discussed before. Jules makes a very good point to which I can offer no rebuttal – we can say people always have a choice, but in reality and practice, sometimes they just don’t. All we can do is be grateful that we do have choices, and to exercise those in as careful and considered a way as we can. I’m glad you’ve found a source of meat that you’re comfortable with (they must do a lot of export, because I haven’t seen them at any of my suppliers).

    • February 18, 2013 11:33 am

      Thanks for this link – really interesting.

  2. andreamynard permalink
    February 18, 2013 12:49 am

    Excellent, thorough piece Sally. I’m just cooking a harira, Moroccan soup with lots of lentils to which I added the lamb bone I used to make a stew for 2 family meals. the lamb was from the Herefordshire hills, I know it grazed on really wild, herb filled pasture and was so full of flavour.
    I really think we need to go back to using well reared meat sparingly – if you buy cheap cuts of well-reared meat they can be padded out with pulses to make so many tasty, healthy and frugal meals.
    I know I’m lucky to live in a rural area where it’s easy to get good meat – and to have raised our own rare breed pigs last year – and also, I work from home so have flexibility re cooking. But also, most of us are so lucky these days to have freezers and, so unlike cooks a few generations ago (who were adept at feeding a family frugally) we have the advantage of making meals from scratch in large quantities and freezing for easy ‘ready meals’ for days when there’s just not time to cook.

    • February 18, 2013 11:31 am

      You are so right Andrea. We didn’t have a freezer when I was growing up – however we did have a corner shop and a garden full of vegetables.

  3. February 18, 2013 12:59 am

    I have not been eating much meat lately but here in France, it is possible to find good quality if one does not necessarily go for the cheapest. The chicken can be found with what is called Red Label, meeting certain criteria which does ensure a better quality.

    • February 18, 2013 11:17 am

      This whole issue of labelling is another problem. I heard recently that ‘outdoor reared’ pigs mean they live outside for the first 4 weeks of their lives. How misleading is that

      • February 19, 2013 5:58 pm

        Yes, I have read similar about chickens, I think it was in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that they could go outside if they wanted to but as they were several months old before this was possible, not many would get that idea.

  4. February 18, 2013 1:33 am

    A very well-written post. I eat very little meat and always make sure that what I buy suits my standards (humane & quality meat). This means that I never eat pre-prepared meals and industrial foods (only homemade dishes prepared from scratch).

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • February 18, 2013 11:16 am

      Thanks Rosa – I think we are lucky that we’ve got the skills and choices too.

  5. glamorous glutton permalink
    February 18, 2013 2:09 am

    Really good and thought provoking piece Sally. It is easy to talk about using a local butcher and knowing where your meat comes from but that luxury is too expensive for an enormous number of people. I don’t think there are any easy answers, except to not be surprised to find that very cheap processed food might not be what it seems. We can’t always eat meat everyday and perhaps slow cooking is more affordable if it is for more than one days meal. Adding veg and pulses to create variety and inexpensive food. The biggest obstacle in the UK is that so many people can’t really cook and have a nervousness about trying. Not to mention a fear of wasting the food. Old fashioned domestic science in schools might have been a bit of a joke, but at least it taught you to cook. GG

    • February 18, 2013 11:14 am

      You’ve hit the nail on the head – there are no easy answers. We have to dedicate time and effort to food – however busy our lives – if we want to eat well.

  6. February 18, 2013 10:57 am

    Great article, I buy all my meat at Prime Gourmet, apart from pork and the occasional chicken which I would buy more if I could find bigger ones. A friend visiting from UK has been telling me that this whole episode about the horse meat in the UK is a good thing as it is making people cook for themselves again. Living here for the years that I have I have always cooked from scratch, I hate convenience food especially the frozen rubbish. Rachel doesn’t eat nuggets but does have the occasional burger happy meal much to my disgust but she is 8, it’s what they do.

    • February 18, 2013 11:13 am

      Children’s parties are actually the worst time for junk food. Again, I think it is a sad symptom of our time that it’s now traditional to feed the worst quality, unhealthiest food at children’s celebrations as a treat. What message does that send?
      I think good chicken is the hardest thing to buy here. The ones at Organic Foods and Cafe say ‘organic’ but don’t mention free range so I think they probably aren’t. Thanks for commenting – really appreciate your view.

  7. February 18, 2013 11:36 am

    Excellent post, Sally. These are issues that I’ve been grappling with for some time. Not only do we need to pay more attention to the provenance of our food, but the trend towards meat-based diets is globally unsustainable. Cattle production produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars. Our consumer choices also have larger implications for food security. It is projected that by 2025, a grain based diet could feed 9.5-10 billion people, whereas a meat-based diet could only feed 3.5-4 billion people. A population that relies on equitably distributed diet, principally obtained from grains, represents our best chance for meeting the world’s growing demand for food. It’s not only an issue of personal health, I think we have a moral obligation to change our eating habits.

  8. February 18, 2013 11:54 am

    I love it when you post about topics you are passionate about. Well researched, topical and thoughtful. Thanks Sally.

  9. February 18, 2013 4:08 pm

    I could feel your anger and frustration over the ether. This piece is superbly written and researched, all the more powerful for its lack of recipes. But I look forward to them when they are posted:D I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to afford ‘good’ meat and also be able to cook it too. Just now food provenance, safety, affordability and welfare are front page issues, but the lack of cooking/life skills that are the result of societal change and skewed educational/governmental priorities should be also. As a nation we have become hugely de-skilled. And it is a tricky one to turn back. Whereas our grandmothers (homemakers most of them) would have known about making the most of a meagre budget – without a freezer as was pointed out – we seem to be divorced from not only cooking but food stuffs themselves. The truth of the excerpt from Jules’ blog makes it all the harder to see how things may substantially change for the better. But the queue at my (admittedly middle class) local butcher and fishmongers, and the huge throng at a local farmers’ market, shows that food and food issues are important to many of us. I just hope the needs of those who have to shop exclusively at supermarkets and corner shops, or rely, for whatever reason, on ready made meals, are adequately addressed and not just given hasty reassurances of safety.

  10. February 18, 2013 4:37 pm

    I wasn’t too fussed about how food was produced and transported until I started reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” where he 1st hand goes to see how our food (we are talking US practices here) is produced from industrial giants to “beyond organic” farms. The level of detail and personification that Michael writes about really hit home. Especially now that I have a wee one – do I want to feed my precious son all these unnaturally raised (they are fed corn and other non-grass feed), hormone and antibiotic pumped meat and vegetables?

    The answer is of course no but local chicken is 20 dhs ($6) and organic is 80 dhs ($24) for comparable size, my resolution starts to waiver. Organics in other countries is deemed expensive. Organics in Dubai is even more so (as you know)!

    Which is why the l local organic movements are so important as you have often written about yourself.

    The other challenge we face here in the UAE is the lack of labeling – the US (and can I assume UK) have stringent laws on labeling where food comes from and what it is made of. Although there are flaws in the labeling system, at least there is one. Here, we get exports from so many different countries and not all of them provide information for their products – for example Pakastini and Indian lamb or goat. I know nothing about the practices of those countries but what if the farm that those animal products come from are better than say the local or NZ stuff? The point is, I don’t know because of lack of origin labeling.

    Having said all that, many stores here are now making an effort to provide this information (whether through their own efforts or through their imported products efforts) because the customers are demanding it more and more.

    Growing up, my family (nor Scotch’s) would NOT have been able to afford what we can today: the so called organic / free-range /grass fed alternatives but we still experience sticker shock every time (on that note, a lot of the “inexpensive” beef and pork sold in the US is because the government spends our tax dollars to keep the prices low but does not invest as much in local and sustainable projects).

    Sorry for the looooon reply!

  11. February 18, 2013 5:21 pm

    Well researched, balanced post Sally. The horsemeat issue was a crisis waiting to happen and one that screams of a cover-up. It can only be a good thing for easing transparency, as well as raising the question of food provenance. But there’s a lot worse in beef ready meals than horsemeat though. I wish for the sake of food security, I could change my eating habits, but I love my meat too much. Convenience and time is an ongoing issue though and one I can relate to. If I have time, I buy my meat (grass fed beef and lamb) from Prime Gourmet, otherwise it’s Waitrose or Spinneys for proximity. I came across OBE a little while ago, so good to know you rate it, but again it’s about convenience and Carrefour with its horrendous queues at weekends isn’t. Alice Haine’s article in The National last week paints a good picture of the local meat industry in light of the horsemeat scandal.

  12. February 19, 2013 8:29 am

    A very detailed discussion in the wake of the hour. I really like what you’ve said – ‘ don’t pretend that the whole answer is to just change our shopping habits, but it’s the only area where most of us have any impact.’ I’m always doing my grocery ‘thinking and thinking’. Specially, in Dubai which perhaps is sometime over-abundant with food products which you don’t need in daily lives. Interestingly, I’ve stopped going to Carrefour until and unless I need to buy other things at MOE. With the limited time I have, running in between school runs, the parking and the long queues are killing. I buy meat from Lulu Al Barsha – very convenient, less crowded. And I try not to buy frozen stuff. Al Rawdah for fresh chicken. Or else from Spinneys. Again, I don’t know whether it’s my perception, I think supermarkets stock things differently in different localities!!!

    On a lighter note – Where will you turn to? Turn Vegetarian? What about the chemicals and pesticides? I believe there is Good Science and Bad Science and hope that Good Science triumphs!

  13. February 19, 2013 2:09 pm

    it is so so complicated. I am exceedingly lucky that I have a very good butcher, and that I regularly get sent amazing qualiy meat to review.

    Having said that we both now identify as primarly plant based, which makes sense for our health, bank accounts and the planet, but an almost vegan diet thought to be hard, and if you do not cook well is hard to achieve as so much convenience food; which we all need from time to time, is ruled out.

    Although I support organic I am increasingly skeptical of it as a label and the way it has been seized as a marketing term. I’d prefer disclosure of what is in non organic items, and pesticides taxed at the cost to clean them up after use.

    So so complicated.

  14. February 19, 2013 4:23 pm

    I like the points you make Sally and I endorse them. I would however like to say that the consumer experts here in Germany have said and I agree:
    There is nothing wrong wth the horse meat – it will not make people sick the discussion is about not telling people – as in not labeling . that there is horse meat in it.
    Now this males for a very interesting discussion too because are the 1 € Lasagne buyers going to read the label? If it said say meat 20% pork, 60 % beef, 20% horse would people then not buy it?
    I think it is the thought of it that makes people shiver but in France they eat alot of horse meat and it is not unhealthy – in the Hannover area of Germany it is a sauasge delicacy.

    Difficult topics, difficult times, difficult choices. I still believe honesty id the best policy.

  15. February 21, 2013 9:36 pm

    People who pay £2 for 6 burgers should wonder what’s in them. I buy the best beef I can find and eat less. We shop at Carrefour when in Europe :)

  16. pinkpolkad0tfood permalink
    February 24, 2013 6:34 pm

    Great post, Sally! I am feeling so sad for those that cannot afford anything better!

  17. February 25, 2013 3:14 pm

    I read this post and really appreciate the strong view points you raised personally, as well as those from the commenters. I think people are getting the issue of (a) accurate labelling and (b) needing to support local, grass-fed/ understand meat sources better muddled up. This came through very strongly in the ‘It’s Your Fault’ link – I just don’t agree that consumers who cannot afford to pay or those who resort to frozen foods deserve to be thrown a mislabelled product their way. That’s just unethical, and that’s that, and I don’t buy any twisted argument that attempts to lob off the blame on consumers.

    What is good is that you’ve used the issue to make people realize the importance of cutting out the middleman and not trusting corporations to get it right. (which again,is different than saying that just because you trust the middleman, you deserve to be duped.) I admit that I’ve been really lazy about this issue – our buying habits in Dubai haven’t changed much in the last 25 years, even though the sources and production methods have changed. We haven’t actually bought beef in a long, long time. But I know we buy frozen chicken and fresh mutton – and I’m quite sure none of us have actually taken the time to get down to the farm level. Your post is going to spark an interesting, and much needed conversation on our dinner table tonight, that’s for sure. Thank you for raising this in a such a thought-provoking manner Sally.

  18. February 26, 2013 11:19 am

    Powerful post Sally. Good Food choices… I am fully aware that I am in a luxury position to have a choice. That used to be different. Growing up, money was always tight. Offal and organ meats were popular meat choices in our household, because they were cheap and nutritious. We had meat only a few times per week, and small portions at that. She’d mix minced meat with pureed pulses (chickpeas or white beans) and an egg to make up for really small amounts of meat. Even today, I will limit meat to a few times a week (much to the chagrin of my carnivore son), going for fish or vegetarian the rest of the week. And I can’t bear to throw away food.

    I am a huge fan of organisations such as Slow Food/Terra Madre, who promote food that is produced good, clean and fair, with concern for environment and animal, as well as affordability for the consumer. I came back from their food conference in October filled with good food future dreams. But one look around the meat departments of big supermarkets, my heart sank again. Piles and piles of meat, everyday again. Not all sold at the end of the day, yet replenished the very next day.

    Such a vicious circle of abundance and waste.

    To change your shopping habits may be just a drop in the ocean, but many drops do make a difference! I agree with you Sally: it is where we can make an impact!

  19. February 28, 2013 9:08 pm

    Great piece, Sally. I have no issue with eating horsemeat as such – as long as it was actually reared to be eaten and is not pumped full of drugs! But I really do resent the fact that it was not disclosed to consumers what they were buying. I realise that I am fortunate a) to have enough money not to have to buy cheap ready-meals and b) to enjoy and be quite good at cooking – so for me, cooking from scratch every night is not a huge issue. I agree 100% that the biggest impact we as consumers can make is to change our shopping habits. But I do gete slightly uncomfortable at the suggestion that OF COURSE everybody has access to a friendly farmer who can supply meat from cows that each had a name, or beautiful heirloom variety vegetables. There *are* inner-city dead zones for good food, without markets, butchers or bakers – I know because I pretty much live in one in my corner of London. Again, I am lucky because i can afford to drive or take the train to places that do have markets, but to pretend that everyone has an easy choice between a local market and an evil supermarket practically on the same street and are just too lazy to go to the market, is an uneasy argument to make. And when you are working one or possibly 2 jobs and caring for children, possibly as a single parent, I think you might punch the person who told you briskly to take your kids to a farm more often to show them where their meat comes from. Has anybody seen the price of train tickets lately?! The sad fact is that this has become an economic issue too, because processed, non-nutritious food has become cheaper than fresh food. The question is how on earth we got here, and what we can do as consumers to reverse the trend.

  20. March 5, 2013 1:03 pm

    Exellent piece Sally, can’t believe I missed this but then again I’ve had a hard ime catching up with things other than work lately.
    It’s such a difficult issue, people being shocked about the horse meat but don’t mind eating processed foods as long as they don’t know what’s in it… ignorance is bliss.
    I’ve been a vegetarian for 7 years until it made me ill – I had to start eating red meat once or twice a week, I did it with disgust as I’ve always been very aware of the living conditions of cattle in Belgium – they aren’t allowed outside EVER.
    So I did eat my minced beef and it did make me better but I only really started to eat meat when I found a farm where I could buy my meat. They only have a few cows and pigs and raise them with care. The cows are outside, the pigs inside as that really is a ‘no go’ to let pigs outside due to swine flu and the fact that there isn’t anithing rural about Flanders. I have to order a week in advance and can only but once a month. It involves planning ahead and I must say once you are used to it it’s not so bad but… you need a car as you need to pick it up -luckily you can pick up until 8 in the evening- and you need a large-sih freeze to keep it in. My mother in law hates the meat from the farm, she thinks it looks horrible and it does in a way. It looks real, not nice and pink or red like in the butchers or supermarkets, it is brown colored.
    She prefers the pretty pink-red meat and doesn’t want to think about the animals or quality as long as it looks good…
    It breaks my heart to hear people have to think about money when using the oven or hob. How did it come to this. Are frugal cuts of meat really becoming the new upper class food due to energy prices? It’s like the oysters, once a poor mans food…

    Thank you for a very interesting post Sally x

  21. March 18, 2013 4:40 pm

    Sally, I really connected with this post. In the United States, when advocates try to point out some of the issues with processed foods and factory farmed meats, they are labeled extremist and accused of trying to set up a “nanny state”. It is often written that Americans are fat and, therefore, lazy. We have less time off than any other industrialized country and higher productivity rates. We are hardly lazy. We are, however, captive to the food industrial complex. I live in a country where MSG is an ingredient that’s disguised as “yeast extract” or “spices”, GMO foods are the norm, high fructose corn syrup is in almost everything, and thanks to bad government subsidy programs, our diet has shifted from one of protein and vegetables to carbohydrates and processed meats.

    Michelle Obama tried to make changes to school lunches and eventually those changes were stopped and turned into trying to get kids to exercise more. The food lobby is relentless here. There are few home economic classes and I’ve met more than a few mothers who boast about not being able to cook and are happy to eat at restaurants instead of cooking. I get so discouraged around holiday time as grocery stores set up reservation systems to order completely prepared holiday meals. My fellow countrymen can’t cook a proper Thanksgiving meal? It’s so sad because it’s just not that hard. But the onslaught of advertisements, the appeal of an easy dinner, and a general exhaustion of trying to keep a household going while both parents (if there are two) are working makes such options very attractive.

    What’s most heartbreaking is that people take more time to research the purchase of their automobiles, cameras, and televisions than they do to question the quality of the food they ingest every day. The failure to see the connection between the health of Americans and the quality of our food supply is just heart breaking.

    Thank you for your post, Sally!

    • March 18, 2013 4:47 pm

      …and thank YOU for taking the time, trouble, energy and passion to write such a heart-felt comment. It’s the feeling powerless in the onslaught of corporations. If Michelle Obama can’t get things done, what hope is there for anyone? It’s shocking that people boast about not being able to cook – they would never boast that they couldn’t read …but what skill would benefit their family more than being able to source and prepare nourishing food that sustains without damaging.

  22. March 17, 2014 8:08 pm

    Springtime is the time for new beginnings, and if you have not tried grass fed beef, now is the time! It is so very satisfying to do what is good and healthy for your family. The extra cost of organic grass fedis well worth the benefits- you get more for your money because it has less fat and more protein than conventional beef.

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