Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Meat sector escapes fickle finger of blame on obesity? Fat chance

Obesity has again hit the headlines recently with calls to tackle the issue, not least among the nation’s children. Earlier this month at the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron called for drastic action to be taken on obesity to prevent soaring health costs and falling life expectancy. Talk of the sensitively-dubbed ‘fat tax’ emerged, following Denmark’s example where a surcharge has been imposed on foods with more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat.

Reportedly, by 2050 more than half of the population is predicted to be obese. The Department of Health’s new obesity strategy has talked about creating the right environment for individuals to make healthier choices. Figures set out in the strategy suggest that the average adult consumes 10 per cent more calories than they should.  Food and drink manufacturers have been called on to cut five billion calories from the nation’s daily diet as part of plans to reduce obesity levels in England.

Certainly a serious issue worthy of debate at the highest level so it is unfortunate that certain regular industry detractors seized on it to extol the virtues of cutting down on meat intake as one way of managing weight. It’s disappointing to see yet again that meat consumption appears to have been singled out in some quarters as the pantomime villain. ‘Oh no it isn’t!’, ‘Oh yes it is!’ I’m afraid. What are the facts though?

Yes, obesity in England has more than doubled in last 25 years and by 2050 is predicted to affect 60 per cent of adult men, 50 per cent of adult women and 25 per cent of children, but the exact causes are not clearly understood. It’s now accepted that there are a combination of nutritional and non-nutritional factors that control food intake – eat better and exercise regularly, in short – and red meat can play an import role in better diets. Red meat is a major source of protein, providing about 27-35 g/100g of cooked beef or lamb. Protein may lengthen the time it takes for people to want to eat again, compared with carbohydrate and fat. Increasing protein intake from 15 per cent to 30 per cent of energy has been shown to decrease calorie intake.

Evidence also suggests that in dietary practice, it may now be beneficial to replace refined carbohydrates with protein sources that are low in saturated fat, such as lean red meat. It has suggested that incorporating additional lean red meat into a calorie-reduced moderate fat may improve the feeling of fullness that persists after eating. This would suppress further energy intake until hunger returns. Some cuts of lean red meat and red meat dishes have a low energy density, which have been found to contribute to greater weight loss without creating a sensation of food deprivation.

Obesity is a very real health problem for many people but attributing blame to one specific food group is, at best, misguided. Contrary to popular belief, lean red meat can play a positive role in weight loss and weight maintenance programmes. But of course the debate is not black and white and is unlikely to be over even after the fat lady has sung.

The Government’s full obesity strategy can be viewed by clicking here.

The Meat Advisory Panel’s factsheet on red meat and weight management can be viewed by clicking here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Working hard to stimulate demand for beef and lamb

Among the services EBLEX provides to beef and sheep levy payers is marketing – working (often behind the scenes) to stimulate demand for quality beef and lamb. In the consumer arena, this includes our work with Red Tractor Beef and Lamb,, our meat and health, and meat and education programmes, and MeatMatters. Complementing this is our trade side marketing work with the major supermarkets, Quality Standard Mark, independent butchers, promoting new cuts from alternative butchery techniques, and supporting the foodservice sector.

It is essential we work hard on the domestic front as this is where the bulk of beef and sheep meat produced in England is sold – and with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation in the UK rising to 5.2% from 4.5% the month before, consumers are increasingly looking to where they can make food efficiencies. Beef demand certainly remains robust, with latest Kantar Worldpanel figures showing beef sales by volume up 1 per cent for the 12 weeks to October 2 and 0.2 per cent on a year earlier, but we cannot assume this will remain the case simply because people like eating it.

Therefore, the launch of the EBLEX-backed 5by25 initiative, supported by celebrity chef James Martin and a host of national organisations, was rather timely this week, bringing into sharp focus the need to help young people develop skills to create basic dishes with raw ingredients, like beef and lamb. Research commissioned by EBLEX showed that almost 60 per cent of those aged 18 to 25 cannot make a staple dish like spaghetti Bolognese. Only 6 per cent of those questioned knew how to make the three test dishes of spaghetti Bolognese, curry and Yorkshire pudding. Clearly a programme was needed to highlight the frightening shortage of cooking skills for the next generation to ensure healthy, cost effective dishes can be prepared at home from the raw ingredients.

It prompted the development of 5by25, which calls for young people to be given the support to master at least five simple recipe dishes by the age of 25 – the time by which most have left home – with a wealth of information on basic recipes on the website

At a London launch this week, it had backing across the board, including the Prince’s Trust and National Union of Students, from the assembled 100 guests. The one possible exception was Further Education and Skills Minister John Hayes who discussed his doubts on the need for such a project at the event with a clearly passionate James Martin. Mr Martin went on to extol the virtues of the initiative through a series of radio and television interviews over two days, again demonstrating his support for our industry, which saw him step up to front the annual EBLEX Young Chef Challenge back in 2006, challenging children to come up with dishes featuring beef or lamb mince.

The real benefits of the project will be long term, as we (hopefully) see more people buying the basics, including beef and lamb, to create healthy dishes for themselves and for their families. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Sound bites and spats – everyone’s farming’s new best friend

The perennial autumn exodus from Westminster for party conference season has come to an end with politicians issuing their respective rallying cries to the troops.

Traditional seaside town venues may have been eclipsed by big city locations, but the conference season has nonetheless heralded its usual mix of gossip, spats and witty put-downs.

Against a backdrop of a ‘dangerous new phase’ for the global economy, it came as no surprise to hear the prevailing saga of Britain’s long hard road to economic recovery dominate. But what of the agricultural sector? With the imminent publication of CAP reform proposals, the ongoing debate over tackling bovine TB, food security and sustainability, there was surely plenty to discuss. And everyone it seems is farming’s new best friend.

In the blue corner, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman. And in the red corner,  Mary Creagh, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Having faced a tirade of criticism from Ms Creagh, Mrs Spelman came out fighting, listing her department’s achievements – how producers had been helped by improvements to the Rural Payments Agency, tackling bovine TB and improved labelling regimes. The Conservatives were described as the Government on the side of farmers, before delegates heard the pledge to find ways of unlocking the potential of the rural economy. On CAP reform, Mrs Spelman also pledged to get a good deal for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment.

A week earlier, Ms Creagh championed Labour as the party of jobs and growth, standing up for fairness in the countryside and strong rural communities. The Labour conference fringe also cited the need to grow and produce more. Delegates heard that any plan for growth must have a plan for food. They were told how the Labour Party policy review would seek a proper food strategy for each region with a focus on cattle farms in the west and north of England, as well as those in Wales and Scotland.

In Manchester, the Government faced calls to negotiate a CAP better geared to competitive farming with a policy framework to put farmers in England on level competitive terms with farmers elsewhere in the EU. The issue was also raised at the Liberal Democrat conference where we heard how the party and the NFU pledged to work together to secure a fairer CAP for UK farmers, even after the two organisations clashed on the badger cull proposals. Bovine TB and the proposed badger cull again featured at the Labour fringe. Positive and negative aspects of intensive livestock farming also came under the spotlight.

Undoubtedly, all worthy and important issues for the industry and it’s encouraging to see them debated in such a high-profile arena with all parties laying claim to having the industry’s best interests at heart – not exactly a bolt from the blue, or indeed the red or the yellow. Whether the rhetoric translates into more substantial action will remain to be seen.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The cost of new fresh meat labelling rules

We all like to know what we’re getting for our money and fresh meat is no exception, reflected by the adoption of new EU country of origin labelling (COOL) rules.

The European Parliament has adopted extending mandatory country of origin labelling to fresh sheep meat in its ‘Food Information to Consumers’ report. The aim is to improve the existing labelling rules and provide greater clarity to consumers.

This has been in the pipeline for a long time and origin labelling has been one of the most debated issues of the proposal, not least because of the difficulty in finding a consensus between the European Parliament and the Council on extending COOL to basic foodstuffs.

Generally, the new rules will maintain the current approach that country of origin or place of provenance labelling on food is voluntary, unless its absence could mislead consumers. However, the standout feature for our industry is that origin labelling becomes mandatory for fresh meat from sheep, an indication that consumer concerns about the safety of meat remain. Once the legislation is published in the EU Official Journal at the end of November, the new rules for meat origin labelling are to be introduced within two years.

So what will it all mean? This approach has existed in the beef industry for some time as part of the fallout of the BSE crisis and the latest decision will mean that origin labelling will become compulsory for all kinds of meat. The belief is that by indicating the origin of food, consumers are better informed and can make decisions based on that, although many suspect that price will remain the first and decisive criteria when buying food. At a simplistic level the industry in the UK quite likes the idea, but unfortunately there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The down side of this legislation is that it will impose requirements of traceability to provide that level of assurance – inevitably, that will mean there’s a cost involved.

The government has welcomed the move, saying: "Shoppers will now be absolutely sure that if meat claims to be British, it will be British - reared to the high standards they'd expect."

Yet while the idea that there will be clear origin labelling on food is to be welcomed, what remains to be seen are the detailed rules which could include the need for full traceability. Unquestionably, the legislation will clearly improve the levels of transparency but as mentioned earlier, in practice there will be a cost involved. What remains to be seen is who will pay for it.