As the UK prepares to sign trade deals with several countries, including the USA, concerns have grown that the food service sector may move to take advantage of low standard imports in future. Abi Kay reports.
With several of the UK’s major supermarkets vowing in recent weeks never to sell products such as chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, concerns about standards have shifted from retail to the food service sector, where there is far less transparency about the products on offer.
This side of the industry has traditionally faced less scrutiny from consumer and farm groups, because the supply chains are far more convoluted and the provenance of food, particularly meat, is much more difficult to measure.
Stuart Roberts, NFU deputy president, said: “I am not going to say people have taken their eye off food service, but because it is a more complex supply chain, people have really struggled to grapple with it.
“You have buyers buying from multiple processors and processors who are buying from multiple farmers or raw material suppliers.”
Though the food service sector has taken an extraordinary hit during the coronavirus pandemic, food eaten outside the home previously accounted for 40 per cent of consumption.
And even during lockdown, delivery services such as Deliveroo, JustEat and UberEats saw a surge in demand as more restaurants began to offer home delivery.
Tony Goodger, who works for the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) and AHDB, said people were unlikely to abandon their principles on standards as they enter a pub or restaurant.
“Are people really only interested in 60 per cent of what they eat?” he asked.
“I doubt it. They are interested in 100 per cent of what they eat.”
This view appears to be backed up by recent research from consumer group Which?, carried out in June, that found 89 per cent of the public wanted restaurants, cafes and takeaways to tell their customers if they sold chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef in future.
But the struggle for greater openness in the food service sector stretches back far longer than a couple of months.
As early as 2003, the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), AHDB’s predecessor, launched a campaign for menu transparency.
Independent MLC research from the time showed consumers wanted to know where their food came from, and found customers assumed meat to be British if they were not told otherwise.
The hospitality industry pushed back strongly against the drive for country of origin labelling on menus, though, with pub companies believing they would lose business if they revealed the meat they sold was not British.
Mr Goodger, who worked for the MLC when the campaign was live, said: “In the old days, the British Hospitality Association [now UK Hospitality] really fought back massively.
“They said ‘menus would look like a Chicago lawyer’s briefing pack, with far too much information on there that the consumer would not find of any interest’.”
Since then, some larger pub chains have moved to improve transparency, with JD Wetherspoon now making clear all steaks are sourced from British and Irish farms.
Other catering butchers have also made big strides forward on standards and provenance, with some now providing shining examples of best practice.
One such company is east Midlands-based Owen Taylor, which provides high-quality meat to hotels, restaurants, pubs, universities and even Nottingham City Hospital.
The hospital is unusual in that it only uses Red Tractor-assured meat, and Richard Taylor, managing director at Owen Taylor, claimed this has many advantages.
“They have proven tests which show good food gets their patients better quicker,” he said.
“They are also cutting down on gas and electric costs because less cooking time is needed, and the yield is better because they are not scraping lots of fat off.”
Mr Taylor, who has a background in farming, only sources pork, lamb and beef locally and ensures the animals are slaughtered as close to farm as possible.
Though he acknowledges his prices are slightly higher – ‘not excessively more’ – than his competitors, he has no trouble winning business because his customers value the product.
But he is operating in a cut-throat market place.
“There is all sorts of Mickey Mouse meat around”, he said.
“It is South American, African and Polish. Kosher meat is also used – the hinds off the cattle and the lambs. If people knew the method of slaughter, they would not want it on their plate.
“I will not have that. But I am competing with certain catering butchers who do. In some cases, buyers do not care where it has come from or how much it has cost.
“That is the majority of the catering industry, in all fairness.”
Mr Roberts agreed, pointing out it was easy to blame the local takeaway or burger van, but there was also a tier of the pub and restaurant trade buying solely on price.
“You have got a lot of wholesalers who are operating on tiny margins, so if you see some very good value raw material, that may well influence your buying decisions,” he said.
It is for these reasons that the NFU has recently appointed its first ever full-time member of staff dedicated to building relationships in the food service sector.
Under the leadership of Minette Batters, the union has worked to raise the profile of these issues, and is now looking to map the sector to get a better understanding of it.
Mr Roberts has also asked MPs to make country of origin labelling mandatory on menus, amid concern the food service sector could take advantage of low standard product made available by post-Brexit trade deals.
“Food service is the place where there is a distinct lack of labelling regulations,” he said.
“We have got to get to a point where they have the same labelling regulations as would be the case on retail shelves.”
This ask is widely supported by the rest of the industry.
“It would help me,” Mr Taylor said.
“When you are competing with people, our customers will say they can buy things more cheaply elsewhere, and I will ask them what it is they are buying.
“It would be very good to have that labelling.”
It seems, however, that the battle for such transparency will continue for some time yet, with UK Hospitality standing firm in their opposition.
Kate Nicholls, the group’s chief executive, told Farmers Guardian mandatory labelling would be a ‘retrograde step’ that would cause problems for small to medium-sized businesses.
“It would represent a considerable additional cost for businesses already facing tightening margins at a time of unprecedented political uncertainty,” she said.
“It would also represent a considerable burden for those venues that change their menus regularly, some on a daily basis, to incorporate locally-sourced produce, seasonal and specials.
“The end result is likely that prices would go up and investment would go down, with much less choice for customers.”