Yes, Brits are Eating Less Meat & Dairy – But They’re Also Consuming Fewer Vegetables
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UK government data shows meat and dairy consumption are at their lowest levels since records began half a century ago – but they’ve also been eating fewer fruits and vegetables, and more cheese. Experts cite the higher cost of living and inflation as key factors.
With all the noise going around plant-based meat’s impending doom, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it’s not just soy burgers that have been under the pump and out of the grocery basket. If you thought the UK doesn’t like alt-meat, the government says it doesn’t fancy meat much either.
Since 1974, when the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs began record-keeping, never have the Brits eaten less meat (or dairy, for that matter) than last year. Experts are calling this the post-Covid effect, exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis and lifestyle changes.
According to a spending calculator by Sky News, which takes into account figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, prices of beef mince are up 26%, whole chicken is 16% more expensive, and bacon costs 25% more compared to September 2020.
Meat consumption is lower, but not low enough
Inflation has squeezed people’s wallets, so much so that Brits ate 854g of meat a week at home in 2022, compared to 976 the year before and 949g in 2019-20, which was just before the pandemic hit. In terms of red meat like beef, pork and lamb, the UK saw a 26% lower consumption last year than pre-pandemic, while consumers ate 11% less poultry, bacon, ham and other meat products in the same period.
There’s a similar trend when it comes to meat-eating as part of takeaways too, which is less than half of what it was a decade ago (though that was likely skewed by the pandemic).
Meanwhile, fish consumption dropped from 148g to 135g from before the pandemic, and beef intake has been the lowest since 1999. People are moving to cheaper meats too, with the average Brit eating 13g of more expensive beef steak in 2021-22, compared to 21g the year before. Meanwhile, consumers ate 16g of cheaper steak, down from 20g.
Overall, the UK’s richest 10% ate 10% less meat a week than a decade ago, while the lowest 10% of earners consumed 19% less meat. But the problem is, despite the meat reduction – which can only be a good thing for the climate, whatever the reason behind the fall in numbers may be – the 854g of meat people are eating every week is still nearly three times as high as the 301g recommended by the Eat Lancet commission to achieve our climate goals.
More cheese, less produce
Dairy (excluding cheese) is at an all-time low too, a drop of 45% since 1974 and 6% from 2019-20. And while cheese consumption declined by 10% from last year, it rose by 4.6% from pre-pandemic levels. In the last two years, Brits ate more cheese per week than they’ve had since records began.
“A sharp fall in meat consumption will clearly help the UK towards its climate targets. But it’s pretty worrying that it’s taken the grim mix of a pandemic and a cost of living crisis to drive that shift in anything like a meaningful way,” Linus Pardoe, UK policy manager at the Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe, wrote on LinkedIn. “A transition away from industrially produced meat, seafood, eggs and dairy shouldn’t be contingent on people being less well-off.”
What’s equally concerning is that it’s not just meat and dairy that have seen a fall in household consumption: fresh and processed fruits and vegetables have dipped 14% year-over-year too, and 6% since pre-pandemic levels. This is a major indicator that these numbers are heavily influenced by the soaring cost of living.
Pardoe agrees, telling Green Queen: “Ultimately, most people’s food choices are driven by three main things – taste, price and convenience. Particularly during the UK’s current cost of living crisis, consumers will be looking very closely at products’ price tags before deciding whether or not to put them in their shopping basket.”
Plant-based product sales have fluctuated as well. According to the alternative protein think tank the Good Food Institute, alt-meat sales dropped by 8% from 2021-22, but increased slightly (by 1%) from pre-pandemic levels. Milk alternatives, though, grew by 6% year-on-year in 2022, and 24% since 2020; vegan cheese, however, is on similar levels as pre-Covid, though it saw a 12% fall from 2021-22 – Brits seemed to eat both cheese and plant-based versions more during the pandemic.
Alt-protein needs investment
The UK remains Europe’s second-largest vegan market and saw £964M on vegan meat and dairy last year, but GFI Europe says the government needs to invest £390M in alternative proteins by 2030 to keep pace with the rest of the world. Its prime minister Rishi Sunak hasn’t helped the cause with his climate U-turn.
“The UK government needs to invest in the country’s huge potential to build a globally competitive alternative proteins industry giving people the food they want at an affordable price, but with a fraction of the environmental and societal cost,” says Pardoe, calling for chancellor Jeremy Hunt to provide the country’s regulator, the Food Standards Agency, with a £30M injection this autumn to boost confidence in this sector.
“Many consumers will still continue to eat animal products no matter what,” admits Pardoe, “but we’re at a pinch point at the moment, and a lot will depend on whether plant-based foods become more affordable.”
He points to a recent 2,100-person Ipsos survey revealing that over half of Brits plan to cut their animal product intake, but a third find plant-based products too expensive and over a quarter say the taste just doesn’t match up to their conventional counterparts yet. “The government and UK businesses should tap into this appetite and make sure these more sustainable foods are within people’s reach,” notes Pardoe.