Do supermarkets associate ‘less and better meat’ with healthy, sustainable diets?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Supermarkets play an important role in the food supply chain, as they exert 'significant' influence over both production and consumption. GettyImages/Natissima
Supermarkets play an important role in the food supply chain, as they exert 'significant' influence over both production and consumption. GettyImages/Natissima

Related tags Supermarket retail Meat Dairy

What does a sustainable diet mean for UK retailers? Fresh research investigates strategies and challenges in providing ‘less and better’ meat and dairy.

Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is a key factor in biodiversity loss, freshwater use, and pollution.

Occupying 70% of agricultural land, animal agriculture – depending on its intensity – has also been associated with poor animal welfare conditions.

As animal-based foods, such as meat and dairy, are considered more resource-intensive to produce than plant-based foods, pressure is mounting to reduce their consumption in the western world.

“Evidence shows that we need to do two things when it comes to meat and dairy: reduce our consumption and improve supply chain sustainability,” ​said University of Surrey researcher and WWF’s Sustainable Diets and Behaviour Change Specialist Joanna Trewern.

“But we’re far less sure about how to do that, and the role food companies can play in supporting a transition to ‘less and better’ meat and dairy.”

Spotlight on retail

Supermarkets play an important role in the food supply chain, as they exert ‘significant’ influence over both production and consumption.

Therefore together with research colleagues from the University of Surrey, Nestlé’s Head of Sustainability, and WWF’s Food Systems Sustainability Manager, Trewern has investigated retailer perceptions of sustainable diets and their strategies and challenges to provide and promote purchasing of ‘less and better’ meat and dairy.

Without a universally accepted definition of ‘less and better’, the study authors turned to UK charity Eating Better Alliance, which interprets ‘less’ as a 50% reduction in average per capita meat and dairy consumption. ‘Better’, according to the alliance, refers to meat and dairy production in “healthy ecosystems, favouring more natural diets from sustainable sources, in well managed farmers that deliver high standards of animal welfare”.

Seven different supermarkets, representing the majority (73%) of UK market share, were surveyed.

Ultimately, the study authors wanted to know if UK retailers perceive ‘less and better’ meat and dairy as an important aspect of sustainable diets. And are retailers implementing, or planning to implement, strategies to stimulate less and better meat consumption? What hurdles do they face in achieving this aim?

‘Less’ meat and dairy ‘contradictory’ to retail model

Results indicate that the supermarkets share an ‘aligned understanding’ of a sustainable diet being one championing health benefits, while being associated with low environmental and social impacts.

‘Less and better’ meat consumption, however, does not feature predominantly in their interpretation of the concept, noted the researchers. Three retailers referred to ‘less’ meat, relative to plant proteins, as an aspect of sustainable diets, while no retailer mentioned ‘better’ meat.

Concerning strategy, all retailers reported a variety of methods designed to help consumers make more sustainable purchasing decisions.

But no retailer has set demand-side targets concerning ‘less’ meat and dairy. This, they said, was seen as ‘too challenging’ and ‘contradictory’ to the retail business model. Rather, the retailers perceived targets to increase sales of plant-based products as a ‘more palatable alternative’ to consider in the near future.

On the supply side of things, all retailers interviewed reported implementing targets and interventions related to ‘better’ meat and dairy. “Six…participants reported working to improve the sustainability of the meat and dairy they sell, with the core focus being on livestock feed and farm management,” ​noted the authors.

What can retailers learn from this research?

The researchers concluded that while some progress has been made on delivering ‘better’ meat and dairy, ‘less’ meat and dairy is likely to continue to be a challenge for retailers going forward, given the nature of the retail business model – one hinged on consumer demand, the competitiveness of the industry, close relationships with suppliers, and the commerciality of meat and dairy.

Retailers do, however, have the potential to make significant headway in transitioning towards ‘less and better’, suggested Trewern. “The one thing I’d like retailers to take away is that developing and promoting plant-based products isn’t enough, they also need to work directly on reducing meat consumption, whether that’s through integration into sustainability and Net Zero strategies or nudging consumers towards more sustainable products.”

A multisectoral approach, Trewern continued, could see even greater progress made towards ‘less and better’ meat and dairy consumption.

“This is such a huge challenge that it’s impossible for one sector to solve alone. Retailers can drive change on their own and in collaboration with other companies, including manufacturers,” ​she told FoodNavigator.

“But government intervention is crucial to address factors which are beyond the direct control of food companies, such as the price of intensively produced meat and dairy and farming incentives.

“Civil society also has an important role to play in driving changes in consumer demand which food companies can then adapt to.”

Opportunity for vertical collaboration

Food and beverage manufacturers can also play a key role in encouraging a shift towards ‘less and better’, we were told.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for vertical collaboration between producers/manufacturers and retailers to drive transition toward ‘less and better’. Manufacturers should think carefully about the ingredients they’re sourcing and the impact these have on the environment, looking for win-wins across health and sustainability where possible​.”

Pea protein, for example, can make a ‘great meat replacer’ as it’s healthy and nitrogen-fixing, meaning it can play a role in restoring soil health, Trewern continued.

“For meat and dairy producers, considerations to take into account include greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, soil health and animal welfare. It’s important to look holistically at these issues – outdoor, extensive systems are preferable to intensive indoor ones due to the disproportionate impact of livestock feed on the environment.”

Source:Sustainable Production and Consumption
‘Are UK retailers well placed to deliver ‘less and better’ meat and dairy to consumers?’
Published 4 April 2021
Authors: Joanna Trewern, Jonathan Chenoweth, Ian Christie, Emma Keller, Sarah Halevy.

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