I’ve finally found myself with some time on my hands again so here is the second post in my “Farm to Fork” series in which I am trying to educate myself about where supermarket food comes from. You can check out my first post all about our little feathered friends here. This week though I’ve been learning more about beef.
Beef in the UK
Since most of the people I know at uni seem to be maintaining a diet consisting of 90% Spaghetti Bolognese I was surprised to learn that beef consumption in the UK has been falling for some time. The peak was in 1980 when we gobbled over 450g per person each week, nowadays however our appetites are more modest and have fallen by over 30% per person meaning the UK consumed just over 1.1 million tonnes of beef in 2013.
Lucky for us the UK has a great tradition in rearing cattle for meat, just consider our old favorite roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, surely a unique dish of britishness shared by families nationwide every Sunday. Such is our prowess in growing cattle that around two thirds of the meat we consume comes from within the UK with the highest concentrations being reared in Northern Ireland and the south of Scotland. Many believe the secret to British beef’s taste is that the breeds tend to have slow twitch muscles which leads to more tender product. That famously tasty breed Aberdeen Angus has been widely adopted by farmers across the Northern hemisphere including the US now ranking among the most highly prized of all meats.
No doubt it’s tasty stuff but is the life of a cow raised for meat quite as palatable? After the little calf is born for the first few months of its life it will grow quickly, suckling the nutrient dense milk of its mother whilst grazing on pastures. Then after 6-10 months the calves are separated from their mothers and after being weaned off her milk are sent for “finishing” (growing to slaughter weight). At this point the distinction is made between intensive or extensive farming. Cows which are finished intensively are now fed a high protein diet consisting of various cereals and supplements to get them to quickly pile on the pounds. Towards the end of their lives they tend to be kept indoors so that their diet can be carefully controlled to meet fat percentage guidelines for slaughter. Extensively reared cows however will continue to graze on grass, gaining weight slower and hence being sent to slaughter later than their intensive counterparts. This means the age of the cow at slaughter ranges between 14-24 months.
In the UK we are fortunate in that the vast majority of our beef is raised extensively or semi-intensively however there have been some farms opening in recent years which look to be moving towards the American style “feed lots” where thousands of cattle are kept within pens. In my opinion cattle in the UK generally have relatively high standards of living. That’s not to say that they are always treated perfectly, regular inspections are performed on farms but during the winter in particular cattle are housed indoors and can face issues with lack of space, poor lighting and being tethered.
In the UK the majority of the major supermarkets sell 100% British or Irish beef for their fresh meat ranges. Even Aldi, the discount chain which I have been visiting more frequently recently has red tractor assurance on all their fresh beef. Red tractor is a useful visual way to check that the meat you are buying complies with high and independently verified standards of animal and environmental welfare, you can spot the logo on the front of many meat products.
So we know we can get high quality fresh beef from the supermarkets but where are the potential pitfalls? When we buy frozen meat or ready meals we may find that the beef does not come form such a happy home, 30% of ASDA’s frozen beef is from outside the UK and it is buying these products which places us at risk of supporting farms with poor animal welfare.
We only have to consider the horse meat scandal of 2013 to realise that supermarkets do not have absolute control over their supply chains. In the scandal horse meat was found in some products such as frozen beef burgers which were supplied under brand names to supermarkets. These brands are essentially meat packers who source their meat from suppliers across the EU, these suppliers use many farms to provide their meat and it is this long chain which meant it was possible to substitute beef with horse. Since these farms were literally able to swap the breed of the animal they provided I don’t think its a giant leap to imagine that they might also get away with not complying to animal welfare laws. Of course one of the benefits of being part of the EU means there are “harmonised regulations” in place covering protection of calves, animals in transports and feed and living conditions. However this legislation is difficult to enforce particularly given differences in farming systems across member states. Each country is responsible for setting up a system of farm inspections which are not always carried out regularly enough to detect problems.
Cattle have a very poor energy conversion from their foods which means that in order to bring the animals to slaughter weight they have to be fed a serious amount of grain or grass, an often quoted statistic which applies to US style feed lots estimates that 7kg of grain is required to produce 1 kg of beef. This has obvious implications in terms of global food shortages, it seems very counter-intuitive to feed this grain which could be a cheap food source for humans into an animal to produce beef, a product which could be seen as somewhat of a luxury given that the world per capita average income is just $2,920 per year and meat from my local supermarket costs upwards of $12 per kg.
Moving to environmental issues, the production of 1kg of beef produces 34.6 kg of co2 equivalent which is roughly the same as the amount emitted by the average European car every 250 km. The main contributors to these emissions are the release of methane gas, land cleared of trees to make room for pasture and processing and transport of finished product. Even though I knew about some of the negative effects of raising livestock I was shocked to discover that raising livestock accounts for 14.5% of all human related green house gas emissions (United Nations, 2013). In short cows are a nightmare for the environment.
In terms of cattle welfare in I think we have much less to worry about than other countries where industrial farming is widespread. I am convinced that red tractor assured meat from my supermarket will almost certainly be from a happy cow with a good life. Here I would especially like to give a gold star to Sainsbury’s and Tesco who use 100% British or Irish across all fresh, frozen and processed beef products. In terms of sustainability however things do not look so good. UK cows do eat a lot more grass than most beef produced so perhaps it could be argued that they have less to answer for in terms of world food shortages. However, cows are still absolutely big time methane emitters and by being less intensively farmed in the UK actually have longer lifetimes and hence more time to release their damaging gases to the atmosphere.
As developing nations seek to move away from their traditional diets to a more Western way of eating world beef consumption is on the rise, there are many calls to revolutionise the way cattle is farmed and I have no doubt that science can provide some answers however I think it is all of our responsibilities to change the way we think about beef. That chill con carne and Spaghetti Bolognese should not be a day to day stable, we can easily substitute the mince in these dishes for lentils or other grains. Beef needs to be viewed for what it is, a luxury to be enjoyed in moderation with the full understanding of the impact it could be having on our world.