British Meat Foodservice says that it has received a "positive response" to its proposal to introduce a code of practice for labelling the origin of meat used in the food service industry.
As part of its consultation process, the marketing arm of the Meat & Livestock Commission sent its draft code to a section of the food service and agricultural industries at the end of last year for comment.
The code has been prompted by recent research that found two-thirds of consumers believe the meat served in British hotels and restaurants is British. The truth is that home-produced meat accounts for only 38% of the total served by the catering industry.
"People in the industry should be concerned with what drives consumption," said Richard Lowe, marketing director for British Meat. "It's now recognised that a sizeable minority of consumers are interested in the whole provenance issue and ingredient integrity. Traceability is of great importance."
Many of those consulted asked why British Meat was not planning to make the code mandatory rather than voluntary, and questioned how the organisation would ensure that less scrupulous caterers complied with it.
Lowe said British Meat Foodservice was not in a position to enforce legislation. "We're looking to build support for this initiative among the trade to raise awareness and stimulate demand for menu transparency among consumers," he said. Less scrupulous caterers, he believed, would find that consumers would increasingly vote with their feet once menu transparency became the norm.
Another concern was the implications for caterers who buy meat on price rather than country of origin. "The purpose of the code is to provide caterers with advice on how to notify consumers on their buying policy in the simplest possible terms so that they do not inadvertently mislead customers," said Lowe. He gave suitable examples as "The meat in this restaurant is sourced according to price and availability from Ireland, New Zealand and Argentina", or "The meat served in this restaurant is of UK origin, except where otherwise stated".
But he added that some descriptions currently used in the industry were not helpful to the consumer. "We hope to help the industry with statements that would prove insightful for the customers. A bad one would be, for example, ‘Our meat is from an EU-approved source'. As a customer, I would read that as all our meat is European, but it actually means anything that is sold in Europe legally."
Lowe believed the introduction of the code could serve to educate staff, although it was not a direct intention of the scheme. He said it was clear from talking to some parts of the industry that they didn't understand that Aberdeen Angus didn't necessarily mean British, since the breed could be reared elsewhere in the world.
"And waiting staff, many of whom don't work for more than a few hours a week, often don't have enough knowledge about the food they are serving," he added. "They should be briefed on the food they are serving and they should know where it has been sourced from."
However, the definition of origin is not straightforward. Is it where the animal was born, reared or slaughtered? British Meat Foodservice is advising the trade to define the animal's origin as the place where it has spent the majority of its life.
While the code recommends labelling for all meat-based dishes, including poultry, it's not surprising that some people consulted believe the proposal is an attempt to get more British meat on the menu. "We are funded by the British meat industry and so of course we would be delighted if the amount of home-grown meat sold through the food service industry was increased as a result of this code," said Lowe.
"However, we want to introduce this code because we believe consumers have a right to know the origin of the meat they are buying in a restaurant, in the same way that they do when shopping in a supermarket. British Meat Foodservice has a responsibility to help the trade achieve clarity on menus to allow the consumer to make an informed decision."
British Meat plans to follow up its first round of consultation with individual meetings over the next month with the intention of introducing the code throughout the industry by the end of spring.
What do you think?
\* Do you think improved labelling of meat origins is a good idea? Would you implement it on your menu? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your views. Alternatively, write to Amanda Afiya at Caterer & Hotelkeeper, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5AS.
Andre Garrett, head chef, Orrery, London
"We do promote British produce on the menu, and we're hot on the traceability of ingredients. But I'm not sure that I would want to put a line on the bottom of all our menus saying, ‘Our meat is 75% British, 25% French', for example. We frequently run internal training to brief the staff back and front of house on where our produce is sourced from, so if a customer asks they can be informed immediately."
Richard Guest, head chef, the Castle, Taunton, Somerset
"I don't think it's difficult to put this code into practice. There's no problem of traceability for me because I only use British produce from my local butcher. Customers don't necessarily need to know, but I increasingly find that they want to know. Most importantly, they have a right to know."
Peter Robinson, chef-proprietor, King's Arms, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
"It's a fantastic idea. You get dodgy butchers who try to pass off Argentinian beef as British and I think it would help to stamp that out. I already list the origins of meat on my menu - all my lamb and pork comes from Gloucestershire and my beef is from Cornwall."
Sat Bains, chef-director, Restaurant Sat Bains, Hotel des Clos, Nottingham
"Our customers love the fact that we know exactly where our meat comes from. It gives them more confidence in you. Why wouldn't you list the origin of your meat on your menu? It's just lazy not to."