A tale of two shoppers: why to buy organic meat
Nik Darlington - 14 September 2011
The well-heeled woman in front of me at the checkout assembled her basket of goods in precise formation. A soldiery of foodstuffs: the hardwearing infantry of bottles and boxes in advance, the rear brought up by more powerful but more vulnerable cheeses and tropical fruits.
A bag of Bonne Maman biscuits (£1.79 for 200g), freshly squeezed orange juice (£2.49 per litre), beef gravy in a pot (£2.49 for 500g), ready prepared mango (£2.99 for 350g), two bottles of Chablis (£10.49), sundry trimmed beans and other prepared vegetables, then surely the most gratuitous indulgence of them all: ready peeled garlic cloves (59 pence for 50g). The basket was as much as one might expect in a Waitrose supermarket in one of London’s leafiest suburbs (although even the laziest must balk at pre-peeled garlic in a pot, which has the pallid appearance of dog’s earlobes).
Compounding my alliumic despair was a plastic package of essential lean beef mince (£3.29 for 500g).
That shopping basket sums up the gloomy way in which many people shop for food in Britain today. Too much is spent on convenience foods and not enough on good quality animal products.
The Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2011 gingerly suggests a promising outlook for organic products, even if year-on-year sales diminished by 8 per cent and the number of organic producers fell by 4 per cent. Supermarkets aren’t reporting falls but the only ones anticipating growth for 2011 are those redoubts of the middle classes, Waitrose and M&S.
The biggest obstacle is a decline in the importance of food in an average household budget. British shoppers spend only 15 per cent of household income on food and drink, compared to 33 per cent half a century ago. This phenomenon cannot be dismissed by a simple ‘times are tight’ argument. Economic ups-and-downs have transient effects but this country has been deprioritising food at a steady rate for decades.
From an animal welfare perspective, the benefits of spending that little bit more on organic meat and dairy are vast. No system of farming has higher standards of animal welfare. Organic agriculture also supports healthier and more diverse wildlife populations.
We have to be realistic and acknowledge not everyone is going to rush out and buy organic meat and dairy overnight. The jump from essential beef mince to organic mince is steep – at Waitrose a 500g packet of Duchy beef costs £4.99, or £1.70 more than the basic product.
Yet that is less than the cost of a packet of Bonne Maman biscuits. Of course, no one wants to forgo our occasional saccharine luxuries entirely, so we can cut down on convenience foods and cut things up instead. A much bigger full head of garlic will set you back half what a pot of pre-peeled cloves does. Or we can just eat better quality meat, less often. If organic still seems too big a step then opt for free-range, which really is not much more expensive at all. These are small and simple choices that really add up over time to improve our own health and the welfare of animals.
Also in the Soil Association’s 2011 report was the news that sales of organic beef are up 18 per cent (so there’s a growing market out there) and that nearly nine in ten households buy some organic products. Sales of organic baby food are up 10 per cent too, so at least the future’s bright.
There are reasons for hope and it is counter-productive to preach when the statistics show that slowly more and more people are supporting higher welfare meat and dairy. But we as consumers need to make better, more considered choices about where our money goes. An extra £1.70 on meat, and £1.70 less spent elsewhere, can make so much difference to the conditions of British livestock.
Back in the supermarket, I looked over my shoulder at the old man and his two shopping items: a Manichean combination of organic shoulder of organic Welsh lamb cutlets (£16.99 per kilo) and own-brand vodka (£5.53 for 35cl).
I suppose that’s what you might call progress.
Nik is a freelance journalist and historian, who has worked variously as a scuba diving instructor, management consultant and political advisor before turning his hand to scribbling. He writes books and arts reviews for the Spectator and a weekly online current affairs column for Total Politics magazine. He first joined the Soil Association when he was a history undergraduate at Bristol.