Consumers could unknowingly eat meat sourced from the US at some restaurants or hotels under a new trade deal, a new investigation has concluded.
Leading restaurant chains, hotels, pub groups and catering companies said they will not source meat from the US if it’s produced to lower standards than are currently required in the UK.
However, companies including KFC, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), as well as Aramark and Compass UK & Ireland, which provide food to schools and hospitals, would consider sourcing US meat if a future trade deal requires exporters to meet UK standards of production.
US meats currently perform poorly against British equivalents on things like antibiotic and pesticide use. Indeed, campaigners have warned of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-pumped beef coming to the UK.
The findings, from research by sustainability website Footprint, are significant because the foodservice sector is likely to be the favoured route for any exports. Supermarkets have to label the origin of their meat, but pubs, restaurants and canteens do not.
The major supermarkets have already committed not to source US meat. Footprint therefore surveyed 25 fast food and coffee shop chains, hotel and pub groups and contract caterers, 12 of which declined to comment on whether they would buy meat from the US.
The chains were also asked about the provenance of the meat for their UK and Ireland operations. Across the 11 firms that provided data, 90 per cent of the beef comes from the UK and Ireland, compared to 70 per cent of the chicken, 69 per cent of the lamb and just 58 per cent of the pork.
Nando’s, for example, sources 100 per cent of its chicken from the UK and Ireland, whereas at KFC the figure is 53.9 per cent – with 46.1 per cent coming from Europe, Brazil and Thailand.
Simon Billing, executive director at the Eating Better alliance said: “The fiercest critics of the foodservice industry would say they like to mask behind a lack of scrutiny of meat sourcing – a race to the bottom in price not a race to the top in terms of standards. The trend on white meat sourcing [revealed in this survey] paints that picture.”
All but one of the companies sourced at least 85 per cent of their beef from the UK and Ireland, with the exception of Aramark. However, a number of firms also source beef from South America, a region that WWF and the RSPB have identified as at high risk of deforestation.
The sourcing of white meat was of particular concern. Pub group Mitchells & Butlers, which owns chains like All Bar One and Harvester (99 per cent), hotel group IHG (80 per cent), and contract caterers Elior (53 per cent) and Aramark (50 per cent) all source at least half their pork from the EU. Elior said its bacon is often sourced from Denmark and is “fully compliant with EU legislation and animal welfare in its respective country”.
Contract caterers supply food to the public sector including schools and hospitals as well as to corporate canteens and hospitality venues like museums and sporting arenas.
Caterers Aramark, Compass, ISS and Sodexo, all source some chicken from outside the EU, from countries including Argentina, Brazil and Thailand. BaxterStorey, meanwhile, sources all its meat from the UK and Ireland – bar three per cent of its lamb that comes from New Zealand.
The research also showed that a significant majority of UK-sourced meat is certified by the Red Tractor scheme. But campaigners expressed concern that higher environmental and welfare standards were not prevalent. A Red Tractor certified beef supplier was recently suspended from the scheme after footage emerged of farm workers abusing animals.
Campaigners commended those that provided information, but warned those that didn’t that their lack of transparency could erode consumer confidence.
“The lack of labelling means they have to trust companies so transparency is vital,” said Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain. “It is vital that consumers can be assured that what they eat in canteens and restaurants is of a good standard.”
High street favourites like McDonald’s, Greggs, Burger King, Starbucks and Subway were among those who failed to respond to requests for information.
Greener UK, a coalition of environmental groups, recently highlighted how “quickly and quietly” UK standards could be eroded. Peers in the House of Lords have been pressing the government to put a safeguard on standards into law.