In a relatively short space of time, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the way we eat and shop for food. And no wonder, considering millions of Britons were largely confined to their homes for two months before restrictions slowly began to ease.
There have been several well-documented shifts in our eating patterns and preferences. An interest in baking shot up; comfort foods became more appealing. Home-cooked lunches replaced the sandwich-on-the-go. And a significant uptake of online shopping among older members of the public has naturally emerged, as fears of contracting the virus still keep many away from shops.
But perhaps the sharpest spike has been a keenness to buy British, and in particular, British meat. In a report released today by Waitrose, the supermarket registers a 289 per cent year-on-year rise in searches for “British chicken” on Waitrose.com; “British beef” soared by 889 per cent. This comes after a poll by Made in Britain last week found that 90 per cent of 2,000 respondents said it was important to buy British food, and that two-thirds were more likely to do so since lockdown.
Why? One reason is to support the country's economy. The crisis exposed the precarious existence of Britain’s farms. Many of them rely on catering – restaurants, pubs, hotels, schools – yet these sources were all but wiped out as lockdown hit. High-profile chefs highlighted the plight of British farmers, such as Jamie Oliver alerting his 8.3 million Instagram followers of a duck producer’s struggle to sell all his birds. The same happened with cheese, as food writers, chefs and manufacturers shouted about the struggles of the British artisanal cheese industry, leading to a rise in online purchases as the public responded.
Another factor is the increasing rumblings – which intensified in June – of a trade deal with the United States. The potential for an influx of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef has long worried a majority of British consumers. This week, it was revealed that American hens have half the living space of their British counterparts. The squalid conditions require the carcasses to be dipped in chlorine before sale. Just five per cent of US laying hens are free range, compared to just over half in Britain, according to the RSPCA.
That’s not to say British meat production is perfect. Yet, on the whole, conditions are better, something consumers are aware of; according to a poll conducted by Which? in June, 86 per cent of Britons opposed the import of lower-standard food.
“It has been suggested [by proponents of a trade deal] that British shoppers should be given a choice,” says Waitrose’s executive director James Bailey, and “that many would accept food imports farmed to lower food standards” – namely, if they were cheaper. But he disagrees; and even if Waitrose's online search figures reflect a section of society that can afford to buy higher welfare meat, polls of the general public support the view that most people want to buy British where possible.
Of course, it isn’t always possible. As Professor Tim Lang highlights in his recent book, Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, Britain only produces around 50 per cent of its food; a quarter of all meat eaten is imported, rising to three-quarters of fruit and vegetables. Lang also notes that “consumer polls suggest that the UK public favours buying British, but they are less clear about what exactly is British.”
“Clearly, as an industry, there is still work to be done to get where the public wants us to be,” Bailey admits. Waitrose says all its fresh and frozen own-label beef, pork, chicken, fresh eggs and milk is British. From 2021 all its lamb will be, too.
Though customers increasingly want British meat, sought-after cuts changed in lockdown. According to Bailey, there were “huge surges in demand in the peak of Covid for products such as mince meat to account for the rise in batch cooking.” This in turn lowered demand for more premium cuts, which poses a challenge for farmers as they fetch more money.
Price will always be a significant driver in consumer habits. But if a concern for animal welfare continues – and the Waitrose report suggests it will, with 22 per cent of shoppers thinking more about animal welfare standards when shopping in store, compared to 13 per cent when online – here's hoping the shelves remain stocked with the very best of British.