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I once ate a stone cold ‘roast’ dinner rather than complain in a restaurant. I have that terribly British affliction of too much politeness. It stops many of us making a fuss or asking questions unless something is really, really bad.
I’ve had to get over it recently, and become that demanding and slightly annoying customer. A recent volunteer role with the Soil Association involved discovering more about children’s food in restaurants. I was so shocked at some of the responses to my questions that since then I’ve made it my business to overcome my reserve and find out more about the food on offer.
Unless you are in a restaurant that makes a real selling point about their food sourcing, then the most uncomfortable question to ask is ‘Where does your meat come from?’. I’ve tried this in half a dozen smart eateries over the past month or so and it was awkward.
Either the waiting staff had no idea about the provenance of the meat, or they did, and sheepishly replied with a far flung location such as South America or Thailand.
It is evidently cheaper to raise and slaughter animals in Thailand, then fly the meat across the globe than it is to produce it here. Urm, does that reassure you about production methods and animal welfare abroad?
Many of us try to buy British when we shop for the Sunday roast or weekday Bolognese. A YouGov poll revealed that nearly 60% of UK consumers prefer to buy UK-sourced meat than imported meat. However, in some ready-meals and high street restaurants we are not given the choice. The meat is cheap, possibly mechanically reclaimed, unlikely to be free-range and from the other side of the planet. It’s this sort of situation that gave us horse meat lasagnes.
We’re too good at avoiding thinking about where our meat comes from. When you are out for a nice meal, it’s hard to be the difficult, fussy customer and we don’t like thinking about dead animals. It should be the legal responsibility of businesses that we are trusting to feed us to make sourcing information easily available – then we can vote with our mouths.
This worked for eggs. Back in 2004 the European Commission made it obligatory to label eggs as coming from ‘caged hens’ which led to the growth of the free-range market and eventually the banning of battery chickens.
Every time we eat the cheapest imported meat we are messing up – we are failing to support our British farmers, neglecting animal welfare and risking filling our bodies with the nastiest form of protein.
A meal out should be a treat – not an exercise in interrogation of the waiting staff or blindly swallowing poor quality food. At the moment, the average high street caterer is relying on our ignorance. Until things change, I’m a restaurant vegetarian. I won’t give my money to supporting an unpleasant, cost-cutting industry.
First published in the EDP and EADT