Drop the xenophobia

Paul GarnhamPaul Garnham, MD Europe and Africa for Tyson International argues that the British retail and farming sectors should less protectionist when it comes to their beef offer and open up to a greater selection of foreign products.

We sell a lot of US beef in Europe. We sell increasingly more to the foodservice business in the UK. We sell to supermarkets and wholesalers and foodservice operators in Germany, Sweden, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, etc. Even apparently broke and austere Greece loves US beef. But we seem unable to sell to supermarkets in the UK.

Because our supermarkets lead the world in innovation, quality and packaging technology, I often have cause to visit them with my US colleagues - but I always warn them that the meat section will resemble a BNP rally and a celebration of Britishness. The beef xenophobia among retail meat buyers is almost palpable, yet growth of imported beef sales in the restaurant business is healthy and many more consumers are understanding the difference between different origins, breeds, type of feeding and so on.  

There is huge renewed interest in beef in the UK and a quick search on social media will reveal happy beef-eaters tweeting and instagramming the praises of many and varied steaks and short ribs and - what appears to be becoming more and more of a ‘thing’ - barbecues. We’ve had many calls asking for brisket, plates, tri tips, as the traditional ‘steak’ cuts of ribeye striploin and fillet are being complemented by more arcane muscles – which provide great value and eating. The extra marbling and fat in some grain-fed beef lends itself well to this, revealing cuts and derivatives which can amaze the uninitiated.  

A well-known London steak operator of the queuing variety – answers on a postcard, sorry, I mean tweet me – proudly butchers great British beef from across the isles, but also ‘guests’ cuts from many and varied origins across the world. His customers and consumers in general appear to appreciate the choice and variety and this is stimulating production and consumption of great beef from the UK and beyond. This is positive and will increase overall beef sales. But there is no such choice in the supermarket meat case. A well-known retailer has said to me that he knows his customers would be avid buyers of US beef, but that he dare not upset British farmers. Are our farmers so sensitive?  I think they should leverage the growing new interest in beef and be pleased to see beef joining the ranks of other proteins as a good-value, consistent and interesting daily protein choice, instead of being an occasional treat. Only by being open, inclusive and innovative can this be achieved.

When one of the largest supermarkets put US beef in a couple of their stores a few years ago, the reaction from the Daily Mail and its readers was only slightly less vituperative than if a Bulgarian had bought Fortnum’s. But is this because the supermarkets are teaching their customers to only want British meat? When the horsemeat scandal hit, this nudged one of the supermarkets to announce that ALL of their meat, including frozen chicken and ready-meal ingredients, would be British within a few months. What has horsemeat to do with Brazilian or Thai chicken? Do the British supermarkets really fear British farmers? If so, is there any justification for this fear? The whole atmosphere around meat sometimes brings out the worst of a particular type of early-20th-century Brits’ fear of anything foreign – as in the archetypal 1970s Brit abroad who refused to eat “any of that foreign muck”. Well, hello 21st century, time to embrace some change and variety in the beef department, as in almost every other section of the supermarket.

My view is that competition is good for everyone. Marks & Spencer made Waitrose better and vice versa. The likes of Aldi and Lidl have shown the UK that they can shake up the biggest of retailers by offering something different and providing exceptional value – in Germany they even sell US beef…  If we can improve the general quality, variety and – in my opinion one of the biggest issues in beef in the UK – the consistency of the meat case offer, then overall sales should grow and everyone wins. We don’t mind buying grapes from Chile or tomatoes from Israel or prawns from Indonesia or potatoes from Cyprus. If our own British beef was as vilified in its export markets as imported beef is here there would be outrage from Tunbridge Wells. But we seem to pander to the aforementioned view that foreign meat is inferior. As many readers well know, it is not.

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