Schools and hospitals to cut meat by a fifth

Public sector caterers have pledged to cut the amount of meat they serve by 20 per cent

Children being served healthy food at a school canteen

If you’re one of the quarter of the UK population who gets your grub at a public sector canteen – whether during the Covid crisis or after – then watch your plate. You’ll notice the amount of meat on it disappearing before your very eyes.

That’s because canteen caterers across the UK have pledged to cut the amount of meat they serve by 20 per cent, with a view to dishing up healthier and more environmentally friendly meals to school pupils, university undergraduates, hospital staff and others.

In an unprecedented move, caterers have signed up to the #20percentlessmeat pledge, launched in the trade magazine Public Sector Catering last month by the Public Sector Catering 100 group (PSC 100), in collaboration with Humane Society International UK.

Committing to reduce meat on their menus by a fifth – the figure recommended by the government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change – is equal to removing 9,000 tonnes of beef, pork and chicken. In carbon terms, that’s the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road.

David Foad, the editor-in-chief of Public Sector Catering said caterers were leading by example, taking the initiative with a “bold move” rather than waiting for those in authority to take steps to address the climate crisis. He added: “It would have been much easier to sit back and wait until [caterers] were either prompted or forced into action like this.”

The Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) and University Caterers Organisation (UCO) have already signed up to the pledge. The HCA’s chairman, Craig Smith, said the group was simply following its customers, who are increasingly turning away from meat. In terms of customer requests, he said, “the biggest rise we are seeing is those demanding a more plant-based diet”.

Whether observing changing social trends or with an eye on the bottom line, the public sector, businesses and other large organisations have become increasingly aware in recent years of the role played by the meat and livestock industry in damaging the environment. Matt White, chairman of the UCO, highlighted the need and desire to make changes to our diet: “We have a very short window of opportunity to make changes in the way we eat, or we will have done irreparable damage to our planet and to future generations.”

Andy Jones, chairman of PSC100, underlined the importance of the move. It was not simply about educating those devouring the 2.1 billion meals a year served by public sector canteens, but changing perceptions. “The huge range of people we feed every day means we can influence the diet of the nation,” he said, “and at the same time contribute [to] the wider drive to limit environmental damage.”

Not everyone is happy with the move, however. Richard Findlay of the National Farmers Union called the pledge, designed to protect the health of people and planet, “frankly ridiculous”. Expressing concern that declining meat consumption would damage the UK meat industry, he added, seemingly without irony: “We have got to look at the bigger picture here.”