Restaurant Menus Target the Majority. But Do they Really?!

Let’s consider some simple facts:

  1. What we eat impacts the environment and animal products have a particularly high impact, whether we measure carbon emissions, water use, or land use.

  2. Industrial animal agriculture can be a nasty business for many reasons, but especially with regards animal welfare (or a lack thereof).

Most people have heard of these things by now and we keep discussing the growing group of so called ‘flexitarians’.

However, by saying that 30% of the population are ‘flexitarian’, don’t we also imply that 70% of the population are not?

We wanted to know whether the latter is true and we conducted interviews. It turned out that ONLY 13% of our respondents called themselves ‘meat lovers’ who feel that they need to eat meat in every single meal. (NB: they were all male, and all under 35)

With 75% of main dishes on restaurant menus being meat- or fish-based: Aren’t restaurant menus catering to this group a lot more than they should?

Mind-Blowing Experiences: Fine Vegetable Dining

This is a personal story about a dinner at The Ledbury to celebrate my Mum’s birthday.

I had decided to try the vegetarian tasting menu

Until very recently, it would not have occurred to me to do that. Who goes to exceptional restaurants to then make a sacrifice on the food? I’m telling this story, because it all turned out quite differently. This was really the moment that made me look at vegetarian food in a completely new light and I think it’s worth sharing.

Pre-ordering a vegetarian menu put us in a situation we normally wouldn’t have been in. Unless you ask for them, you often don’t see vegetarian tasting menus and we never used to ask. But now we did see it. And guess what happened… three of us four wanted to order it, because it sounded absolutely amazing. I had called in advance to pre-order only one veggie menu and we didn’t cause trouble, so we decided to order two vegetarian and two ‘regular’ tasting menus and share.

And then the fun started! 

I was the one who had called to ask for a vegetarian menu and now I ordered one with meat (it worked best this way because of how we sat). This earned me an incredulous “I thought you were vegetarian??” comment from the waiter. Saying that I was ‘just curious’ didn’t seem to explain my decision. It was hilarious. He was really nice and friendly, he just seemed genuinely shocked.

When the food arrived, we started swapping. My brother dies for serrano ham, I can happily live without it, so I devoured warm bantam’s egg, celeriac, arbois and truffle without ham. My mum doesn’t like cheese, I love it, so my water deer worked better for her while I enjoyed roast cauliflower with potato cream and chanterelles, a cheesy dish.

We all ended up eating some meat, but we also all tasted the vegetarian food and, to our big surprise, we all agreed that it was at least as good as the meat menu, most definitely not in the ‘sacrifice’ category. For vegetarians this will hardly be a surprise. But for a meat eater, this simply is not what you’d expect.

 The other thing we realized was that the paired wines we were served for the meat dishes were lighter and less complex than the ones served with the vegetarian dishes. That’s because the ingredient combinations, spices and herbs for the vegetarian dishes were more complex as well. The vegetarian menu seemed to be a lot further in the ‘could never manage to make this at home’ category than the meat dishes, mainly because it takes so much creativity to come up with compositions like Aubergine glazed with black tea and olives; Young beetroot, quince and purple kale; Artichokes, walnuts and marinated grapes; Salt baked turnip, seaweed oil and frozen English wasabi.

Sharing both menus allowed all of us to taste even more food and I think it’s fair to say that overall we had a more interesting experience than we would have had if all four had ordered the same tasting menu with meat.

But it’s more than that: I’d make the case that, if you’ve always been a meat eater, it will probably surprise you MORE and be a MORE interesting experience to have a vegetarian tasting menu at a great restaurant.

 I recently complained somewhere about the often-poor quality of vegetarian dishes and someone said something to me that sounds very obvious but (embarrassingly) was quite an insight for me: “Great chefs make great food”. I used to always order the meat at nice restaurants and vegetarian food when I didn’t really care as much. That obviously re-enforced my idea of vegetarian food being boring. I’m glad I know better now, because there is so much to explore!

If you enjoy exploring food as much as I do, follow More Than Carrots. We’ll keep you posted about the vegetarian food options in London that will make you WANT to eat less meat.

Is Restaurant Cuisine the “Real Cultural Deal”?

Case in point: Looking for images for German food I got this.

Case in point: Looking for images for German food I got this.

From exploring the restaurants in London or other big cities I assumed that most global cuisines focus on steaks, meat stews or sausages - in some form or variation. However, whenever I travel and get the chance to dive a bit deeper into a cuisine, I find that there are a lot more delicious and interesting dishes than I had found in restaurants. That’s hardly surprising. Restaurants obviously can’t serve hundreds of dishes and have to carefully pick those that they feel cater most to their audience. But the ones that seem to quite often get overlooked happen to be the plant-based ones.

 

Does restaurant cuisine ‘distort’ our view of the world in that way?

I sometimes think it does. To give an example: I’m German but I don’t like eating sausages. The reactions I get abroad range from simple disbelief to ‘you aren’t a real German’. However, back home that ‘issue’ has never come up in my entire life. While growing up in Germany I ate meat once or twice a week. We ate lots of different vegetables, potatoes, pasta, soups, bread, stews, dairy, meat, fish, pretty much everything there was. Yes, also sausages, of course, but not every day, not even every week! When I go to German restaurants abroad, few of the things we ate as kids are on the menu. These menus usually feature 10 types of sausages and lots of pork dishes. That’s a very one-sided view of the world. The German cuisine I grew up with was very seasonal and often quite vegetable-centric. In April we ate asparagus, in winter we ate curly kale stew, and we ate sauerkraut all your round. These dishes were often served with meat or sausages, but the focus was quite often on the vegetable, because it’s the seasonal (and therefore more rare) bit. I also never knew Sauerkraut as a side dish. Maybe it’s just my family’s tradition, but I remember eating it hot, as a stew, with mashed potatoes and some meat on the side.

A different example: when I lived in Japan for a couple of months I came across sushi exactly twice. My Japanese friends explained to me that sushi was a very special, expensive dish, not at all an everyday staple. Everyday food did include meat and fish, but, again, often as a very small portion of the overall dish.

And I could go on: Mexico, Spain, Singapore, to name just a few..

 

What happened to all these cuisines when they came to our restaurants? How did only the meat-heavy dishes make it?

I can think of two reasons: One, we culturally associate both eating meat and eating out with ‘something special’ and restaurants simply deliver on that promise. The second potential reason is even simpler: Meat is easier to import if you’re far away from home.

But now that we can import things more easily my question is: Aren’t we missing out? My favourite German dishes are vegetarian and they are hard to find in London. My favourite Japanese dish is Okonomi-Yaki and I do get it in London, in only one restaurant (Thanks, Abeno!), while there are hundreds of sushi shops. There’s a great number of dishes we can’t find in London – or that we never order because we don’t know them. We only get to see the tip of the iceberg!

To all culturally curious people out there: Do you also want to change this?

We can ask for the most typical food at restaurants, order things that we don’t know, find restaurants that offer interesting, typical veggie fare. If you come across something interesting, please let us know! @MTCarrots

Why don’t we just all eat high-welfare meat?

My friend Adam recently shared a great CNN article about Bresse chicken and why they taste so good. It’s a very cheerful read: half the text is about mouth-watering food in Michelin-starred restaurants, the other half talks about the very romantic life on farms in a rural part of France. Chickens there supplement their own diet by foraging for insects, worms and snails, and they each enjoy at least 10 sqm of individual space to be able to do that.

Then, one of my friends asked me about restaurants in London that sell this kind of “good meat”. She was hardly the first person to ask me that. Nobody wants the stuff that gets produced by industrial animal agriculture. To her disappointment, I annoyingly started a conversation about vegetarian food instead. WHY?? The simple answer is: We can’t scale the ‘good meat’. Eating only ‘good meat’ also means eating a lot less meat overall.

Here is why we can’t all eat high-welfare meat all the time: 

Our population has grown to nearly 8bn people and that means that our diet now affects the planet and other species, no matter what we do. That said, we could be doing a lot better: eating animals is the least efficient way to feed ourselves. We know that, but our meat consumption is predicted to keep growing.  

And not only that. We have squeezed the animal products industry to make it as efficient as possible, and a lot of work is still being done to increase yields further. That’s the industrial animal agriculture we all hate so much. But to make a real difference, we’d need to change the efficiency of our diet itself.

Surveys about diets and meat tend to ask us whether we care most about our health, the environment, or animal welfare. That question is a bit misleading. Given the scale of today’s agricultural industry all of these things are directly connected.

As it stands, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, while the rest of the food sector only causes 9%. On average, 1g of protein from beef needs 100x more land than 1g of protein from pulses. Chickens need less, but still 8x more than pulses. Consider land use in this context: at our current rate of deforestation, rainforests will be entirely gone within the next 100 years, causing yet more global warming and a huge loss of biodiversity. The main reason for deforestation is agriculture and 33% of all global croplands are currently used for livestock feed production. Another 26% is directly used for livestock grazing.

The following 5 examples show why animal welfare, the environment and our health are all connected. And why eating less meat is a very good answer if you care about any or all of them.

 

1.   There are > 20,000,000,000 chickens in the world

We need less space and less feed if animals don’t live as long, which makes chicken very efficient protein. To make them even more efficient, 96% of chickens we eat in the UK are fast-growing breeds. They can reach their full size within about 1 month, as opposed to at least 3 months that chickens would normally need to be fully grown.

However, fast growth and unnaturally large breasts also mean that often a chicken’s legs cannot support its body weight. They quite often sit in their own sewage as a result. They don’t need outside space, because they cannot really walk. We could use slower-growing breeds again to avoid this, but that would require 3x the space and feed.

Our breeding practices have so far been focused on meat quantity (hence the extra-large breasts) and price. That has come at a cost in terms of nutrition. To get the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids that one chicken contained in 1970, today you’d need to eat 6 chickens.

Lastly, from a practical point of view, consider this: almost 3 million chickens are slaughtered in the UK every day. If they had to be fetched, killed, plucked and cut up manually, we’d need hundreds of thousands of people to do this.

 

2.   Then there are about 1,000,000,000 cattle

You’ve probably heard that, environmentally speaking, beef is the perfect storm.

For one, cows are large animals that need more space and feed than, for example, chickens to grow to a size where we can slaughter them. They live for 12-24 months, compared to the 1 month that a chicken lives. Not only do they eat a lot more food every day, they also live for many, many more days. To feed them, we need land. A cow needs about 2 acres (roughly 8,000 sqm or 0.81 hectare) of grass land to get enough food if it lives purely on grass. To save land, we can feed them grains, but that also needs to be grown somewhere and, in addition, it needs to be processed and transported, which causes emissions. In terms of land, all this means that it takes 10x more land to produce 1g of beef protein than to produce 1g of protein from poultry.

The other issue specific to cattle and other ruminants are methane emissions from rumination. There are around 1 billion cattle alive at the moment. Their methane emissions alone cause around 5% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (that’s a similar amount to all cars in the world).

We can’t do much about rumination (at least not yet), but to improve cattle’s environmental efficiency we often keep them within confined spaces where they can’t waste as much energy by moving around too much. The calories we feed them are meant to make them fat, not let them have fun in the field. We also feed them grains to fatten them faster, so they don’t have to live as long. These methods have downsides as well though: keeping cattle where they cannot move and feeding them food they haven’t evolved to eat is not good for their welfare or health. And this has a trickle down effect: grass-fed beef from healthy cows is also more nutritious for us. If we then also use growth-hormones to produce large quantities of meat, and use antibiotics to avoid the spreading of diseases in industrial animal agriculture, we make the meat even less healthy for us.

Lastly, cows produce a lot of shit! The largest dead zone in our oceans is currently in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the size of New Jersey and has been caused by agriculture in the Midwest.  In those dead zones, the water doesn’t contain enough oxygen to sustain life. This happens when excessive nitrogen and phosphorus are released into the water and this is mostly caused by fertilizers, animal waste, sewage and land erosion – the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has been mainly caused by cattle.

Dairy products (milk, cheese, etc) are better than beef, environmentally speaking, because we can get more milk than beef from each animal. Animal welfare-wise it’s similar, again with a trickle-down effect to our own health.

 

3.   BUT WHAT ABOUT FISH??

For fish, the efficiency problem is especially easy to grasp. Imagine how many people it would take to procure the fish for only one sushi shop in London if we only used good old fishing rods. We avoid that problem by using industrialized fishing methods and fish farms.

Probably because we don’t see what happens under water, our methods for catching wild fish have evolved ‘under the radar’. For one, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either exploited or depleted. Secondly, the large nets we use, catch or destroy more than the fish we mean to catch. Louise Gray says this in such a powerful way in her book The Ethical Carnivore that I’ll just steal her quote here: “If we dragged a massive weighted net over the Serengeti ploughing up the grassland and scooping up lions, elephants, antelopes, dung beetles – then throwing half of them away – there would be an outcry. Yet it is what we are doing every day to the bottom of the seabed.” 

Fish farms are a solution to avoid extinction but they can cause pollution and with that they lead to the destruction of eco-systems in a different way. In addition, the fish often need to be fed antibiotics because diseases can spread easily in the very contained spaces of fish farms.

Lastly, while the plastics crisis in the last year has been discussed a lot in the context of straws, more than half of the plastic in our oceans results from leftover fishing gear. The fishing industry is the ‘real’ problem.

With fish, we can make a big difference by buying only sustainably fished fish. We can also make a difference by avoiding species that are nearly extinct, like Bluefin tuna. But, ultimately, it’s again a question of scale. We simply cannot procure wild fish for all sushi shops with good old rods.

 

4.   WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF OUR FOOD?

We have done a phenomenal job in consistently increasing our food production, mainly by increasing agricultural yields, i.e. getting more food out of less land. However, we now understand that this has come at a bigger cost than we had bargained for. We have depleted some of our natural resources and we have polluted others like soil, water and air with fertilizers and pesticides.

We need to find less damaging ways to grow food if we want to keep our eco-systems healthy. The problem is that this goal stands in direct conflict with our current diet, because both organic agriculture and animal agriculture need a lot of land. A really interesting study, that looks at different options for using all the arable land we have, comes to the conclusion that unless we cause more deforestation, by 2050, we can have one or the other: organic food OR a meat-rich diet.

5.   NO SPACE LEFT FOR WILDLIFE 

The amount of land we need for our animal agriculture also affects the species we don’t eat, because we destroy their habitats (forests, rainforests, oceans) to make space for more agricultural land (see above). 80% of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests and many cannot survive deforestation.

With the size of our population, diversity and balance can also play a major role in keeping our eco-systems healthy. Currently, 75% of our food supply stems from 12 crops and 5 animal species. We could improve our nutrition, the environmental impact of diet and lots of animals lives by diversifying this again and restoring a balance.

 

OUR CONCLUSION

All of us prefer to eat high-welfare meat and for all the reasons above it’s the right thing to do. However, we would argue that it won’t make much of a difference unless you eat ONLY high-welfare meat. And that, by definition, means that you’ll be eating vegetarian food a lot of the time. One, because there simply isn’t enough high-welfare meat around. And two, because you can’t just grab a random sandwich with meat in it if you care about the quality of the meat.

It’s all about scale. The reason Bresse chickens keep their quality is the very strict regulation that enforces how much space they have, what they can be fed, and where they can be grown. This naturally limits the number we can grow each year. That’s the definition of scalability.

Bibliography: We spent a lot of time to carefully select our sources. The articles and books referenced in this list provide more background for each of the arguments we make.

 

Our Favourite Reads for Learning About Meat

Meathooked – The History and Science of our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat

Hands down, this is our favourite book about meat.

The number of arguments people can come up with to explain why they ‘have to’ eat meat is phenomenal. This book dives into all of them: sex, culture, history, biology, religion, capitalism, you name it..  And then there is the story about old school vegetarianism. Marta Zaraska explains well why it turns many people off in such a way that it becomes almost the strongest argument for eating meat. All that said: if you are one of the romantics who believe you would have proven your worth by hunting mammoths.. We’ve got news for you: humans started eating meat very much as scavengers, not so much as hunters. 

If you want to learn a lot, laugh a lot and forever be able to argue your meat-case: this book is a must read.

 

The Ethical Carnivore – My Year Killing to Eat

Eating meat is not an easy topic. It carries an extraordinarily high emotional value for most of us. Even worse, there is rarely one right and obvious answer and most questions can best be answered with ‘it depends’. You need to consider the relationship between human health and enjoyment, animal health and well-being, the health of eco-systems, and the preservation of species.

The Ethical Carnivore achieves a great balance by considering all aspects and allowing readers to make their own, more informed choices.

It is a vivid and eye-opening story that explores and answers some of the questions that more and more of us are asking. After spending a year only eating meat from animals she had killed herself, Louise can do it all in a way that is captivating - and even funny.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals 

The big question behind the book: is it even possible to trace all parts of our meals back to their origin?

Michael Pollan does it for 4 separate meals that have their origins in industrial agriculture, big organic agriculture, pastoral agriculture, and hunting & gathering.

It turns out that we are a lot less driven by taste and preferences than we would like to think. If you are confronted with the origins of your meals, you’ll quickly realize how many things – other than your own health and taste – decide what you’re eating.

If you want to get a glimpse into the food industry, this is the perfect book to get started. One thing to note is that this book focuses on US agriculture. It is probably a bit less representative for the European system.

 

We asked an Aspiring Sheep Farmer about High-Welfare Meat

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More Than Carrots helps our users discover and recommend restaurants that do vegetarian food well. However, we know that most of you eat meat and care about the quality of it and we want to support you in learning about this topic as well. We aren’t the experts here, so we have partnered with Ben Eagle, an environmental and agricultural writer from Essex who blogs at www.thinkingcountry.com and tweets @benjy_eagle.  He has written for The Guardian, The Countryman and Earth Island Journal, among others. He is a meat eater, an aspiring meat producer, the son of a former conventional dairy farmer (who still farms, but no longer dairy cows), and a conservationist who sees livestock grazing as central to conservation strategy in many parts of the country.

 

Here is what he says about meat:

“This article will hopefully provide you with answers to some fundamental questions about eating and producing meat. As suggested above, I have eaten meat for my entire life and whilst I have watched various friends turn to vegetarianism or veganism over the years I remain a meat eater. I understand that there are complex ethical questions behind it but I see meat production as a fundamental part of overall food production moving into the future, helping to meet the nutritional needs of the human population, and making best agricultural use of areas of land in the UK where it is difficult to grow crops. Livestock farming also makes a lot of conservation work economically viable.

The most important question for me is how we can make the industrial approach to meat production, i.e. vast CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and zero grazing units, a thing of the past. These systems take a significant proportion of grains out of the human food chain. The alternative to industrial meat production is a world where people eat less, but higher quality grass fed meat. This meat should attract a higher value that can be retained by the food producer, enabling greater economic sustainability in relatively poorer rural areas.

However, you may ask whether grass fed is really better and, if so, in what ways and how much better? This article will hopefully give you some answers.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at some quick questions that might be on your mind with regards to meat production. The main thing I hope you’ll take away is that, whilst we should be striving for the best standards in food production and aim for producing as much grass fed meat as possible, the amount we can produce is finite. After all, the amount of land we have is also finite.

Why do cattle and sheep eat grass?

Let’s start with the basics. Grazing animals such as cows, sheep, goats, deer and others can convert the cellulose in grasses (which we as humans cannot digest) into an edible format (proteins and fats that humans can digest). That is because, unlike humans, pigs and other monogastric animals, grazing animals are ruminants which possess a rumen (along with a reticulum, omasum and abomasum if you are a cow), a bit like a 45 gallon fermentation tank full of bacteria which break the grasses down.

What happens when a cow eats grain?

The rumen normally generates huge amounts of gas which is normally expelled through the rear end (which isn’t so great from a climate change point of view). However, when a cow eats too much starch and not enough roughage (which is what happens when we feed them grains), rumination slows down and gas becomes trapped, putting pressure on the animal’s lungs. This doesn’t always happen but it’s certainly more likely to happen in cows that are fed grains instead of eating grass.

Eating too much grain can also cause acidosis. A rumen is usually pH neutral and feeding grains can cause it to grow more acidic. This can lead to all sorts of conditions, from diarrhoea to bloat and liver disease. As with all physical stress it also leaves the animal more prone to other diseases such as pneumonia.

How much land does a grass-fed cow need?

To be honest, there is no definite answer to this one. Like with all things, it is very complex and open to many different variables. It depends on weather, forage type and quality, rainfall, grazing system and grazing objectives. You might have conservation objectives when you are grazing as well as food production aims. For sheep, you might have anything between 2 or 3 and 15-20 sheep per hectare. For cows, you might have one or three or four. However, the main thing to remember is that overstocking will have detrimental effects on the pasture itself, on the soil (leads to compaction) and on the health and welfare of the animals (greater stress and less available forage leading to health issues).

How much water does a cow drink every day?

This again depends on a range of different variables, such as the age and weight of the animal, stage of production, temperature, stress and whether it is lactating. Basically, the heavier the animal the more water it requires. It varies between three and thirty gallons per animal and lactating cows will need about double the amount of water compared to a dry cow.

What’s the Difference between ‘grass fed’ and ‘pasture fed’ on UK labels?

You might occasionally see different labels and be confused as to what the difference is between them. In the UK, ‘grass fed’ can be used if an animal has spent part of its life grazing grass, but not necessarily all of it. The rest of the time they will have been fed cereals or other feeds. ‘Pasture for Life’ animals have been raised purely on grass.

Are ‘Pasture for Life’ animals fed anything else?

During the winter, when grass is less plentiful, these animals will be fed conserved grass in the form of hay, haylage or silage (pickled grass), so it is still grass in a form but not directly grazed. When the weather allows, animals might still be grazing outside as well but their diet will be supplemented by conserved grass.

How can you identify high-welfare meat?

It is vital that, as a consumer, you know where your meat comes from. We live in an age of good food stories and traceability, and yet, many consumers do not know, or even think about, the origin of the piece of meat they have just purchased. We rely on distributors, retailers and regulators to ensure our food is safe, but we cannot rely on them being the ‘ethics police’. It’s only by knowing where your meat came from that you can take an informed decision of whether you want to buy it and consume it. When you make your purchase decision you are supporting the system in which that animal lived and which it died for.

Your best option is to purchase directly from a farm, on a farmer’s market or via a butcher. If that’s not possible, you should look out for quality labels. Unfortunately, labelling is overly complex, with numerous quality labels on display. It can be difficult to wade through all of them and understand what they really mean. The Soil Association Organic Standard and RSPCA Assured are probably your best bets if you buy meat in supermarkets. Some other labels, whilst legal, are ethically dubious, marked with the names of fictional farms to make consumers think the product is somehow more ‘wholesome’, ‘local’ or ‘ethical’. 

As a basic rule of thumb: if you don’t know where your meat comes from you probably aren’t getting meat that you would want to be eating.

 

Is better meat more expensive to produce?

Yes, we should be willing to pay more for higher-quality meat to meet the costs faced by the producer who should earn a fair wage for raising a quality animal. Other costs along the value chain, like killing animals in a small-scale abattoir, can also be higher when compared to the industrial approach. It’s only right that this cost is passed on to the consumer, who eventually benefits from this extra care in the process.”