The street cred of going meat-free or even vegan for a few days a week has really shot up, but supermarkets may not have kept up with the rapid pace of this consumer change.
New research has found most ready meals are still dominated by chicken, beef and pork. A survey from Eating Better, an alliance of more than 50 health and welfare organisations, found meat was the main ingredient in three out of four of the 1,350 different own-brand and branded ready meals from the top 10 biggest supermarkets.
The group claims that UK’s biggest grocers are failing to cater for the increasing numbers of flexitarians, which are estimated at 22m, and has concerns regarding the pricing of vegan and plant-based meals.
So what else did the research reveal?
That only 3% of ready meals were plant-based – without meat, fish, dairy or egg – with three supermarkets offering the largest number of choices. Tesco has 18 dishes and Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have nine meals each, while there were no plant-based options found in Iceland and only one, a Thai green curry, was available in M&S.
Chicken was the most frequent meat or poultry used in ready meals at nearly 50%. A third contained beef, while pork, lamb, duck and turkey also featured.
The research was carried out between April and May, and covered main meals only and not salads, sides or single products like burgers.
Simon Billing, executive director of Eating Better, said Brits love convenience food, spending over £4.7 billion on ready meals in 2017.
“While there has been an explosion of interest in plant-based eating and higher welfare meat, retailers are falling short on ready meals,” he said.
“Eating Better wants to see supermarkets increase their plant-based and healthier vegetarian ready meal offer, and also to use meat and dairy that meets higher animal welfare and environmental standards across the rest of their range.”
Who’s got the most vegetarian or plant-based ready meals?
- Waitrose – 24%
- Co-op – 16%
- Marks & Spencer – 16%
- Sainsbury’s – 16%
- Tesco – 15%
- Asda – 13%
- Morrison – 12%
- Lidl – 10%
- Aldi – 9%
- Iceland – 7%
When it came to going plant-based, Eating Better said cost made these options less accessible to customers.
Meals within the vegetarian ranges were on average slightly more expensive at £2.66 than the regular ranges, which cost around £2.34. But not all retailers sold them at higher prices, with Sainsbury’s, Asda and M&S selling vegetarian meals slightly cheaper.
Eating Better found Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen products were more costly at £4 each – 67% more expensive than the average price of Tesco’s regular selection and 60% more expensive than the vegetarian alternatives.
Morrisons and Waitrose’s veg dishes were on average more expensive than their own-brand regular range at 15% and 20% respectively.
Favourite plant-based brands in store
- Quorn: stocked in Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda
- Amy’s Kitchen: Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda
- BOL Foods: Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s
Eating Better estimated that less than half of the meat used in ready meals on supermarket shelves is sourced from the UK. While premium choices rated well with 80% going local, just over half of regular options used UK meat, while the figure was 32% for value ranges – a lot of the chicken in these was sourced from Thailand or Brazil.
There was also inconsistency in identifying the country of origin of meat in labelling. While most retailers highlighted the provenance of meat in own-brand ready meals, Tesco, Asda and Iceland did not always provide this information, the report said. Overall, 70% of meat-based ready meals indicated the country of origin of meat ingredients.
“Eating Better wants to see support for British farmers go hand in hand with ‘better’ meat produced to higher animal welfare and environmental standards,” the report said.
“While retailers are generally keen to promote the provenance and quality of the fresh meat they sell, we found this didn’t generally apply to meat used as an ingredient in ready meals, with very few retailers using higher animal welfare certification schemes and/or indicating this on labels.”
Mintel found that 51% of ready-meal buyers would be more likely to buy a ready meal with a guarantee of high animal welfare, and Eating Better thinks there is a business opportunity that is currently being missed by retailers.