Irish food needs to get the next generation of consumers on board with its message, writes Suzanne Campbell
Having a family dinner in a restaurant last night I was lectured across the table by a 21-year-old on how killing animals for food is wrong.
Dipping a particularly good morsel of fillet steak into bearnaise sauce I answered “But they’re going to die anyway”.
“Yes, but that’s their choice.”
“How is it their choice?”
“Well it shouldn’t be our choice.”
So it went on in this contradictory manner for a while before I gave up and instead asked this young, very attractive girl about her law degree.
As a food and farming writer, killing animals for food and writing about it is my bread and butter. Literally.
But I’m also aware that we are in a fast moving environment where (in rich countries) food trends sometimes overtake good sense, and our assumptions about younger generations eating more healthily than we did and eating more local and Irish food, are not necessarily the case.
Veganism is on the rise, and while this is not singularly a go at veganism, the ideas behind demonising dairy products and beef deserve some teasing out.
Talking to dieticians recently at a lecture I was giving in UCD, their research shows that image still trumps health when it comes to the choices that younger consumers are making about food and diet. Particularly in females aged 20-29.
So a great looking girl online who lost a stone when she became vegan is a bigger motivation to stop eating meat than the animal rights message.
Image is also the driver that pulls many girls into the health and nutrition obsession that is common now among millennials. So while they follow food influencers online and perhaps blog about food and nutrition, it’s not because of concerns about their long-term health, but because of how they want to look right now.
Alcohol consumption is falling in younger Irish consumers. On that same visit to UCD, I saw what was once the heart of college life — the bar, closed and boarded up, looking neglected and sad. Or maybe this was my melancholic take on it, remembering the happy times I spent there, the conversations, ideas and kisses that were shared.
The new, smaller bar is in the student centre which is a temple to health and fitness. There’s a 50-metre pool, a massive gym and a pharmacy. Students sit along ungraffitied and un-postered walls, mostly staring at their phones. Or they walk by in gym gear holding take-out juices or coffees.
On a visit to Waterford Institute of Technology recently I noticed the same thing — a huge new sports centre and gym, with many students working out, playing sport; so much engagement in health and fitness. A massive change in the 20 years since I was a student.
On the whole this is fantastic. Millennials are better off on a treadmill than in the bar right?
But there’s more going on here. Much of the engagement of jocks and gym bunnies in health and fitness is about image and not health. And their diets are regimented accordingly.
So if they decide to follow the juice diet of their favourite instagrammer, or turn vegan without taking professional advice on nutrient loss, they have already left the room in terms of being future consumers of Irish food let alone adults with a balanced diet of unprocessed “real” food.
While health gurus champion the Free From aisles in supermarkets offering everything from lactose-free to colour-free foods, matched by the ratcheted-up price of these groceries is the food processing that goes with it.
Why is a protein bar produced in a factory in Holland with 19 different ingredients suddenly more healthy and desireable than a piece of cheese?
So while we may think millennial consumers are moving more towards health, what they are actually doing is moving away from food.
Top fitness instagrammer Chloe Madeley’s (daughter of Richard and Judy) recent posts feature a jar of Agave Nector and a carton of almond milk.
These are what many millennials feel are staples of a “healthy” diet. Chole Madeley is pretty ripped — this means carrying very little body fat so that your muscles stick out more. She also has a book out on how to look like this in 28 days.
Many of the foods on her Instagram posts are expensive processed products which food manufacturers pay her very large sums of money to promote.
The precise amount I won’t reveal here, but having spoken with an Irish food brand that engaged her last year, having Chloe push your food product doesn’t come cheap.
This is the key to understanding why expecting this generation to buy Irish food and particularly dairy and meat products is going to be “challenging”. Darina Allen telling us how good warm milk direct from her Jersey Cows is, is just not going to cut it anymore.
In fact, anything related to cows is now bad. Viral online videos like Dairy is Scary and even more robust documentaries like Food Inc on Netflix tell us that dairy is the “dark side of farming”.
They show a fair amount of animal abuse — cows being dragged out of parlours by JCBs, pigs being beaten, calves being shot etc. These are crimes being committed, not life on an average farm.
This is also material shot mostly on North American factory farms or in the developing world where animal welfare laws don’t exist. But to a 17-year-old girl sitting in her suburban bedroom, on her phone, this is why farming is awful.
It’s cruel and all farmers, including Irish farmers, should be ashamed of themselves. So she’s shared these videos online to all her friends who vow never again to eat meat, eggs or dairy produce.
Seeing this wave of anti-dairy creep into Irish shopping habits the National Dairy Council recently conducted focus groups with millennials to find out where their information on food is coming from.
Their discussions with this age group revealed that online channels are everything; millennials seldom engage in traditional media; read a broadsheet newspaper, watch the RTÉ news etc. Instead they get their information about food and nutrition from pseudo experts.
Image beats science and the appetite for proper scientific expertise isn’t there. In fact, they no longer know what an expert is and many admitted to being completely confused.
In this younger, urban generation lack of “a granny with a farm” or a connection to rural Ireland also means that knowledge of how food, and particularly livestock, is produced on Irish farms is particularly low. Often it’s been supplanted with imagery of animal abuse in a 1,000 cow diary unit in Utah.
And this is no lie. The NDC’s reputations surveys conducted in 2017 found that Irish people aged over 30 had a high level of trust in Irish food. But those between 21 and 29 had significantly less understanding of where food comes from and less trust in agriculture. Their views on Irish animal products are particularly confused and negative.
So while championing our clean green image is great, we have to get real. The next generation of consumers are showing signs of not being on board the Irish food message.
Irish food needs to restate its credentials to this generation. Not just for our own industry’s survival, but for the sake of their own health.