So farewell then the Sunday lunch

Can't eat carrots, can't afford potatoes - and we all know about beef. Glenda Cooper on our changing eating habits

First it was Sunday afternoon television, then shopping on the Sabbath, quickly followed by the onslaught of BSE/CJD. Now another crisis is about to threaten the very British institution of the family Sunday lunch. The price of the humble spud is to soar, after the worst potato harvest for a decade.

The Office for National Statistics last week warned that bad weather will affect the potato harvest so severely that prices could rise by as much as 30 per cent. News of the price hike followed further damning reports of the connection between BSE - "mad cow disease" - and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans, and the damaging effects of eating red meat.

And if that were not bad enough, there is evidence that family mealtimes are increasingly falling victim to the changes in domestic lifestyles.

Forget the Fifties ideal of family dinner table conversation. Today people are far more likely to spend meals watching television.A survey for Rennie, maker of the indigestion remedy, found that 49 per cent ate their evening meal while watching soap operas. Sixty per cent of Scots questioned ate TV dinners nightly.

By the early 21st century, solitary meals will be even more commonplace: one in three of us will be living on our own. Nostalgia for the traditional repast en famille lingers on, though - witness the success of Marks & Spencer's Sunday roasts for one. Chicken, beef and lamb varieties are proving "very popular". The meat, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy priced pounds 2.99 are bought by single and older people, says a spokesman. "Beef has suffered a bit but it's still there."

Even those still living in "conventional" families find traditional Sunday lunch too much of an ordeal. According to a recent study carried out for Bass Taverns at the Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, to buy, prepare, cook and clean up after a family Sunday roast takes five hours and 35 minutes. And that doesn't include the time spent eating it.

Instead, says opinion pollster MORI, more than one in six pub-goers eat Sunday lunch in a pub at least once a month, for example.

As for what people eat, recent figures from the Meat and Livestock Commission indicate that beef's fortunes might have improved, with consumption up 10 per cent on last year's figures.

In the first nine months of this year ,172,000 tonnes were eaten by British households - but that is still down 9 per cent on the same period in 1995, the year before the Government announced a possible link between BSE and CJD in humans.

"I think we've made tremendous gains," says a spokeswoman for the commission. "At some points last year we were 25 per cent down. We've clawed back a lot of the market."

But the figures predate the latest developments which the MLC acknowledges may hit beef sales again. Last week two separate scientific experiments showed the most convincing evidence yet that food infected with BSE causes the fatal human illness of "new variant" Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (v-CJD), which has so far killed 20 people.

To add to the meat industry's woes, two weeks ago ministers urged eaters of red and processed meat to cut their consumption to reduce the risk of cancer. Even those eating at or above the current average of 90g a day - equivalent to three slices of roast beef - were advised to consider a reduction.

Even carrots have suffered in the food scares. Two years ago the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food advised people to peel, top and tail their carrots before eating them after it was discovered that some had more than 25 times the expected content of organophosphates, pesticides sprayed on crops to protect them against the destructive carrot fly.

So what are the alternatives? The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Bureau suggests that more exotic or speciality vegetables are making inroads on the more traditional fare. "Marrow, courgettes, asparagus, aubergines and peppers are definitely up. Mushrooms are also very popular because they are easy to prepare."

Peter Conway of the Restaurateurs' Association of Great Britain, predicts that eating patterns will never return to what they once were. "The younger generation have not been brought up to eat that way and they are not going to start overnight," he says. "We're all eating out more - it's increasing so much that some restaurants are packed out on Monday nights in London. There's been a real increase in business confidence for the industry.

"What sort of meals will there be in the future? That's dependent on who you ask. But ethnic restaurants are growing and we're not going to go back to eating beef and two veg. I think we'll be eating curry."

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