THE BSE RISK: Meat buying's 20-year decline

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The recent fall in beef consumption is only part of a 20-year trend in which Britons have turned away from meat, according to the latest data collected by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Researchers found that there had been a marked shift away from meat buying since 1973 across all groups, but that the move had been particularly strong among women and young people.

A childless, single 30-year-old woman is now 20 per cent less likely to buy meat than 20 years ago and her male contemporary is 15 per cent less likely to.

The proportion of people who say that they are vegetarians also more than doubled from 1984 to 1995, to the point where 4.5 per cent of adults now declare themselves to be vegetarian. Sales of meat substitutes - for example, tofu, TVP and Quorn - increased by 279 per cent over the period 1988 to 1991, reaching a value of pounds 25m a year.

The more educated the household, the less likely it is to eat meat. Those who continue to buy red meat include the unemployed, the retired and those who live in cities.

However, there are indications that people tire of a vegetarian diet as they get older - a 40-year-old man is more likely to choose a steak or a chicken wing than a 30-year-old man is. Parenthood also boosts the probability of buying meat. A 30-year-old single man with children, for example, is 16 per cent more likely to buy meat than if he is childless.

The ESRC researchers warn the meat industry that it is not factors such as price or level of income but consumer attitude that is increasingly affecting meat-eating habits.

Dr Trevor Young, one of the authors of the report, also undertook a survey on whether the bovine spongiform enceph-alopathy scares of 1989/90 had had a significant effect on beef consumption.

"There now seems to be a popular perception that the consumption of beef has declined significantly and permanently as a result of BSE," he concluded.

The researchers found that the market share of beef was "relatively constant" until the end of the Eighties, but there was "a substantial fall and an accelerating downward trend thereafter".

In order to work out whether public perception of BSE had any connection with the fall in sales, the researchers looked at the amount of media coverage.

National newspapers in the United Kingdom published 1,565 articles on BSE between 1989 and 1993, of which 9 per cent were published by the end of 1989 and 79 per cent by the end of 1990.

"We estimate that media concern about BSE caused a "transitory" loss of 5.7 percentage points in the market share of beef [ie from approximately 30.7 per cent to 25 per cent of the expenditure on meat] in the second quarter of 1990, the quarter in which most articles referring to BSE were printed," Dr Young said.

"We further estimate that the long-run effect is less but still substantial, with a sustained decline of some 4.5 percentage points in the share of beef by the end of 1993."