Veganism and vegetarianism have grown in popularity massively over the past decade, with the former being virtually unheard of in most circles until more recently. The Vegan Society estimated that there were 542,000 vegans in the UK alone in 2016, which is an incredible 360% higher than in 2006. However, other figures suggest there could be as many as 3.5 million people identifying as a vegan in the UK.
Being vegetarian has also become much more common, with even traditional meat eaters making a concerted effort to have more meat-free meals. It's estimated that 26.9% of evening meals were vegetarian in 2014, with this growing to 27.8% by 2016.
This statistic is arguably the most relevant for food manufacturers as it shows a shift in consumer attitudes to being more conscious about the amount of meat they eat.
Initiatives like 'Veganuary', which encourage people to opt for a meat-free or animal product-free diet for even a short period of time, appear to have boosted this further. Figures released this year from Kantar Worldpanel found that one in every ten shoppers bought a meat-free meal during January.
However, the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) says - in the short term at least - meat sales are still growing. So where does this leave food manufacturers?
Laura Faliveno, trademark team manager at The Vegan Society, said there are many reasons for this growth, but at the heart of it is education.
She said: "Social media and the internet have made accessing and sharing information so quick and easy that more and more people have become aware of the issues surrounding the meat and dairy industry.
"They are understanding more about the ethical issues regarding the use of animals, and the impact it has on the environment as well as our health.”
Changing consumer eating habits indicates that people across the UK are becoming more invested in where and how their food is grown, collected and manufactured. This shift in behaviour will impact the food industry - but it doesn't need to be all that radical.
Sustainable sourcing has been a hot topic in food manufacturing for years, but there is an increasing pressure for business owners in the industry to adopt practices that are kind to the environment, workers, and the consumer.
For some companies, this had led to the adoption of CSR policies but for others, it's much more than that. Businesses which want to go a step further than simply attaching a CSR policy to their website understand the continuing need for organisations - in all sectors - to be more transparent with their consumers.
The rise of social media as a tool for people to communicate with brands, share their grievances, and recommend companies that go that extra step has left food manufacturers - like any other business - with nowhere to hide.
This means the food industry needs to take a close and thorough look at their standard operating procedures (SOPs) to take control of their brand image and ensure their ethics are being clearly communicated to their customer base.
However, it's important that SOPs are viewed as responsive, fluid agreements that are constantly and consistently reviewed based on consumer feedback, industry reviews and changing standards.
Much more people are choosing to go with a company because their ethics align with their own, rather than price being the top priority. This means there is an increasing demand for businesses that take responsibility for their actions and understand the impact they can have on the environment as well as the individuals they employ or feed.
With many meat manufacturers especially still tarred with the horse meat scandal of 2013, there's also a pressure on the food industry to be transparent about the data they have about what goes into their products and where they are sourced.
This, combined with a rising social consciousness, means that in 2019 - and further ahead - food manufacturers must prioritise their sustainability objectives and how they communicate this information to consumers.For more information about how Virtual College can help instil best practices or develop a meaningful L&D strategy for your food organisation, contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org