Inside Track by Peter Martin
Food quality will become an ever more important factor for those wanting a slice of the eating-out market. National media in UK, as well as the States, is becoming fixated by food and what goes into it. The down-page lead on the front of this weekend’s Sunday Times was "Three slices of bread have more fat than Mars bar", and was all about fat being used to bulk up supermarket bread. BSE, GM, obesity, Atkins, salt, sugar ….. the scare stories and food fads continue to come thick and fast. With that has come greater consumer understanding of health and diet. If McDonalds can go ‘green’ and make rocket salad an industry norm, the rest of the business had better take note. But how consumers will react to the next food story twist is not necessarily predictable. The GM debate started with genetic modification being the great hope for solving world hunger but developed into the threat of Frankenstein foods polluting the planet. The search for better quality of food varieties has been going on for generations through selective breeding and plant propagation. The issue is what the public believes is acceptable. That may come down to what is seen as having potential knock-on effects for the wider environment or simply what is seen as "natural" or "unnatural". GM crossed that line. The latest development in "designer" food, or specifically meat, should be on the right side, but because "scientists" and the biotech industry are involved, who knows? This week’s Economist magazine reports on the tracking of genetic markers in cattle to improve selective breeding to produce the perfect steak. The technique uses old-fashioned selective animal mating, but utilises biotech science to identify the sires and dams that should be brought together. A US-company called MetaMorphix is planning to develop and market a genetic test that will help reveal before slaughter a cow’s likelihood of producing desirable meat. The science involves analysing the bovine genome and identifying markers associated with particular meat qualities, such as flesh colour, tenderness or marbling, to allow suitable animals to be reserved for breeding. The process could also be developed for other farmed animals. It is being argued that "marker-assisted" breeding could be used to improve animal health and productivity, as well as meat flavour. As the Economist asks: "Using [this process] to keep animals breeding true… could not possibly offend anybody? Could it?" We will see how suppliers, retailers, restaurants and, of course, consumers react down the line.