Opinion: ‘Getting to the meat of misguided council advice’

A view from the Hills. A column by Gareth James

Sunday 22nd May 2022 8:59 am
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A Pembrokeshire Council newsletter recently encouraged employees to ‘eat fewer or smaller portions of meat’
A Pembrokeshire Council newsletter recently encouraged employees to ‘eat fewer or smaller portions of meat’ (Pixabay )

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I am a fan of nimble organisations with sensitive ears; organisations that absorb criticism then gracefully change direction once recognising a mistake has been made. I am less enamoured by those who perform untidy backflips because the truth has proved uncomfortable for some influential lobby.

A Pembrokeshire Council newsletter recently encouraged employees to ‘eat fewer or smaller portions of meat’, pointing to environmental as well as personal health benefits. To further reduce carbon footprints, employees were also advised to cut dairy intake and source local and seasonal produce.

Advice to follow a plant-based diet is consistent with well-established government and NHS guidance confirming our current average red and processed meat consumption results in increased cases of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. And as for the environment, the government-commissioned climate report lays out how our food and farming system is both a major source of climate warming and a massive destroyer of nature. It is a report that recommends a 30 per cent cut in UK meat consumption within a decade.

The message is not new, and with most individuals also accepting we should eat less meat, it is little surprise, be it for health, environmental, or animal welfare reasons, UK meat consumption has been in steady decline since the late 1950s.

Nevertheless, guidance to consume less meat and dairy, however sensible, is not music to the ears of many Welsh farmers; a kick in the teeth, one suggested. And although an obvious boost for Welsh fruit and vegetable growers, Pembrokeshire NFU vice-chairman Simon Davies expressed disappointment at the council’s advice. As one might expect.

But it was depressing to witness local politicians of all persuasions failing to stand up for Pembrokeshire’s progressive messaging. Worse still, several choose to undermine the guidance. Former Council leader, John Davies, described advice to eat less meat as ‘a wrong one’.

The Welsh Conservative’s rural affairs spokesman grumbled: “What looks to have been a simple error has caused concern in the local farming community.” The Liberal Democrats sniffed, suggested councils “should not be trying to dictate what staff can and cannot eat”. Plaid Cymru fudged, repeating the ‘try to source local’ message. A response from Labour could not be found.

With right on their side, one might imagine Pembrokeshire Council would have dug in. It makes perfect sense for local authorities to set local examples and nudge staff towards healthier and more sustainable lifestyles, they could argue. But sadly, their desire for rectitude was surrendered and a barricade of stock excuses assembled: the newsletter was part of a series; was created by someone else; was reproduced out of context; would no longer be shared.

In face of future criticism, Pembrokeshire Council would do well to pause before buckling and reflect upon their mission statement; ‘working together, improving lives’. A mission, they boast, underpinned by their ‘sense of purpose to inspire and support individuals, communities and organisations to secure improvements in social, economic and environmental well-being’.

For when settled health and environmental guidance cannot be revealed to public employees for fear of upsetting the Welsh meat industry, it begs the integrity question; what chance the Welsh public being offered any variety of valuable information that proves inconvenient for those with the resources to make disproportionate noise?

So, an additional uncomfortable truth is that local government along with representatives of all political stripes need to re-engage with responsibilities not only to resist lobbying that runs against public interest, but also to support evidence-based guidance that benefits the broad population.

Perhaps most crucially on issues of public health and sustainability - such as, Eat Less Meat!

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