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Horsemeat scandal: Time to give peas a chance?

Brakes, Birds Eye and Taco Bell have been dragged into horsemeat scandal. Picture: PA

Brakes, Birds Eye and Taco Bell have been dragged into horsemeat scandal. Picture: PA

  • by Anna Burnside
 

AS the horsemeat scandal leaves carnivores with a bad taste in their mouths, the time is ripe for veggie missionaries to push their case, writes Anna Burnside

AS VEGGIE Month rolls into view, the nation can brace itself for an onslaught of smug. We are sure to be bombarded with recipes for quinoa salad and artichoke pasta bake, all guaranteed horse-free. Aren’t we?

In fact Animal Aid, which runs the event ­every March, had its plans well in place before the first trace of horse DNA was found in the first beefburger. The same goes for National Vegetarianism Week, which follows in May and is run by the Vegetarian Society – instead of rubbing meat-eaters’ noses in another round of whinnying jokes, it is sticking with its agreed theme: “Going veggie isn’t rocket science”.

It’s not that the Vegetarian Society (founded in 1847) is ignoring the issue. That would be looking a gift horse in the mouth. “Because of the scandal we’ve been on local and national media shows,” says spokeswoman Su Taylor. “We’ve taken out some advertising on Google and we’ll shortly be running a wider advertising campaign.”

This is the vegetarian movement’s chance to capitalise on the country’s collective revulsion, and transform a general disquiet about eating Black Beauty into a positive movement to give up meat. There are some signs it’s starting already. “We’ve seen lots of interest and conversations on social media about the food industry and processed food,” says Taylor. “We’ve also had a 40 per cent increase in visits to our main website compared with the same period last year. Anecdotally we’ve had a few individuals contact us saying that they’ve decided to become veggie due to the news and we’ve also had an increase in requests for information.”

The horsemeat scandal, Taylor explains, looks very different from a veggie perspective. “Meat eaters in the UK were shocked to learn that horse had been found in beef products sold in big-name supermarkets,” Taylor adds, “but many vegetarians wondered what all the fuss was about. Food provenance is an important issue for vegetarians, of course, and no food should be sold with ingredients that do not appear on the label, but this particular case begs the bigger question: why do most of the UK population believe it is acceptable to eat cattle but not horses?”

So is this proving the perfect boost for the ­vegetarian movement’s case? “We’ve seen lots of interest and conversations on social media about the food industry and processed food,” says ­Taylor. “We’ve also had a 40 per cent increase in visits to our main website compared with the same period last year. Anecdotally we’ve had a few individuals contact us saying that they’ve decided to become veggie due to the news and we’ve also had an increase in requests for information.”

There appears to be plenty of scope for conversion. The Vegetarian Society estimates that 3 per cent of the UK population is a committed vegetarian and this number has remained stable for the past decade. The big increase is in those who are “partly vegetarian” – the 5 per cent who don’t eat some types of meat or fish – and the “meat reducers”. These are the people who have made a conscious decision to eat less meat – and must surely be open to persuasion to give it up altogether.

“Most people in the UK eat meat, but a survey in 2005 found that 96 per cent would not eat meat from a cat or a dog and more than two-thirds of respondents would not kill an animal for their own plate,” says Taylor. She adds that discriminating between species is also subjective: “Horse, dog and cat meat are eaten in other countries, while many cultures find the consumption of pig meat abhorrent.”

Evidence of change can be found in the increase in sales of vegetarian foodstuffs, worth £786m in 2011, up from £333m in 1986. The industry expects this figure to rise to £882m by 2016 – and that forecast was made last year, well before the horsemeat scandal. The recently relaunched Linda McCartney brand of veggie sausages, burgers and pies is advertised on TV – with animation and a voiceover by Elvis Costello – and the company is currently pushing the “meat- free Monday” message. Backed by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Sir ­Richard Branson and Joanna Lumley – and, of course, the McCartney clan – this is a glossy 21st-century campaign to persuade wobblers to have at least one veggie day at the start of every week.

It seems to be working. Jason Good, a musician from Glasgow, is a lapsed vegetarian who may return to the fold. “I went to a veggie boarding school for nine years and I am seriously considering the no-meat option again. We didn’t miss meat or fish. We were educated to eat well without even realising it.”

Mike Small of the Fife Diet is a long-time campaigner for quality local food. “It’s not about meat or veggie, it’s about good food or bad food, and in the case of schools, hospitals and prisons, private profit versus public interest,” he says.

Small, whose response to the globalisation of our diet has been to eat only food produced within 50 miles of his front door, sees the horsemeat scandal as a symptom of a system that has failed. “Do we know that our food is OK to eat?” he asks. “Four weeks into the latest food crisis and the reality is we really don’t. Thirty years of ‘slash red-tape’ orthodoxy has left us eating horses.”

Jason Good is sticking with meat – for the moment. “I will question more and consider more when I choose produce,” he says. “It’s not the fact that horse has been found where cow should be, more of a worry about what else is in the food chain that we are not aware of. It may or may not harm us but we should have the choice.”

Lifelong vegetarian Elsie Smith, however, is trying not to be smug about her choices. “I haven’t eaten meat for 30 years and I’ve certainly got no plans to start now. You know where you are with an aubergine.”

 

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