Do We Still Have the Stomach for Meat? ; after the Violent Clashes over Animal Exports at Shoreham, Liz Hunt Ask S Whether Time Is Up for the Sunday Roast and the Slaughterhouse Some 2,000 People a Week Are Converting to Vegetarianism the Connection between Health and Diet Was a Long Time Coming
Hunt, Liz, The Independent (London, England)
For St Paul it was the road to Damascus, but for thousands of Britons it will be the port-side at Shoreham that marks their conversion to a new way of life: vegetarianism. The violent clashes between riot police and protesters over the export of l ive calves for veal have focused new attention on the horrors of factory farming and have reached a wider audience in more graphic detail than ever before. It will go down as a watershed in the history of the vegetarian movement, according to Steve Conno r, spokesman for the Vegetarian Society. He says: "There have really only been two other events of this magnitude. The first was in 1964 with the publication of Animal Machines by Ruth Harrison. She coined the phrase "factory farming". Then about four ye ars ago there was a documentary on BBC2, The Animals, on farming practices, and that had a huge impact. Many more people took up vegetarianism. At the moment the phones are ringing off the hook."
According to a Gallup poll last year, 2,000 people a week are converting to vegetarianism, and 40 per cent of the population regularly tell pollsters they are eating less meat. But Phil Saunders of the Meat and Livestock Commission, not surprisingly, doubts the wholesale conversion of carnivores because of the Shoreham factor. "The likelihood of 1 million people springing to the lettuce counter overnight is very unlikely. What is happening in West Sussex is much more likely to result in a demand for Bri tish- produced veal and to make people seek out more welfare-friendly food. This sort of publicity makes people - retailers and consumers - think more about where their food comes from and buy accordingly. They are more likely to look for logos on the mea t they buy, such as FABL - Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb - than to become vegetarians."
Whatever the end result of Shoreham, it provides a neat example of the social influences which dictate diet. Some are easy to define, according to David McNeill at the National Consumer Council: climate, economic status, location and availability are allfactors. But there are other more subtle influences at work, a blend of hard science, high emotion, and cultural pressures, including religious belief.
Meat-eating and religion are firmly entrenched, particularly in Christianity, says Colin Spencer, animal rights campaigner and author of The Heretic's Feast: a History of Vegetarianism. "The Garden of Eden was herbivore and it wasn't until after the Flood that God said that meat could be eaten. Then there was an emphasis on meat-eating, particularly in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, because it was seen as an act of piety, of praising God. We still see that as an element of the traditional Sunday roast."
Meat eating was also associated with power: having cattle meant having money, and so people who opted out of meat eating were bound to be suspect. A common defence against a charge of heresy in the Middle Ages was the cry: "But I am a meat eater, I cannot be a heretic, I am not a Pythagoran." Pythagoras, around 600BC, was the first celebrity vegetarian, and until the 1840s those who followed suit were known as Pythagorans.
In 1847 the Vegetarian Society was founded, taking its name from the Latin vegetus, meaning energetic or lively. It was very much a social reform group, the members aiming to "save the workers" from poor diets and drink. But they were still an object of fun.
Fundamental changes in the way of life throughout the18th and 19th centuries meant people moved away from the land to the developing urban centres. Many traditional recipes and rituals associated with food were lost at this time, which some food historians believe has left a gaping hole in British cuisine. This, they say, has made this country more vulnerable to American and other nations' influence on our diet.
There was a loss of touch with the land that didn't happen in other European countries where people held on to their traditional lifestyles and diets, according to Janette Marshall, secretary of the Guild of Food Writers. …