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12 February 1998
More and more people are eating less meat, which on the face of it is not good news for New Zealand, a country traditionally reliant on meat and meat product exports.
Although vegetarianism is not considered a major threat to the meat industry, the growing number of reduced meat eaters and semi-vegetarians, especially in our traditional export markets, do pose a concern. However, in our newer markets, particularly developing ones, meat eating continues to be high and steadily increasing, and provides a growing market for New Zealand meat exports.
‘Meat, Meat Eating and Vegetarianism: A Review of the Facts' is a technical paper recently released by the Ministry of Agriculture. It not only gives our meat production and processing sectors an insight into current global meat consumption trends, but gives those who have made the move to vegetarianism an insight into their subconscious rationale for making this change. This paper does not advocate either vegetarianism or eating meat, but gives a balanced review of the two points of view.
The paper, written by Professor Neville Gregory from Massey University's Faculty of Veterinary Science, says the increase in the number of reduced meats eaters over the past two decades can be attributed to changed eating habits, as well as altered views about vegetarianism.
During the 1960s ‘vegetarianism' had a hippy image based on spiritual devotion and ecology. Over the past decade this image has shifted to encompass a concern for animal welfare, the environment, and a heightened consciousness of ones own body image, health and youthfulness.
The popularity of, and medical support for fresh, light meals has heightened the awareness of vegetarian eating, and encouraged, if not absolute vegetarianism, then at least the eating of less meat. The overall decrease in meat eating has occurred without individuals becoming total vegetarians, but by them adopting a number of views held by the vegetarian movement.
Vegetarians constitute only a small percentage of any population and under the ‘vegetarian' umbrella are a host of divisions that include vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, macrobiotic and lacto-vegetarian. Vegetarianism is the strongest in Britain and growing steadily in Germany and Belgium.
The BSE scare has undoubtedly reinforced for vegetarians the view that eating meat is hazardous. It is surprising however, says Professor Gregory, that such a large scale reaction against eating beef could arise from such a low prevalence of the human disorder, Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD).
Although surveys show animal welfare is the main reason for becoming completely vegetarian, for many people, particularly young women, health concerns also form the basis of switching to semi-vegetarianism. These dietary changes are influenced by concerns about food poisoning (from fish and shellfish), cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and the consumption of hormones and antibiotics through eating meat. Ardent vegetarians regard meat as a dead food in the process of decaying, while foods such as nuts, grains and pulses are perceived as full of life and vibrant.
Professor Gregory says perceptions about farming and slaughter practises are often what leads vegetarians to take the moral stance with the food they choose to eat or not to eat. Some feel it expresses their philosophy of non-violence and respect for living things.
One vegetarian explained: "I've always been fond of animals... and when you reach the age where it is blatantly obvious that meat is animals, I didn't want any more of it."
In 1993 a large number of meat-eaters in Britain were confronted in a survey with a hypothetical prospect of having to kill animals themselves in order to eat them. The majority said in that case they would cease eating meat.
The vegetarian view towards meat is not all negative. Some vegetarians have nostalgic cravings for some cuts of meat, in particular the smell and taste of bacon. However, others find cooked meats repulsive to the extent of causing nausea, and even some meat eaters are not fond of the taste. In some surveys it was found the enjoyment of eating vegetarian foods was a reason for becoming vegetarian, rather than a dislike of meat.
Vegetarian food became attractive and popular in its own right during the 1980-1990s, and a demand for meatless foods led to its commercialisation. Products labelled as ‘suitable for vegetarians' such as bean burgers, broccoli and garlic potato bakes and vegetable chilli con carne became available in supermarket freezers, and by 1992, 90 percent of British pubs catered for vegetarians. Being vegetarian is not always cheap, even after cutting out expensive meat items from meals. Many vegetarian substitutes are relatively expensive. For example, the cost of vegetarian frozen mince in the United Kingdom is twice that of frozen minced beef.
Professor Gregory says vegetarianism and semi-vegetarianism figures are high amongst adolescents, particularly females, which often amounts to little more than a phase. Teenage idealism, he says, is a normal urge to change the world and be drawn to extremist views, and it can often easily be capitalised on.
The Vegetarian Society in the United Kingdom has been criticised on numerous occasions for exploiting teenage idealism. Their 1992 anti-meat campaign leaflet, describing in detail the suffering of animals being slaughtered, was condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority and was said to be ‘capable of causing distress and exploiting those at such an impressionable age.'
Vegetarianism is also promoted through a scheme in British schools called SCREAM (School Campaign for Reaction Against Meat), which includes videos and information packs sent to teachers, with additional lecture tours focusing on farming and abattoir practices. Some youngsters become what's referred to as ‘vege warriors', whose aim is to convert whole families to vegetarianism.
An American study claimed that 15 percent of America's 15 million college students eat vegetarian meals during a typical day. Forty-eight percent of female students said that vegetarianism was ‘in', and a corresponding 33 percent of males backed that opinion up. At a college canteen in Ohio, 20 percent of meals served were vegetarian.
In some individuals, however, vegetarianism persists into adulthood and their children will be brought up with their beliefs. Parents, families and friends are, in general, tolerant of vegetarian practices, but a third of vegetarians in a 1996 survey agreed it was difficult to avoid eating meat at home.
The same survey found the main reason for adolescents becoming vegetarian was peer pressure - ones friend was a vegetarian and it was important not to feel left out. Adopting the vegetarian label helps some young adults find a front for covert weight reduction plans, without having to explain their true motives. Concern about animal welfare was seen by some parents as a better motive to stop eating meat, than slimming. In a 1996 survey red meat consumption was regarded as fattening by 30 percent of full and semivegetarians, and by 13 percent of non-vegetarians.
Thirty years ago becoming vegetarian was regarded as raising serious health risks. Today, it's recognised within the medical profession that dietary inadequacies can develop in both vegetarians and meat eaters, with children at particular risk.
Comparisons between the health of vegetarians and non-vegetarians is often hampered by differences in lifestyles and habits, changes in eating patterns and existing illnesses.