Beef scare sparks a vegetarian revolution

Sophie Walker and Katy Weitz on how bookshops are making the most of a sales phenomenon
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The Independent Online
AN EXPLOSION in sales of vegetarian cookery books means that a bad week for beef has been a good one for English bookshops. Waterstone's has reported a phenomenal 300 per cent increase in the number of vegetarian titles sold since last month, and sales of one title considered to be the "bible" of vegetarian cuisine, The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, have soared by 600 per cent.

Other book sales are nine times more than at Christmas, a time when cookery books do well.

When one bright spark in Waterstone's head office planned a spring promotion of meat-free recipe books last November, he could not have imagined that headlines in March would be warning of the dangers of eating beef.

Across the country, the scare over BSE has prompted anxious consumers seeking alternatives to beef to ask bookshops for advice, and many have reported a huge upsurge of interest in vegetarian and vegan titles.

But it is Waterstone's which has really cashed in on the phenomenon with impeccable timing. Its campaign slogan was hastily changed from the original "Where's the Beef?" to "Enjoy the cream of vegetarian cookbooks at Waterstone's" as interest grew, and stores across England say they have fuelled new interest in the market.

Dave Eckersley, cookery department manager in Leeds, has been inundated. "There's been a lot of interest not only in our promoted titles but in all our vegetarian books," he said.

"People aren't panicked. The mood is one of determination to find an alternative and seek information in the current atmosphere of bluff and indecision."

Sarah Birch, department manager in Manchester, agrees. "In the past couple of weeks we've had to give a lot of advice to customers concerned about meat.

"Normally, those who come in for vegetarian cookbooks know what they want, but we've had loads of people asking us to recommend simple guides. We're thinking of expanding our vegan titles as many people are worried about dairy products too."

BSE has created a stir at Waterstone's in Harrods too, where staff have doubled the shelves of vegetarian books for first-time buyers. General manager Gordon Seabright said: "This promotion couldn't have been better timed; we thought the market was topping out. Now we're selling lots of tried-and- trusted recipes by Rose Elliott and Cranks to customers new to this kind of cooking."

While English branches of Dillons and Books Etc are also seeing higher demand, bookshops north of the border, however, seem little affected. Robert Kinnear, manager of Waterstone's in Glasgow, says: "People up here are not reacting in quite the same way. There is a perception that Scottish beef is safer, so we haven't seen such a dramatic increase in sales."

But general interest in vegetarianism has shot up. Steve Connor of the Vegetarian Society says that enquiry levels have doubled in the past two weeks with calls from meat-eaters who have decided to try a vegetarian diet. Mr Connor has also received calls from beef farmers wanting some vegetarian recipes.

"People have had enough," he says. "They don't know who to trust so they turn to organisations like ours for cool, level-headed advice.

"A lot of people are concerned about gelatine and beef products. Most are surprised to learn, for example, that onion soup, chicken gravy granules and chocolate ice-cream all contain some kind of beef stock, animal fat or gelatine."

The Vegetarian Society expects membership to increase from fewer than 200 new members a month to about 450, with starter packs being sent out at a rate of almost 200 per day.

For Patrick Holden of the Soil Association this is the revolution it has been waiting for: "It is absolutely amazing," he says. "I have worked here for 10 years and I have never seen anything like it. BSE seems to have tipped the balance for many people."

The Soil Association is the body responsible for promoting and controlling organic farming in the UK. This makes up about 0.3 per cent of the farmable land area. According to Mr Holden, people are concerned about UK agricultural practices as a whole.

He says: "There is the widespread belief now that something has gone fundamentally wrong in British farming. The idea that we can overcome nature by science is just not feasible anymore and people are looking to more organic and natural solutions."

Mr Holden says some farmers may convert to organic farming practices. Calls from people wanting to know where to buy organic food have reached "unprecedented levels".

Tim Finney, the manager of an organic farm, says organic steaks have "flown out of the window" with the demand for organically farmed meat. "There is a national shortage of organic fillets, sirloins and rumps," he said. "People just can't seem to get enough organic meat."

Off the hook, page 12

Inside story, page 17