The carrrot and stick crusader: Butchers hate him, but Peter Cox doesn't care. The vegetarian missionary is determined to preach the gospel of meatlessness

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The Independent Online
PETER COX is a smartly turned- out, 39-year-old former executive with an impressive track record in advertising - an unlikely candidate to be an advocate of an alternative culture. But he is the meat industry's most effective foe, and he takes to the road this week with the 'biggest campaign to promote the vegetarian lifestyle' Britain has ever seen.

If Mr Cox's past campaigns are a guide, his latest assault on meat-eating will have the following consequences: his wife will receive warnings that he is about to be killed and be told how his corpse will be jointed; representatives of butchers and farmers will denounce him 'as an evangelist with few scruples who will stop at nothing short of physical violence'; and tens of thousands of people will become vegetarian.

For Mr Cox, 39, is, in the words of the Meats Trades Journal, a 'very convincing man'.

He has nothing in common with the soya-eating, sandal-wearing vegetarians of the past. His first book, Why You Don't Need Meat, was the biggest-selling vegetarian book of all time. Its claims that meat-eating is connected to heart disease and cancer were aired on Wogan and dozens of radio phone-ins, and produced death threats from enemies police could not trace. It also produced a furious response from the meat industry, which claimed he had presented 'selected facts, half-truths and innuendos'.

But the fuss that attended the launch of the book that made him famous is expected to be quiet in comparison with the commotion likely to accompany the release of The (Realeat) Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Living on Tuesday.

No modern marketing technique has been ignored. Mr Cox has collected vegetarian recipes from dozens of countries via the Internet global computer network. Realeat, makers of veggie burgers, are sponsoring the book and may eventually offer it at discount to vegetarians who collect tokens from their packets.

Carl Lewis, the vegan Olympic sprinter, and several British athletes will give their support. Mr Cox's tour of 50 towns will be closer to a political campaign than a conventional book tour. Vegetarian groups have united around him and will use his visits to promote the cause. Their participation is no mean achievement. Vegetarian politics is notoriously factional. Vegans condemn vegetarians for their half-measures; vegetarians regard vegans as holier- than-thou purists.

Two years ago the Vegetarian Society, the biggest anti-meat organisation, split when most of its research department walked out in protest at the society's decision to endorse cheeses. The purists even protested against endorsement of Marmite.

'We were determined to expose the abuses that were going on,' said Dr Alan Lang, one of the researchers, who left to form a rival group. 'Cheese comes from cows which will eventually end up slaughtered for beef, and Marmite has a very high salt content. But the society was approving anything and everything - like an incontinent dog which makes sure that every tree in the forest gets something.'

Mr Cox has experienced the infighting of life in the vegetarian movement at first hand. In 1985 he was made chief executive of the Vegetarian Society. Six weeks later he resigned after his ambitious plans to win a mass membership of 100,000 by using gimmicks such as offers of cheap insurance were rejected by the society's conservative leadership.

The day he left was 'the most miserable of my life', he said. Yet since then he has mobilised the fractious vegetarian movement. The Vegetarian Society, which forced him out, is backing his book, as are vegan organisations.

The man who has brought about this unexpected unity developed a dislike of the meat industry during his childhood. He was brought up by his schooteacher parents in the heart of the Norfolk countryside. 'Everyone worked for the farmer,' he said. 'No one ever criticised him if there was an industrial accident - he was God. I saw the wildlife being destroyed and the hedgerows being grubbed up. It was like living in the middle of a factory - I hated it.

'The contempt for animal life farming produced was everywhere. You saw cats being nailed to gates as a joke and kittens having their heads cut off with a spade.'

He first started to refuse to eat meat at the age of two. 'It's quite a common medical condition,' he said, 'which doctors have only just started to recognise.'

After leaving a minor public school in Norfolk, which he also hated, at 18 he set up his own business producing photographs and promotional material for companies in the North Sea. The agency grew as did his commitment to vegetarianism. At 29 he was bought out and became quite a rich man.

'It made me reassess my life,' he said. 'When you are in advertising you spend your whole time lunching - I once had three lunches in a day, pretty disgusting, eh? I realised that I had spent my whole time apologising for ordering cheese salads and decided to do something about it.'

His background in PR meant that his efforts would be practical, but the philosophical issues raised by vegetarianism do not interest him. He is not very concerned about whether you should not eat animals because they have 'rights' or even the 'souls' the Archbishop of York suggested apes may possess when he spoke at the British Association annual conference last week. Nor is he bothered as to whether you should adopt the view that you should refrain from eating meat because the pleasure you get from a pork chop in no way compares with the pain inflicted on pigs.

'Oh, I'm not very interested in all of that,' he said. 'You can talk about it for ages and get nowhere. I just say you should respect animals and show them compassion. I want to be effective. Being effective is very important to me.'

And he is effective, which is perhaps why the meat industry dislikes him so much. The Encyclopaedia of Vegetarian Living focuses on two great concerns of modern life: health and recipes.

There are 300 recipes, from carob walnut cake to tofu and mangetout stir-fry. But however exotic they sound, they are all carefully chosen to appeal to as many readers as possible. Ingredients are available from supermarkets. There is no food snobbery. Veggie burgers and veggie dog food are discussed as seriously as the 'awesome-but-easy' dishes from Austria to Zimbabwe and all countries in between.

But it is claims on the dangerous consequences of meat, Mr Cox's favourite subject, which will once again infuriate farmers. 'More meat means more cancers,' he proclaims and quotes the medical evidence. He also advocates that meat-eating means more heart disease, and vegetarianism by definition helps combat these two great Western killers.

No condition is too trivial for vegetables not to be a part solution. Worried about constipation? 'Beetroot juice - either bottled or freshly juiced - is a very useful short-term natural stool-softener and laxative.' Or gallstones? 'Recently there has been speculation that a diet high in soluble fibre might increase the solubility of cholestrol in your bile fluid.'

Mainstream nutritionists are somewhat sceptical. Although they have left behind the prejudices of the 1940s, when Sir Robert Hutchinson, a distinguished Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, proclaimed that vegetarianism was 'wrong-headed, dogmatic and unscientific' and produced 'wind and self-righteousness,' they treat the evidence which points to vegetarians suffering fewer cases of heart disease and cancer than meat-eaters with caution.

'You have to be careful because there may be other explanations,' said Catherine Geissler, professor of nutrition at the University of London's King's College. 'Vegetarians are less likely to smoke and drink. They are more likely to exercise and be middle class.

'It is also not much help to you if you reduce your intake of saturated fats by cutting out meat only to increase it again by eating more cheese. We still tend to recommend a balanced diet - including meat.'

Such doubts will not trouble Mr Cox as he sets out to tour the meeting halls and local radio stations of Britain.

He, like many others in the vegetarian movement, exudes an air of confidence and a belief that history is on his side.

In the Second World War, just 100,000 people asked for vegetarian ration cards. The latest surveys say that about 4.5 per cent of British people - about 2.5 million - are vegetarian. Mr Cox claims that the figure is higher and that 11 per cent of the population are vegetarian.

By contrast, the amount of meat eaten per head of population has not changed since the 1960s, despite growing affluence.

'Far more important than any of this is that about 40 per cent of people say that they are cutting down on the amount of meat they eat,' said Mr Cox.

'In one or two generations, the economies of scale enjoyed by the meat industry will disappear and the mass market for meat will be extinct. Meat will become a luxury, specialist and expensive product, which after all is what it has been for most people in most of human history.

'We're just helping it on its way out. I just want vegetarians to stop apologising at the dinner table and perhaps to start asking meat-eaters how they justify killing animals - politely, of course.'

(Photograph omitted)