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
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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. "I think Britain really is a special case because of this, and it has continued in this century in the way the Ministry of Agriculture works, the lobbying power of the food industry, and how EC subsidies work here."

Moving into towns had another effect, too. "Cut off from their land, people sentimentalised about animals and what they had lost, and more people turned to vegetarianism as a result," says Colin Spencer. That sentimentality continued, taking a harder edge in the 1950s as factory farming expanded to meet the demand for food in the post-war years .

Rationing introduced in the Second World War had seen Britons eating a healthier diet than ever before. But when it ended in 1956 a deprived population gorged itself on foods high in fat and sugars. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties full-fat milk and eggs were heavily advertised, and with the introduction of the first pre-packed food, known as the Ambient Ready Meal, a new market was born. Eating out also became fashionable, the influx of Asian immigrants brought the opening of cheap Indian and Chineserestaurants, and the era of cheap travel abroad encouraged the growth of bistros and trattorias in the High Street.

In 1970 the first Cranks restaurant opened, offering wholefood vegetarian fare. Its name reflected how people viewed those who were concerned about what they were putting into their bodies. "They were seen as cranky, a little bit odd. People really had not made the connection between health and diet" says Janette Marshall. That connection was a long time coming. Although scientists had been aware of the link between saturated fat and heart disease since the late Sixties, it wasn't until the Seventies that there was general public realisation that heart disease was epidemic, killing 200,000 people a year. In 1982 Audrey Eyton wrote The F-plan Diet, the first best-selling diet book in the UK. It extolled the high-fibre, high carbohydrate, low fat virtuesof potatoes and baked beans, previous dietary no-nos that underwent a rapid rehabilitation in the psyche of millions.

It was the first marrying of sound science with a populist approach to diet. Since then, medical evidence relating disease and poor diet has become an industry of its own; even the Government, worried about escalating health-care costs, has got in on theact, viewing prevention as better than cure. Its interventions, which started with bald "don't eat" advice, have culminated in the much criticised health guidelines published last year, dictating the number of potatoes, slices of bread and chocolate we should eat.

According to the National Food Survey, the consumption of whole milk has fallen from 3.95 pints per person a week in 1982 to 1.75 in 1992; butter from 3.17 ounces to 1.44, and the number of eggs from 3.51 to 2.08. The consumption of all meat is down, although that of poultry and chicken is up. Bread is down overall from 31 ounces per person a week to 26.62, although that masks a dramatic decline in the popularity of the white loaf, fallen by more than half in 30 years.

But the quality of diet is related to income, and it is those on the lowest incomes who persist with high fat junk food diets, devoid of fresh fruit and vegetables. Sainsbury's last year became the first supermarket chain to woo the poor, promoting a range of food that meets the Government's health guidelines and which, it claimed, was affordable by the poorest tenth of households.

Future trends in eating centre around the predominance of "green consumers" who worry about where their food comes from and how it is prepared. But schoolchildren and teenagers will have a greater influence, a factor already recognised by the Vegetarian Society which since 1987 has targeted teenagers with two campaigns, "Scream" - publicising factory farmers, and "Choice", demanding more vegetarian fare in schools.

A recent survey of 11- to 15-year-olds found that 14 per cent said vegetarian food was their favourite fare, while 59 per cent said cruelty to animals was the issue they felt most strongly about. "In America they are known as skippies," says Steve Connor, "They are `school-age kids with income (their parents') - and purchasing power'. They will define what we choose to eat in the next century."