Jeremy Corbyn has reassured meat eaters by saying he will not be supporting an idea by his shadow environment secretary to introduce public ad campaigns to encourage people to go vegetarian.
Kerry McCarthy, a vegan, said meat eaters should be treated in the same way as smokers and targeted with ad campaigns to show the harm done to animal welfare, alarming countryside campaigners.
But the Labour leader made it clear her suggestion would not be party policy. Asked about Ms McCarthy's comments by ITV News, Mr Corbyn said: “I am a vegetarian. I personally don't eat meat and haven't for a very very long time.
“I think meat eaters, if they wish to carry on eating meat, that's up to them to do so. I don't stop people eating meat indeed many people that I know very well eat meat often in front of me and I tolerate it with the normal decency, courtesy and respect that you would expect from me.”
Mr Corbyn was criticised by countryside groups after appointing Ms McCarthy, a self-confessed "militant" vegan, to be in charge of Labour's dealings with farmers. They were alarmed by her strong opposition to hunting and the badger cull would harm Britain's farming industry.
Ms McCarthy said that although progress had been made to improve animal welfare, ultimately people needed to give up meat or dairy if they really wanted to protect animals.
Public campaigns, such as those warning of the dangers of smoking, should be used to encourage people to give up meat, Ms McCarthy said.
Ms McCarthy has been a vegan for the last 20 years and was a vegetarian for 10 years before that. She has also campaigned against the Government's badger cull and fox hunting in her role as vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports.
In an interview with vegan magazine Viva!life, she said: "I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.
"Progress on animal welfare is being made at EU level … but in the end it comes down to not eating meat or dairy."
In another move that is likely to anger farmers, she said the low price of milk in the UK was "a supply and demand thing", adding: "Too much milk is being produced and if you live by the market you have to risk dying by the market."
Ms McCarthy said the use of EU farming subsidies to fund shooting and forestry had turned her into an even more radical vegan.
"The constant challenging of the environmental impact of livestock farming is making me more and more militant, not least that CAP payments are available for grouse shooting, controlling buzzards and forestry," she said.
She defended Mr Corbyn's decision to appoint someone with such strong opinions to the role, saying it was "important to have someone in the role who doesn’t see it as a stepping stone to a different post, but is really keen to get engaged in the issues."
She added: "There will be different viewpoints, there will be violent disagreements, but it’s about trying to listen to the evidence, approach things with an open mind – and I am very much prepared to do that."
Tim Bonner, from the Countryside Alliance, said: "Kerry McCarthy’s views on meat eating and livestock farming are completely out of step with the vast majority of people.
"Her ideas are verging on the cranky. This appointment is only going to make it more difficult for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to reconnect with rural Britain."
Ms McCarthy later sought to reassure the farming industry by clarifying her comments. She told Radio 4's Farming Today: The world is not going to turn vegan because I am in post.
"I have my own personal views on what I choose to eat, but I accept that we have a livestock industry in this country. What I want is for the industry to have the best welfare standards possible, to be sustainable as well as economically viable."
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