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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 13:23 GMT
Is the veggie boom over?
Madonna, a vegetarian said to have started eating meat again
"Ooooh, I could murder a steak"

The rush to embrace a meat-free lifestyle seems to be over - the rate at which Britons are climbing aboard the tofu wagon has slowed.
It is said that Madonna, for so long a loud and proud vegetarian, has started to eat meat. Perhaps now she has adopted a Brit lifestyle, bacon butties and fry-ups have proved a temptation too far.

It would seem that she is not alone. Now that BSE, e coli and foot-and-mouth scares have eased, the rate at which people are eschewing meat altogether has slowed.

Suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst
Many suffragettes were also vegetarians
While vegetarianism has a long history - early thinkers such as Pythagoras and Plato advocated abstention from flesh foods - it was not until the 1980s that a meat-free lifestyle became a mainstream choice.

With high-profile adherents such as Paul and Linda McCartney, and companies like the Body Shop raising awareness of green issues, more and more people chose to shun meat. Previously, it had been regarded as the choice of cranks and liberals, a movement associated with the temperance league and the suffragettes.

Waning trend?

From 1984, when surveys first recorded such numbers, there has been a steady growth in vegetarians, from 2.1% of the UK population to 4% in 2001. Yet this latest figure shows a slight drop from 1999, a year when food safety fears gripped the nation.

The drop in numbers merely took us back to pre-BSE levels

Liz O'Neill, Vegetarian Society
According to a Datamonitor survey released on Wednesday, vegetarianism is a trend on the wane. In 2000 there were 11.3 million veggies across Europe, a figure forecast to increase to 12.1 million in 2005, but expected to slow thereafter.

Colin Spencer, the author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, himself has fallen off the tofu wagon.

Linda and Paul McCartney in 1991
Rapid growth came in the 80s and early 90s
"I've always been an inconsistent vegetarian, I'm too much of a hedonist. In my vegan years, what I really missed was anchovies," he has said.

Could it be that the organic boom has calmed fears about the treatment of animals? Or that our increasingly foodie society wants to make the most of the plenty on offer?

Perhaps those who cut out meat to slim down have now moved onto the latest lo-carb/hi-protein diet fad? Or is it that the tantalising sizzle of bacon eventually proves too much for all but the most committed veggie?

Tasty treats

The Vegetarian Society thinks not.

"The drop in numbers was the first small blip since 1984, and merely took us back to pre-BSE levels," says spokeswoman Liz O'Neill.

Phoenix the calf
Cute pet or a fillet steak on legs?
The figures mask the much larger number who might be called "fishetarians" - meat is out but seafood is OK - and the dramatic increase in people eating less meat.

Piers Berezai, an analyst at market analysts Datamonitor, agrees that so-called meat reducers are growing in number.

"The real interest is to eat in order to maintain and improve health, so there's now a much larger group of people cutting down on their meat - especially red meat - intake."

This is no doubt in part because meatless meals have become far more adventurous, not to mention readily available.

Young Buddhist monks
Religions such as Buddhism shun meat
Choices were, after all, rather limited in the past. The Vegetarian Society's website tells how testimonies, rather than recipes, were used to advocate a vegetarian lifestyle in the early 20th Century. One, from a Mr Ching of Stockwell, recounted how he ate only "haricots at dinner with other vegetables, potatoes and cabbage; wholemeal bread and butter for tea, breakfast and supper, sometimes with some cheese."

Today, it has never been easier to get a good vegetarian meal in a pub or restaurant in the UK, Ms O'Neill says.

A far cry indeed from Mr Ching's spartan diet.

Are you a veggie who has succumbed to the temptations of flesh? Or have you decided to cut down your meat intake? Here's some of your comments:

Once eating no animal products seemed an easy moral line to draw. As I've become more informed on environmental issues it's less clear - is it better to drink soya milk manufactured in Belgium from beans grown in Canada, or cows' milk from the farm down the road?
Cen, UK

After seven years as a vegetarian I got sick of paying over the odds for vege lasagne and ropey jacket spuds. Now I'm back to eating dead creatures. I feel not only healthier but also justly treated economically too.
Paul Devenyi, UK

I was a veggie for many years, but the smell of fried bacon finally got to me this year. I still don't eat a lot of meat, but I am not a total vegetarian anymore either.
Jill Styles, UK

I became a veggie last year when I realised that there are so many healthy, tasty, varied, attractive and delicious vegetarian meals you can make, that it simply isn't necessary to kill animals for our food. The only downside is eating out - when will restaurants realise that veggies are very often foodies as well?
Paula Kirby, UK

I have recently readdressed why I became a vegetarian. Those reasons were to do with animal welfare, so now I eat game. If meat is from an animal or fish that has lived a wild and free life, and its numbers are not under threat, then I have no objection to eating it.
Dr Duncan Campbell, UK

I've only strayed due to unfortunate accidents such as a Chinese takeaway delivering real beef instead of the "mock" beef ordered. Thanks to excellent veggie sausages and bacon (I've found one I like!) breakfast isn't a trauma. Lunchtimes are very frustrating, with most veggie sandwiches either cheese or egg - fine for once a week but not everyday.
Caroline, UK

I was veggie til a farmer showed me his sheep, the land they lived on and how they were cared for. He told me that if people stopped eating meat he would have to sell his land to developers who'd build houses and factories on it. So I eat meat, but not fish in protest of the current over-exploitation of our oceans.
Mel Morris, UK

I find vegetarians rather strange! However, I never eat large quantities of meat. Too much slows the digestive system. Too little and your health probably suffers. So enjoy animal products - it also helps support our farmers who are under pressure at the moment.
Cyril Parsons, England

My mother and I have been vegetarian since seeing a film about the treatment of farm animals back in 1981. That day the mince and tins of beef all went in the bin and we've never regretted it.
Carol Brown, Australia

I have become a vegetarian almost by default, due to my faith. As a Muslim, I am not permitted to eat any pig meat and only red meat/chicken that has had all its blood removed - which is almost impossible to outside specific restaurants/curry houses. So I am resigned to eating a lot of fish and vegetables when eating out.
Muz, UK

My diet is the best of both worlds - mostly vegetarian with the occasional steak. I laugh at the pale, skinny self-righteous vegan and scoff at those fat, puffy meat-lovers who deride the veggies!
John G, London, UK

I'm not a vegetarian and thought that vegetarian meals would be dull - but I was proved wrong by my vegetarian girlfriend. It can be very tasty and healthy but that hasn't stopped me eating meat.
Michael Rossell, UK

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