Britain is being tricked into becoming vegetarian

Vegetarian sausage wears a burglar mask
Vegetarian sausage wears a burglar mask

Consumer choice has never been bigger – except when it comes to meat products in hospitals and schools, councils and universities. This week, Quorn’s CEO announced that pork sausages will be blended with fake meat in NHS hospitals by the end of the year, in a bid to tackle climate change. But the hybrid bangers, which are partly made from mycoproteins (fermented fungi spores), will not be badged up as such – which means the NHS is effectively slashing the meat content from menus without warning.

Mo Metcalf-Fisher, director of external affairs at the Countryside Alliance (CA), says that the organisation is “deeply troubled by compulsory vegetarianism and veganism” and that they would be “very concerned at any attempt by a public body to attempt to police what we are eating”.

Still, vegetarianism and veganism by stealth appears to be on the rise. Big-name campaigns like Meat-Free Monday, which advocates cutting meat from diets one day a week, was sparked by Sir Paul McCartney in 2009; since then, celebrity backing from the likes of Jamie Oliver (plus A-listers such as Beyoncé, Reese Witherspoon and Coldplay’s Chris Martin) has helped to make it a status symbol, seeing vegan and vegetarian menus sweep into councils, hospitals and schools.

The driving force has been campaigners’ fears about the environmental impact of consuming meat (far above matters such as cost or the health implications). Yet the spread of stealth vegetarianism into schools is causing concern among parents and some medics.

celebrity chef Jamie Oliver
The Meat-Free Monday campaign, which advocates cutting meat from diets one day a week, was backed by celebrities including chef Jamie Oliver - Joe Giddens/PA

Meat has been axed from the menu across a series of nursery, primary and secondary institutions. In January, Bishop Burton, an agricultural college, said they would be removing it for 40 per cent of the month (later apologising to farmers after backlash ensued, and reversing the decision). The Swan, a primary school in Oxford, has an all-vegetarian canteen; Barrowford Primary, in Lancashire, banned meat from children’s lunches in 2022, and there are Meat-Free Mondays at Lordship Farm Primary in Letchworth, along with other primaries in Anglesey and East Riding (the same is currently being considered for all state schools in Surrey).

The creep has caused consternation because many parents are not warned about their school’s decision to lower weekly meat offerings ahead of time. That was the case for Daisy Ferns, 38, who noticed that her three-year-old was being given far more vegetarian and gluten-free options at his Derby nursery without her permission.

She asked to “opt out” of this enforced menu, “to ensure he has a varied diet and is getting the essential nutrients he needs”. They acknowledged her message but have since stopped updating the app that used to chart his food intake, so she has “no idea at all” how things stand. “It seems to be that this is the norm now, and whilst I understand that everyone has their own dietary preferences, I believe that our preferences for a varied diet should be respected too.”

Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools, an initiative to improve the quality of school meals, says that there are “really legitimate concerns around relying solely on highly processed plant-based alternatives” (which are often present on meat-free menus). She says that exclusively plant-based days are fine, provided that there is transparency, the food is made from scratch from whole ingredients, and that “you’re offering choice across the course of the week.”

Metcalf-Fisher, meanwhile, takes a harder line. “Do parents know that their children’s diets are being altered in this way? And is there consent there between parents and school? I would hazard that there isn’t always.” For schools to enforce meat-free options, he thinks “it should be compulsory that they have to go through the Department of Education”.

It’s not only slinking into schools, of course. Councils in Oxfordshire, London and Ulster have vetoed meat and dairy from events, while universities such as Goldsmiths and the London School of Economics have banned beef altogether. (There are also exclusively vegan outlets at the likes of Imperial College London, King’s College London, Lancaster University and many others.) Last year, Edinburgh pledged to become the first European capital to make its menus at schools, nursing homes and hospitals meat-free.

Edinburgh has pledged to become the first European capital to take meat off the menu at schools, nursing homes and hospitals
Edinburgh has pledged to become the first European capital to take meat off the menu at schools, nursing homes and hospitals - David C Tomlinson/The Image Bank RF

Critics have expressed concern that in the absence of a meat option people will fail to get the required nutrients – and that some will simply choose not to eat at all. “The advantages that you’ve got by having meat is that it contains easily accessible sources of iron and B vitamins, which can be harder to obtain through vegetables,” says Jeff Foster, a GP and men’s health specialist at H3 Health. The NHS “advocates themselves that children should have at least one portion of either eggs, fish or meat per day” – and increased reduction in protein options in schools could, for those unable to get those foods at home, lead to them becoming “vitamin and nutritionally deficient”.

The more recent evolution of the trend into healthcare institutions has raised additional concerns over the increasing consumption of ultra processed foods (such as Quorn). “Food should be seen as being part of the cure for somebody who is ill,” says Tony Goodger, of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers. “If you’re putting good food in front of them that’s nutritionally balanced, then you’re possibly going to speed up their recovery, in which case you’re going to get your beds back quicker.”

Meat-free Quorn sausages travel along the production line ahead of freezing at the company's factory
Concerns have also been raised over the increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods such as Quorn - Bloomberg

And in any case, does the anti-meat climate angle stand up? Both Goodger and the CA say that improving the climate outlook is not about reducing the quantity of meat consumed, but ensuring that we eat produce reared sustainably in Britain. (And that doing so is significantly better for the environment than flying in reams of avocados and quinoa from South America.) The CA has launched a counter-campaign to councils’ vegan initiative, asking that meat and meat-free options are always present. “It’s just not going to work,” Metcalf-Fisher says of the current strategy. “The public is just not going to accept it.”

Yet while public bodies appear to have embraced the meat-free campaign, Britain’s affections for vegetarianism and veganism have been waning. Consumer intelligence firm NielsenIQ UK reports that sales of chilled meat alternatives fell by 16.8 per cent in January 2023 compared with the year prior, with frozen meat substitutes dropping 13.5 per cent over the same period. Nestlé, Heck, Oatly and Innocent have all pulled vegan products from shelves in recent months; Meatless Farms, which sold £11 million worth of products in 2021, went into administration last year.

Though institutions continue to wrangle over mandated meatlessness, the Government has skirted the issue, Metcalf-Fisher says. “They’ve stayed a bit too much out of the debate. I think they need to make it clear that when it comes to public bodies, there is simply no justification for imposing vegetarian and veganism on people.”