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Conferences and Meetings Report June 2006 - 26/07/2006
 
June was a very busy month for VEGA. We were invited to City University, to participate in a report on an EU project on the Ethics of Wheat and Bread Supplies. From then on events unfolded in June with a succession of challenging opportunities covering a range of topics.
1. June was a very busy month for VEGA. We were invited to City University, London, to participate in a report on an EU project on the Ethics of Wheat and Bread Supplies. The group comprised academics and representatives from commerce and NGOs. VEGA’s involvement with the Campaign for Real Bread, being an offshoot of its 1976 Green Plan for farming, food and health, and the land, was useful experience and made a good connexion with the group at the University. From then on events unfolded in June with a succession of challenging opportunities covering a range of topics.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council

2. The annual Open meeting of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) is an event of special interest to VEGA and this year’s event was no exception. FAWC is aiming at changes in its mode of working that seemed apt and the occasion allowed us to emphasize the joined-up thinking in production and effectual consumer power that our manifesto on a New Kinder Farming seeks to promote. This was indeed a month to unfurl our new banner and to brandish it. It flies on our website for discussion, implementation, and – we hope – endorsement and commendation. Absences from the FAWC meeting of familiar faces from the sheep industry told of a lingering and insidious threat that besets the sector: the possibility loomed that atypical scrapie could transmit to human consumers of sheep and goat meat – and mutton specifically – transmissible spongiform encephalopathies like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In this instance, consumers of the milks could be affected. Muslims take special notice of such warnings from the FSA. The FAWC’s intentions on labelling meet some of our expectations and should help consumers seeking more traceability and resolve or lessen claims that Jewish-killed meat is unfairly condemned. Methods of slaughter should confront all purchasers of meat, and the FAWC’s writ should run to all the hunting, farming, catching, and slaughter of fish.

A Trip “Abroad”

3. The month also began with an Away Day or two to renew acquaintances in the Isle of Wight and to visit farms. Leaning over the fence in superb weather and learning about the primitive plants in the shade of the Shanklin chine made an agreeable way of catching up with agronomical matters. The museum at the chine offered fascinating insights into the evolution of plants, going back to the algae, ferns, liverworts and horsetails. But where did the break in the biochemistry come that seemed to distinguish seaweeds as sources of the long chain polyunsaturated acids, which now take some attention in the fish oil story? This study is the continuation of an earlier conference in London on the potential of harvests of seaweeds. It continues. The major commercial interests at the moment are applications of “marine biomass” as feeds for farmed fish, poultry, pigs, and dairy cows in particular to produce eggs, meat and “clever milk” containing the fish oil alternatives without further depletions of fish stocks. “Clever milk” because the particular omega 3 acids are regarded as bestowing advantages on the function of the brain and eye. The seaweed content for fish can be reduced by “cutting” with omega 3 oils derived from oilseed rape and soya, and crops such as rapeseed and sesame are being genetically modified in the hope of splicing into the defective biochemical chains the genes and enzymes lost in evolution to the higher plants. The island specializes in the growing of garlic and English tomatoes sold on-the-vine – interesting and odorous signs of diversification in British agriculture.

4. The fish oils are not the same as cod (and halibut) liver oils of receding but unpleasant memory as sources of vitamin D3. Promotion of these sources of the vitamin (and probably other nutrients) is restrained by misgivings over the content of the fat-soluble toxicants of industrial origin, and take-up of welfare vitamin drops for schoolchildren is low. Vitamin D has manifold biological activities and, contrary to traditional teaching, plant and fungal sources of potent forms of vitamin D have been found: they are potent to the point of toxicity for ruminants in alpine pastures. The food industry is particularly interested in alternative fish oils that lack the fishy taste, avoid the major difficulties of supplies of fish and environmental concerns, and circumvent the restrictions that might apply to novel foods and processes used for foodstuffs. However the grey area of supplements – between foods and pharmaceuticals – may see the alternatives being favored by the trade as supplements. This would be a development that would dismay many nutritionalists and upset the Food Standards Agency’s stance over issues smacking of innovatory mass medication, eg for folates. These are all topics to engage veggies, botanists, herbalists, and food technologists. Research continues vigorously.

Reminiscing and Researching on Foot

5. The ending of a meeting in Portland Place at about 5.30pm and its sequel on the Terrace of the House of Commons (or was it the Lords?) at a reception starting at about 7.30pm allowed time for a stroll, a bite to eat and an appraisal of free ranging veggie experience in central London, then, say, in the 1970s and earlier, and now. The lunch in Portland Place had been vegan fare with the usual homeopathic content of protein. Caterers fight shy of nuts these days and beans seem to be below their recognition.

6. On the way to Oxford Circus, VEGA came upon examples of the ubiquitous coffee shops and sandwich bars. Starbucks was notable for leading a trend to providing soya milks for tea and coffee, which – remarkably – didn’t curdle. They were also early into the provision of sandwiches and wraps, amongst which there was usually a truly veggie offering based on houmous with some salad and pleasant bread. Chick peas are a legume that caterers are beginning to exploit, particularly to fill the gap in protein-free vegan offerings. VEGA’s Trustees are among the doughty objectors to paying extra at coffee shops when soya replaced cow-milk and, most of these establishments being franchises, the imposition was lifted as the first victory was scored and used as an example. That’s a good show of consumer power.

7. Pret a Manger and EAT places offering takeaways as well as sit-down facilities were quite busy, especially Pret, which seemed the more professional and was offering a new product, tabbouleh-style, suitable for real veggies. VEGA tarried there to explain to the manageress the finer points of veggie requirements and the trend to dairy-free. These establishments were situated nearly opposite the Polytechnic Building in Regent Street and Roxburgh House, below which students and many veggie workers in London supped on veggie cuisine in the traditional style during WW2 and after. Here was a restaurant that boasted an innovation in as much as charges were made by weight on the plate. The owner of the Roxburgh introduced his pet parrot to entertain his customers. In these days of avian flu, environmental health officers would be doubly horrified.

8. Rounding Oxford Circus and proceeding towards Piccadilly Circus, VEGA passed on the port beam the centre of more veggie enterprise. Nut House, just behind Liberty, was always good value, simple, but a good place for vegans. What a shame it has gone. And Cranks has gone too. This splendid enterprise flaunted a veggie confidence and the development of the salad bar with its connotations of healthy food and environmental (now green) considerations. The original Cranks developed from a pottery shop in Carnaby Street, then beginning to become famous, and then took over larger premises round the corner in Marshall Street, with a bakery of wonderful aromas opposite. Cranks restaurants opened up in several places in London; another started in the Cider Press near Totnes, associated with Dartington Glass and various ateliers and near to Dartington Hall with its musical associations. A branch also opened in Copenhagen. A Cranks-style place survives near Faringdon Station in Cowcross Street only a step or two from Smithfield Meat Market and defiant still in those environs of butchery and debauchery. Cranks certainly had style: its decorations, furnishings, and tableware were design features. Each notice was a noble accomplishment, with wording elaborated with great care and finesse. Staff were trained at weekend schools to which various veggie speakers, including VEGA’s, contributed. For a while, Cranks at Marshall Street stayed open late and musical groups added to the atmosphere of refinement and good food. Cranks set the pace in fine veggie catering in trendy London and its owners set splendid standards. Alas, such excellence lost out to non-veggie pressures. However, Cranks was never a strongly vegan representative of the veggie cause – but what veggie restaurant in London was at that time.

9. Nearing Piccadilly Circus, VEGA’s walker looked to see what had become of the Country Life restaurant, which had moved across Regent Street to Warwick Street a few years ago. Country Life was founded by Seventh Day Adventist principles, interpreted with healthy, hygienic and vegan motivations and teaching. It went through various changes in the services it offered, which included takeaways; although it closed early on Fridays and all day Saturdays, it ran through spells of evening opening and it was regularly open on Sundays. It had a wonderfully dedicated staff and, like Cranks of old, ran a health food store in the premises. Its closure a few months ago has been a great loss. It will be missed, especially by the many customers who give vegan food a tentative trial and came away satisfied in many respects. Even after it had been well and truly closed, a reviewer in the Guardian Magazine was extolling its virtues and commending its services. Followers of that advice would be disappointed to see a transformation to a Japanese cuisine, offering only one tofu dish that might suit a veggie.

10. Round the corner from the Country Life restaurant has been a big Fresh and Wild shop, with some catering facilities, which VEGA sampled. It serves veggie requirements, among others – organic, environmental, green, and so on – and provides takeaways and sitdown meals. It sells meats, but excels in offering a range of plant milks for the cuppa. However, VEGA would have fared much better at the EAT and Pret a Manger premises he’d looked at. The Fresh and Wild meal was not good.

11. The VEGA route continued into Piccadilly Circus and rounded into Leicester Square. Lyons Corner House, formerly in the Trocadero building, began post-WW2 innovations as the austerity lifted and veggies could enjoy a little posh when they “went up West”. A veggie treat comprised either a “cheese” – macaroni or cauliflower or a rarebit, welsh or buck (ie with a poached egg on top and possibly fried tomato). Say vegetarian, say cheese; and probably a milky rice pudding with a dollop of jam to follow. What a debt the veggie movement of Bernard Shaw and the Bloomsbury Fabians owed to the cow and her calf, without whom radical dairy-free concepts might have brought the veggie edifice down in a crisis of vitamin B12 deficiency and humiliating resorts to liver extracts. Lyons tea-shops were everywhere, rather like Starbucks and coffee houses today, with tea and tea-cakes especially popular. The diet was very limited and eating out was frugal. An early epidemiological survey found that the veggies of that time were actually consuming more animal-derived fat and protein than comparable omnivores; and the nuts bore all the signs of slow progress over many, many dragging food miles and mycotoxin challenges. Food rationing continued into the 1950s and, except for one very Empah restaurant just off Piccadilly Circus, the Indian invasion of High Streets and City Centres had not begun.

12. However, the Corner Houses, with their Palm Court orchestras and elegance for their time, introduced Salad Bowl Floors, with plates that could be loaded with as much as could be piled on for half-a-crown, soon raised to 5 old shillings (25p in modern money) as food mountaineering became a new skill. Constant refilling from waitresses carrying pots of fresh brew and some bread were included in the price. The Salad Bowls like the Corner Houses did not last long and salads – “rabbit food” – still had to catch on as staple items of diet. Over at Tottenham Court Road, however, the owner of a greengrocer’s shop near Heal’s was introducing a severe form of the salad on a floor of a restaurant opened over the shop devoted to Roh Kost, a speciality associated with the Bircher Benner Clinic in Switzerland. The Bircher Muesli also originated at the Clinic. It gained further fame from the patronage of Sir Stafford Cripps, a veggie, member of the War Cabinet and subsequently a well-regarded Chancellor of the Exchequer during difficult years of austerity. This was Shearn’s, well known in the veggie community and by many Londoners for its fruit and veg and nuts and in the choice of meals offered in its all-veggie catering. Shearn's created one tradition that did not survive many seasons: for Christmas, for instance, veggie customers could order their dead-like bird-turkey, duck, goose, or chicken – formed from superb nut-meats. This answer to the eternal question Well, What Do You Eat at Christmas? had a limited run and expired with the closure of Shearn’s. Nonetheless, on a humbler scale, Granose, a firm with Seventh Day Adventist connections, has sold tinned nut-meats based mainly on wheat gluten and peanuts and bearing names such as Saviand, Nuttolene, Brawn, Galantine, and Steaks.

Revolt at the RSPCA. Freedom’s Just Another Word…

13. The RSPCA’s AGM and conference in London on Saturday, 24 June 2006, promised opportunities for further campaigning for the joined-up thinking expounded in our manifesto. This is nothing new: since the launch of the Green Plan in 1976 we have tried to raise the RSPCA’s interest in animal welfare corollaries in agricultural policies and food production. Such consequences have not been lost on the RSPB, and the RSPCA cannot escape these responsibilities in its involvements in hunting controversies, Freedom Foods claims and labelling, and issues such as BSE, bovine TB, and badgers and the dairy-industry. Changes in rural affairs are seeing alterations in farming, retirements of farming families, enlargement of intensive systems, and the entry of affluent second-homers and of City high-flyers buying up land not only for farming but also for other developments, such as shoots, or business enterprises such as zero-grazing dairy-herds. These incomers may have little experience of husbandry and resort to gangmasters for cheap and unskilled labor for stockmanship. On the other hand the remaining populations of beleaguered tenants plead poverty as a reason for overstocking their pastures and facilities and excuses for their reluctance to call in the services of the dwindling number of vets with experience with farm animals.

14. Intelligence before the event and precedents learnt from previous such occasions lifted our hopes (several VEGA “trusties” are members of the RSPCA and so entitled to full participation in the proceedings of a rewarding meeting). The published program revealed that the ridiculous separation of the veggie option at the mid-day meal (vegetarian and vegan) was to be abolished, the vegan version alone being on offer for all in the veggie-style. Further, a motion on the order paper called for all catering at future AGMs to be strictly veggie. This would be a bold move, snubbing the Society’s Freedom Foods scheme and the confidence in it of many members.

15. The unique veggie offering was a disappointment. The members of Council asking for it should have ensured that it was more than the “vegetarian” choice minus the cheese, but that it was vegan done in fine style, preferably worthy of inclusion in the Portfolio of “salutary meals from salubrious farming.” This bungle could prejudice the common purpose and camaraderie at lunch at future AGM lunch-breaks, because some members would jib at paying for an unattractive sole offering and either bring their own sandwiched or resort to the many coffee places and eateries nearby or even make the short walk to the Whole Food Market open by then in the old Barkers’ store in High Street, Kensington.

16. The proceedings for the day had been altered from previous years; so that members’ contributions from the floor were heavily curtailed. A talk about the BBC TV series on the RSPCA Hospital, given by the resident vet, was interesting, but the absence of attention to farm animals went unexplained. This was a parlous omission, because the veterinary profession itself is lamenting the changes that now make specialization into practice concentrating, mainly in towns, on pets and horses, and leaving rural farming areas inadequately “vetted” and animals ineptly handled and treated. The members received no assurances that the enactments curbing hunting were working or would be likely to survive any change of government. The RSPCA’s worthy efforts in the Animal Welfare Bill deserved much more assessment.

17. The motion on catering at future AGMs at the RSPCA was carried by a large majority of members staying to the end. All the registered speakers from the floor, 2 of whom were VEGA “trusties”, spoke in favor. This was our only chance to elicit some sort of endorsement from the meeting for our manifesto as a focus for A New Kinder Farming embracing the wellbeing of all animals, human, non-human, great and small. This indication of the RSPCA’s renunciation of its own Freedom Foods scheme as suitable for catering at this major event is noteworthy. If it holds, it will disaffect members of staff and of farmers commercially involved. All these interests may induce Council to throw out the decision reached by members at the AGM, albeit at the expense of unnecessarily bitter and sterile argument. We have offered our services to the RSPCA’s Council members to ensure that any real veggy (vegan) offering at future meetings cuts the mustard gastronomically and as an effective means of asserting respect for farm animals, the 5 Freedoms, and the environment, as well as attracting approbation from nutritional and medical authorities. VEGA has enjoyed meals provided by the Food Standards Agency and at meetings in the Scientific Societies’ Conference Centre in London that meet such stipulations.

18. This challenge is confronting many public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes, as well as meals on wheels, trying to give effect to advice from government and the FSA but with staff and facilities “unfit for purpose”. New premises are being built with limited kitchen facilities and lacking staff confident in tackling the healthy projects, e.g. with fruit-and-veg promotions, which introduce the best of the veggy cuisine on consumers still apprehensive over the reforms. These are opportunities for veggie caterers working Portfolio-style, without requiring them to deal with the meat, fish, and dairy side. Every effort must be made to assure patients in hospital (and the staff) and parents of children at school that there is full traceability of the meals, even if much of the food has be brought in for institutions with kitchen facilities capable of little more than warming and portioning. Particular challenges arise in meat-free and dairy-free developments in communal catering owing to a reluctance to risk allergenic reactions prompted by nuts. Our experiences with communal catering reflect this restriction when the vegan option can be regarded as nearly protein-free as well. These are urgent challenges to tax veggie caterers trying to improve communal catering in airline provisions and for the captive consumers in prisons and in the circumstances we have instanced already.

19. A quick retreat and the threat of a downpour drove our walker quickly down Whitehall and finally to a reception on the Terrace of the House of Commons (or Lords), fortunately in a weatherproof marquee. “Upstairs” the Animal welfare Bill was progressing to enactment and the concourse on the Terrace was vigorous and offered VEGA good opportunities for networking and plying the persuasions of our manifesto and website. Having waved away the offerings of sundry dubious canapés and other trifles, the VEGA person was caught by surprise with an individual repast very much in the Portfolio mode – and with a balance of acceptable protein. A good and kind effort, but resoundingly individual; in a party of well over 100 campaigners in the cause of animal welfare and expected to be more demonstrative in the opportunities in a New Kinder Farming.

20. The reminiscent evening taught plenty of lessons and daunting disappointments in veggie enterprise. “Cranky” and “Manna”-type places (but the food was never free) have risen and fallen and have had their periods of glory in special locations and contexts, some with doughty efforts at turning TVP or other veggie “meats” into something like steaks or Chinese-style fish. Manna restaurant near Primrose Hill was tremendously successful and trendy, bistro-style with good connections in the BBC and acting world, many of the staff seeing out periods of resting from these vocation and exploiting opportunities for demonstrations of their artistic talents The Falafel House at Belsize Park was as Mediterranean as its name suggests; although it was not completely veggie, it satisfied the late-night hunger of members of the British Vegetarian Youth Movement, who combined campaigning and social activities in London (and there were similar groups in other cities). On the positive side the possibilities for some form of veggie catering and food sales are now much greater and difficulties for mixed groups of consumers have lessened – except that the enterprise to foster competition in the development of “cruelty-free” foods and catering has been impeded by the archaic adherence to cheesytarianism and the creation of a division, with the vegan word, that needlessly confuses the commercial appreciation of the “free” market – of meat, milk, fish, and eggs. The Nature Clinic at Baker Street fulfilled its mission by running a veggie and “healthy” cafeteria, open to patients and public, and the Raw Deal followed the joky tradition into the evening. Food for Thought and Food for Friends, especially in Brighton – London-on-Sea – continue the trend usually in the bistro-style rather than with table cloths, napkins, and a well-stocked cellar.

21. However, there are big things about to happen in the Whole Foods Market, in which Fresh and Wild is being subsumed, and in ethical shopping and consumerism: the Institute for Grocery Distribution (IGD) opines that “shoppers are increasingly prepared to pay a premium for high-quality organic, free-range or fair-trade products. The trend is so great, states the Times (17 July 2006) “that Britain has been chosen to host the world’s largest organic store, which will open within months in West London”. In fact, the Whole Foods Market is being prepared to occupy the site of Barkers of High Street Kensington, the 135-year-old store, which closed this year. Whole Foods was founded in 1980 in the USA by John Mackay, “a college dropout and vegan animal rights activist”, according to the Times. With these credentials, however, his stores will not be entirely veggie. The IGD believes that “the ethical shopping trend is growing so fast that soon it will apply as much to toothpaste, soap, and tea towels as it does to organic milk, free range eggs and chicken, and fair trade coffee and chocolate”. The major British supermarkets are extending into these areas likewise; and like Asda and WalMart John Mackey is opposed to his workers joining unions.  
 
 

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