VEGA News Item

Fibre- Dietary and Moral - 22/06/2004
Joined-up Action Now in the Market Place for Animal Welfarists
Thirty years or so ago, Dr Burkitt and surgeons such as Conrad Latto, a Trustee and President of VEGA, regaled the British public with the virtues of hi-fi in diet, the consequences of low-fibre consumption resulting in degenerative diseases, especially of the gut, and the scandal of the frankly illustrated national stool. This was all grist to the veggie mill: the Vegetarian Society campaigners launched a Campaign for Real Bread in 1976, which the Sunday Times took almost as its own, and epidemiologists published a paper in the Lancet comparing the bowel functions of British veggies with normal output and frequency and with the magnificent workings of the “primitive” peoples. A press-release from the then-Research Section of the Vegetarian Society carried the warning that “Britain was becoming a nation of constipated, toothless fatties” and it found a quotation in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps as an opportunity to swipe at the Brit’s body colonic and lack of both dietary and moral fibre or, more presciently, alerting its American readers to evidence already and ominously arising from the dimensions of seating in theatres and aircraft of the increasing all-American Jumbo Bumbo.

Such issues came to a head last month in the UK with publication by the House of Commons Select Committee on Health of a report on obesity, which has engaged them for a year. It blames the Government for a lack of joined-up thinking, which has allowed rates of obesity in Britain to almost double in the past decade. The report concentrates, like much recent controversy, on the diets and advertising and promotion of food to children; the failure to achieve 5-a-day fruit-and-veg initiatives- which are modest aims, it would seem- came in for special comment and despair.

The committee were “very surprised” at the lack of health education campaigns aimed at tackling obesity and they called for a campaign “dedicated exclusively to tackling obesity” that would spell out the health risks of being overweight and obese and would identify high-risk foods. The warnings are especially apt for people of Asian or African origins, the over-expression of the function of their thrifty genes and restraints on consumption make them more-than-averagely susceptible to metabolic syndrome X and then to diabetes type 2. Some of such consumers are by custom and habit vegetarian. The MPs duly acknowledged the benefits of exercise, education and the labelling and preparation of food, and regretted the development of snacking, grazing, and the decline in regular family meals: lounging in front of the TV is often accompanied by idleness and snacking to excess and the MPs called for Ofcom, the media regulator, to examine the Advertising Standards Authority’s “disturbing” inefficacy as a watchdog (which VEGA’s complaints to it and the answers nicely illustrate).

Rejecting the Government’s claims that the 5-a-day fruit and vegetable promotion was addressing obesity issues, the MPs called for a campaign “dedicated exclusively to tackling obesity” that “plainly spelt out the health risks of being overweight and obese and identified high-risk foods”. They expressed concern over the “cynical” exploitation of pester-power” in advertising to children, while backing away from advocating an outright ban on all advertising of unhealthy foods; however, they would “very much welcome it if the industry as a whole acted in advance of any possible statutory control and voluntarily withdrew such advertising”.

Dismissing as “rather naïve” the approach of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, the committee of MPs called on her to review the marketing of “less healthy” foods and advocated a traffic light system of food labelling to show consumers the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods. “Obesity is an issue which demands truly joined-up policymaking”, their report concludes. Supermarkets are already toying with traffic light systems, but it is not clear that they will be able to define foods as healthy or less healthy; and the blinkered view of fat, sugar and salt as the villains overlooks opportunities for a deeper review of the subject by the Food Standards Agency, which rightly considers, say, consideration of affordable food for the poor (“who have every right to eat meat”), even if much of it rates as junk food and is eaten in large quantities by consumers with more money to spend on less objectionable products (fillet steak at about £20 a kilo, retail, costs 6 or more times than mince). Is skimmed milk to be rated as healthy because it has half the fat content of the cow’s normal secretions, while farmers and manufacturers have to try to pass off the by-products, co-products, and sub-products as unhealthy if they are rich in fat, such as butter and cheese (but a source of protein and minerals), while whey (a source of protein and lactose, but low in fat) counts as healthy?. Veggies may be surprised that many products retailed as suitable for vegetarians or carrying approbations from various bodies accepting the manufacturers’ fees and assurances will rate as “junk foods”, albeit convenient and readily-available junk.

A green signal for acceptable products would seem attractive and apt; however, cautionary ambers would abound, if not red warnings, to confuse consumers. Some fats contain “essential” fatty acids contained in oily fish but not in other animal fats. Frying and salad oils and fats would presumably all get a red from the MP’s but a nutritionist would have cause for reservations, wondering whether the lights may change from beef tallows, dripping, fat ghee, vanaspati, hydrogenated vegetable oil and sunflower, soya, rapeseed, and olive oils. Consumers encouraged to eat oily fish could easily ignore a double yellow or a signal passed at danger by becoming derailed on points of contamination. The FSA would be committed to some tricky decisions on environmental and animal welfare factors in the standards it is supposed to proclaim; would the origins and genetics of the feedstuffs consumed by the livestock and other considerations of husbandry count in the categorization of the fats in meat, fish, eggs, and milk, for instance?

Conscripting GIs

A joined-up allocation of warnings must extend to sugar, sweetening agents, and salt. “Starch” is not a single chemical entity by modern standards. In Bircher-Benner’s days just after WW2 food regimens rated starchy foods, such as potatoes and bread - even without the butter- as fattening. Nowadays sub-divisions of polysaccharides with various dietary functions have led to glycemic indexes (GIs) as markers of the metabolic responses to meals and thus to their links with the development of obesity. Consumers can probably rate their own GIs on the emissions and rumblings from top to bottom in their digestive tracts. However, followers of the Atkins diets are responding to signals coming from the Bircher-Benner clinics and diets that have been overlooked by latter-day nutritionists. Among the finer points of these analyses potatoes in their various conditions of preparation and use can return varying GI scores.

The joined-up thinking we now expect of the FSA will entertain, we hope, the relevant campaigns for sugar reduction in the interests of dental health and the responsibilities of the Agency in explaining the agronomic standards of food production and the responsibilities it inherits in illuminating contentious issues, such as the fluoridation of drinking water: decaying teeth bring the traffic of munching and chomping on fruit and veg to a halt unworthy of a Bircher-Benner regimen.

The messages on salt are likely to confuse customers in ways we can illustrate with special reference to Marmite and other yeast extracts. A red for salt (sodium) seems to clash with the drive of our genes for the salinity associated with the preservation of food, the significance of salt in rehydration solutions to save the lives of babies and young animals in bouts of excessive diarrhoea, the confidence (false in the UK’s case) of salt as a carrier of supplementary iodide for the workings of the thyroid gland, and innocence over the balance of the mineral salts of sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, for instance. In many contexts salt enjoys a go-signal, especially as a cheap ingredient of value in manufacturing, as in bread-making. So the traffic controllers of British food will have difficult decisions just setting the levels of warning in the many products of the food factories. Marmite and other brands and own-brands of yeast extract contain the equivalent of 11 or 12 % salt, which spoils an other wise useful product. A Marmite soldier made from one slice of bread contributes about 1g of salt to the diet, divided about equally from bread and spread: the salt in the fat adds about one-tenth of the total load. The Vegetarian Society launched an Assalt course in the 1970s, recognizing the responsibilities set by its Green Plan for farming, food, health, and the land and by its Campaign for Real Bread. Protests to the main manufacturers and retailers for lo-salt versions of the yeast extract were rebuffed; the Vegetarian Society was so perverse as to ignore its advisers' warnings and it accepted Marmite’s salty payments to win the Society’s dubious approval. However, the health food trade now sells yeast extracts with only 10% of the salt content in other ‘commercial’ products.

Now the Fat’s in the Fire: Tuning the Dietary Engine on a Lean Fat Burn

It has taken a long time for the issue of obesity to join up strands of agronomic and nutrition policies that were already being tied together half a century ago. Revival of Atkins-type diets coinciding with a phase in slimming endeavours and better understanding of the carbohydrate components of diet have helped to illuminate factors that informed dietary regimens of the Bircher Benner school, in which raw foods with prolonged munching and therefore slowly masticated played a major part, and starchy foods such as potatoes were treated with reserve because of their fattening effect in what were even then regarded as “rich” diets. As a national policy now the plan should aim at a rounded reduction of all foods, certainly for most of population. A welcome advantage to the economy would thus be achieved, not least in uptakes of fossil fuel for manufacture, transportation, and intensive systems and from the consequent relief in disposals of “waste” and in contamination and pollution. Exercise can be increased in several beneficial ways, for instance to improve general musculoskeletal fitness and conservation of energy, but these advantages may be counteracted if the activity is carried out on specially constructed machinery installed for no thrifty purpose in air-conditioned atmospheres.

Veggies are going to be confronted with red signals if the Consumers Association, the Food Standards Agency, and the supermarkets apply the warning to foodstuffs available in their own stores and carrying their brand names that are common to health food stores, where they are on sale with assurances of suitability and even approbation. The lights will come on when fats, sugar, and salt are assessed and verdicts on, say, saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans-fats (i.e. hydrogenated oils, whether in a factory or a cow’s metabolism) will tax the most conscientious nutritional driver.

Fitting Standards to Farming, Food, Health, and the Land

The food industry, and veggie and animal welfare organizations themselves are in confusion over definitions, in which the various parties are in collusion to blunt the challenge and leverage the veggie cause was generating at the end of the last century. Epidemiological surveys lost power because subjects pronouncing themselves veggie “occasionally” (but possibly significantly) consumed meat in some form, as well as betraying the cause as “quichytarians”, with no reproach from organizations who should not have ignored the inconsistency and should have noted the abandonment by perhaps as many converts claiming adherence to vegetarianism of a sort. Introduction of the word vegan has added confusion because the intended exquisiteness is little understood (“you eat fish then?”… “They’re the people who don’t wear leather” … “They’re just animal rightists”) reduces their leverage in the market (which is anxious to unload the by-products and sub-products of the semi-skimmed dairy industry), with the facile accord of organizations and people purporting animal welfare (“I really ought to be vegan; I know it’s right”). So catering at such events such as the RSPCA’s and the FSA’s unnecessarily perpetuates the marginalization, the few real vegetarians (or lone souls) waiting quite unnecessarily (or going without) because the vegetarian option is avoidably contaminated and “non kosher”.

These betrayals and lost initiatives continue to inflict a parlous toll on farm animals. In the UK weekly consumption of eggs has risen by 3 million over the last decade; increasingly, such poultry-products come from systems, e.g. in countries recently accepted into the EU, but also in Thailand and Brazil, where hygiene compares with British standards but animal welfare is worse. In the British dairy herd more than one out of every 5 cows are lame and one in 3 are mastitic; these troubles are rife in Soil Association and Freedom Food farms. Condemnations of GM foods are as lame as the cows, where prodigious outputs are stoked up with imports containing GM soya and “prairie meal” (i.e. mainly “corn”, i.e. “maize”). These are species that have borne- and still have to bear – the consequences of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. The animal welfare movement has shamefully deflected from effectual demonstration of its mission.

Respite has come from the commercial interests of soya farmers, of whom there are none in the UK, to convert their crops into milk and dairy products, without the agency of miserable, mucky, and mastitic cows, realizing in part the ideas of WW2 in this country by using grass (leaf protein) directly for the purpose instead of imported concentrates. The commercial groups have “milked” the benefits of soya to human health and the avoidance of intolerances and allergies associated with dairy-products, as well as the fundamental agricultural problems and costs of the CAP the animal-based industry is burdened with. Soya milk and derivatives have advanced from the pioneering long-life products on sale in health food stores to branded and own-brand versions in supermarkets and, most significantly, the cartons stand shoulder to shoulder in the chiller cabinets with the products we hope to see ousted. It’s a triumph for animal welfare, in some respects comparable to the success of franchised Body Shops in opening up the market in “cruelty-free” cosmetics which had been shunned in the general trade for the shame they implied so closely on competitors unable to extricate their products from the blame for avoidably cruel experimentation. Let us hail the success of such benefit to farm animal welfare. Animal welfarists with any commitment have no excuse now for not developing uncowed a strong taste and demand for the milk of human kindness, a cliché that fits these products well.

The Devil in the Retail

That they are not so applied demonstrates the hold that grips perceptions and delusions over the holy cow and her pathetic offspring. The courage of outright confrontation still eludes the new entries on the retail market. VEGA’s attempts to budge the Advertising Standards Agency into condemnations of wrong and objectionable commercial claims for “liquid meat” have received little support. Promotion of soya milks and their derivatives has concentrated anthropocentrically on the benefits to human well-being and has conspicuously avoided the consequences to the well-being of animals. VEGA has striven mightily to persuade the advertisers to straighten up for this mission as Beauty Without Cruelty and Body Shop did for cosmetics. Alpro takes full pages in the weekend magazines emphasizing “Your body is a temple. Treat it with reverence”, and “show your body how much you love it” while So Good introduce the cow in allusions of the disrespectful associations she has to suffer in our language. However, these irredentist claims may not do much to illuminate the reaches of human concern and they challenge us yet again with the commercial dismissal of animal welfare and the environment; but as value-adding concepts (in all senses), they are likely to do more for the cow and her calf (not to mention the occasional seminiferous bull) than protesting animal welfarists, with or without or in spite of secret agendas have managed for decades; and Shakespeare had put the treachery so much more cogently.

Sainsbury has suffered an ignominious rebuff as a consequence of an on-pack promotion offering shoppers a free pack of soya milk with every purchase of standard semi-skimmed cow milk. The offer was withdrawn in deference to complaints from the NFU and Farmers for Action. Sainsbury pleaded that soya milk was “not positioned as direct competition to dairy products” and stressed the chain’s commitment to supporting British farmers. The chastened firm “recognised that there could be some customer confusion” and explained that the promotion on soya milk “was designed to offer an alternative to those who suffer from lactose intolerance”. Valuing its relationship with farmers, Sainsbury promised that “no future production will carry the promotion.” This incident at least gives the lie to farmers’ grievances based on bullying by supermarkets; it also reveals scanty appreciation of the feelings of animal welfarists and others.

While Sainsbury was promoting Alpro soya milk as “dairy-free, low fat, with calcium” it was launching a new milk from cows fed on animal feed guaranteed to be free from GM. This Selected Farm milk has been launched after weeks of lobbying from Greenpeace and a sit-in at the retailer HQ in Holborn. It was developed to “give customers a choice”. Claims that non-GM milk would simply confuse consumers, given that Sainsbury’s had previously urged people wishing to avoid GM to choose organic milk “must add to the muddles, because organic cows may be fed on imported concentrates of GM soya and maize”. The Grocer magazine (5 June 2004) cites an industry source who observes that the launch was “bizarre” and says that “organic milk is only 3p dearer. You might as well buy that if you are worried about GM”. Greenpeace’s single-issue obsession over GM has generated a rebuff to products with qualities that include non-GM but also comprehend the principles of animal welfarists and more serious environmentalists. Let’s all pull together and match the farmers’ leverage on the market.

While the live/deadstock industry is recovering from the breakdowns of FMD and BSE, the nation is one of those beginning to recognize the costs of subsidies and imprudent agricultural policies: the toll in degenerative diseases in greedy consumers. Obesity is a condition of nimiety- of excess- that bedevils populations with false obsessions of deficiency and commercially programmed “to know the price of everything but the value of nothing” (not to mention the cost). For most of our population an all-round practicable curb on consumption, particularly of animal-derived foods, by say 10% in the next 5 years, at a rate of 2% a year, would relieve the toll of millions of animals at the minute cost of a lessening of choice and variety, but with acclaimed benefits in human health and the quality of living, and with the promise of a reforming momentum well beyond the present – and rather despairing – aspirations and unalloyed aims of veggie campaigners. After 30 decades of Green Planning we can see at last – and with BSE in the meanwhile – that the commercial leviathan is having to alter course and that pioneering concepts and practices will play significantly in reversing the plundering of domesticated, captive, and wildlife and the whole environment. Now the devil is in the retail: by education, learning, and practice we must sharpen our acuity as customers.

Cost, Convenience, and Caution Spice up the Curry

Submissions to the Cabinet Office’s Curry Commission several years ago anticipated many of the dietary problems arising from gluttony and nimiety, and demonstrated joined-up thinking in food production and consumption and environmental care and animal welfare that would entail great savings in subsidies and curtailment of the food industry’s excessive enterprise in stimulating consumption. If the Govt’s praiseworthy efforts as reducing smoking are hampered by the vested interests of the tobacco industry and the public’s reluctance to abandon this from of self-abuse, abetted by the advertisers’ wiles, its problems with reforms in food-demand and consumption face an even bigger alliance of obstruction and indifference – not only from producers and manufacturers, but also of the cookery writers and the trade in kitchen ware and appliances and the fuel they use extravagantly; food features in the prosperity of packaging, and transport, and distributive trades and all the environmental insults they perpetrate. The only joined-up enterprise in this colossus is increasing output in an already sated and almost static population (in numbers) and indifference to the plight of disadvantaged groups needing special attention. The traffic in water and overridden seasonal fluctuations stimulates demand for fuel-guzzling irrigation systems and acres of plastic polytunnels harmful to the countryside and to rural societies and farming marred by gang-masters and hordes of ill-paid and illicit workers with none of the attributes of “true sons of the soil”.

The cost of an overabundance of cheap food is set off by the convenience the consumer enjoys (and a choice of unseasonal foods, from New Zealand lamb to some of the components of the 5-a-day – and 5 is not an ambitious target – fruit-and-veg recommended by the Governments nutritionists) and the increasing eating out and avoidance of the constraints and labour of the family meal. The burgeoning livestock enterprise in Brazil and other South American countries, as well as India and the new entries to the EU, yields products consumed increasingly in the UK and more and more freighted in processed as fast food. At the moment veggies do not come out well in these comparisons. Even when they go organic, few of their nuts and beans are grown in the UK: the climate and labour costs tell against tree crops, and hazel nut farming struggles to compete against imports from countries where care for the environment and slaughter of pests (i.e. wildlife) count for little. The meat of the veggie diet, presented and processed in one form or another, is the imported soya bean. With stricter labelling requirements and in (probably excessive) deference to sufferers of allergies it will become well-nigh impossible to avoid may-contain warnings on veggie foods of contamination with various nuts and dairy-products, unless they derive – like certain pharmaceuticals – from dedicated factories, not just from dedicated or “sanitized” lines in multi-purpose plants; similar reservations apply to GM-free claims. And many self-styled veggies are, as is well-known and attested, demi-semi-waverers in their abstentions from fish, flesh, and fowl and the implicated eggs and dairy-products – and the involvements in animal welfare, not only of farmed animals, but also of wild predators and pests such as rabbits, pigeons, rodents, foxes, and badgers.

SPADS- Signals Passed at Danger

In evidence given to the Commons Select Committee on Health executives from the industry producing confectionery and what may be termed junk foods were called to account for their policies and practices (rather like the cross-examination in the McLibel trial). Asked to explain the calorie-counts on his company’s burgers, Julian Hilton-Johnson, the vice-president of McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd, conceded that his staff “were told to encourage diners to take up ‘super-size’ portions of food”. Executives from Cadbury Schweppes, PepsiCo, and Kellogg’s also yielded unsatisfactory answers on Chocolate Buttons, cans of fizzy drinks, and Coco Pops. Some of the sinners have come to current repentance as the harm caused by such products scandalizes the USA, where the “food is the safest in the world” (but the standards are not, as we constantly remind Britain’s FSA).

Kevin Hawkins, newly awarded an OBE and representing the British Retail Consortium, but until recently spokesman for Safeway, expressed the fears of the food industry and allies such as the Food and Drink Federation, in which joined-up reformers can see agreement and grounds for hope. He is “disappointed” by the recommendations for traffic-light labelling: this approach “leads to artificial segregation of foods by attacking staples of our diet such as meat and dairy products. Such wrong thinking has no scientific underpinning and could lead to serious unforeseen consequences for individuals, such as a dangerous fall in their iron and calcium intake. It could also lead to an increase in eating disorders”. He makes some valid allusions, but right thinking predicates the benefit of all round and urgent reduction, by education and fiscal measures, of the excessive demand for animal-derived foods.

Cooking and Crudités, Standards and Safety

A statement from the Guild of Food Writers illustrates in virtuous terms the grip of another exceptionable obsession. The Guild is running a campaign to encourage children to cook. Cookit! as the campaign is called, argues for abstention from processed food. Their statement appeared at the end of May – Salad Days for the well-versed consumer and a lesson for cooks of all ages in reduction of fuel consumption. In chemical terms cooking must be one of the most drastic of methods of food-processing. In evolutionary terms it marks our species out of all the others, even the chimpanzees; and in these terms also a late invention by our forebears, who must have experienced fire in natural conditions and may have used it for warmth or clearing overgrown territories but only relatively recently left signs of hearths. Fifty years ago Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Gripps, was an adherent of Bircher-Benner ideas and Ro Kosh, and he was a vegetarian. Those were literally lean years of food policies and consumption much praised. We suggest the Guild of Food Writers delve more deeply into the hymns ancient and modern of food lore, wherewith to imbue schoolchildren. The recent trend for crudités offers a nice way for fulfilment of 5-a-day standards. In many languages and cultures preparation of food and meals is described in the culinary terms of cooking, a process involving chemical changes more profound than in the technology of, say, irradiation. The changes in tenderising fibrous material and reducing microbiological dangers must have availed our forebears, but they are counteracted by the processes of frying, roasting, and barbecuing meat in rehearsals of the technology of olden times.

It is the barbecue season and the meat-trade sees other reasons, e.g. the popularity of the Atkins diet, to whistle up some optimism. It and the dairy-industry are relying on subsidization to see them through post-BSE setbacks. However, long-term CAP changes, the threat of obesity and its corollaries in the human population and the increasing mercies in animal welfare and the environment conflate into a common cause for urgent reduction in the consumption of animal-derived foods. Flaunting its S for Standards, not just Safety, the FSA – the Food Standards Agency, that is- can promote portfolio nutrition, giving food writers prompts for innovation based on recommendations already being advanced by medical authorities toying with the “impossibilities” of food for health, rather than recourse to nationwide over-the-counter sales of statin drugs. This purpose is more effectual in creating a momentum outstripping dubious ameliorations and overcoming the obstacles of questionable approbations.

Now is the time for a concerted common effort for the common good. Let us fulfil that purpose!


Animal welfarists and environmentalists contemplate green burials or donation of their bodies and organs for medical research, and then green disposal. Factors of landfill, packaging (i.e. shrouds and coffin), incineration (i.e. cremation) and pollution have to be considered. The aftermaths of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, as well as viral epidemics in intensive poultry and pig units and the disposal (mechanical by “maceration”) of millions of live day-old chicks unwanted as egg-producers offer some experience of these matters. The food industry is faced with cognate challenges in disposals of surplus production and out-of-date commodities. Gregg’s, a major bakery firm making and selling meat pies and breads, is testing innovatory and cleverly-designed (by physicists and engineers) machinery for rapidly reducing such condemned waste into combustible granular outputs as fuels with a net gain in calorific value together with a fraction suitable as fertilizer, and just a whiff of odourless steam, at present unused. Such machinery can deal with the whole bodies of pigs and cows.

So what about us then? The innovators of the award-winning equipment are coy about on-site installations at hospitals, churches or undertakers, but concede that such applications are feasible. And an obese population should at least return a lot of calories by such means in the generation of power by an acceptable form of recycling.

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