Roger Ratcliffe gets to
the meat of ultra-processed foods

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When I heard the term “food fascism” I felt a bit queasy about repeating it. By no stretch of the imagination, I thought, could an argument about meat eating have any connection with the power exercised by far-right, authoritarian regimes. But things have moved on.

Once, meat eaters like me were in the overwhelming majority. We sat down to eat with vegetarians and vegans without giving our respective dietary choices a moment’s thought beyond someone occasionally cracking the old chestnut about veggies still hankering after a bacon butty.

Now, though, the tables are starting to turn on us carnivores. Although we’re still by far the biggest market catered for by supermarkets, in the last year 450,000 UK residents are said to have become vegan. That’s an increase of 40 per cent – bringing the total to somewhere around 1.5 million – and this astonishing growth rate is predicted to accelerate.

Where once there was harmony around the table – I tucked into my beefburger and melted Monterey Jack fresh off the barbecue while a friend ate a patty made from soybeans and tofu – now the food on our plates is political. I am already finding I have to defend why I eat animals and animal products. It seems to me that one day in the future people will define us by what we eat and, if we’re not careful, tucking into a steak in a restaurant will become the new smoking in public. I wonder if it’s too hysterical to envisage a rendezvous with my class A meat dealer in a dark alley. “Psst, wanna buy a burger? It’ll cost you, mind…”

What is driving this controversy is a powerful lobby of billionaires, academics and agricultural industry corporations who are trying to push veganism down our throats for ideological and commercial reasons, having latched onto controversial studies that concluded that global warming could be averted by a radical shift from beef production to growing nuts, beans and vegetables.

I am all for helping to counter climate change, but I can’t help thinking that veganism has been hijacked by some questionable vested interests. And the knock-on effect seems to be evident almost everywhere I go. On menus in Yorkshire and Scotland I’ve seen “plant-based” replace “vegan” against dishes.

The plant-based label is now ubiquitous, and so often I find it on ridiculous parodies of items normally made from animal products such as scotch eggs, sausage rolls and even cheese. Earlier this year a small company in Scotland making a plant-based cheddar called Sheese – actually soybean concentrate, hydrogenated vegetable oil, spirit vinegar, lactic acid, flavourings and colourings, carrageenan and locust bean gum – was bought by an international dairy company for £109 million.

If you find the above list of ingredients unappetising then you may one day have to develop a taste for them, because the simple truth is that trying to make plant-based foods taste like you can still hear moo-ing requires a huge amount of processing and – ironically given that they’re supposed to be saving the planet – also can’t exactly help with reducing the carbon footprint.

This doesn’t matter to some. To them the issue is far bigger than what makes a good meal. Slowly, I see meat and animal products being demonised, and in the eyes of militant vegan campaigners people like me will eventually be demonised too.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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