I'm a flexitarian
Gabrielle Monaghan meets the vegetarians who eat the occasional piece of meat
Published 30/03/2013 | 05:00
The public relations executive has eschewed supermarket meat, fish and red meat in favour of haloumi cheese, lentils and vegetable curries. Unlike her sibling, though, Keane has not sworn off meat for good. Instead, she is a flexitarian, a term added to the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year that describes flexible vegetarians who occasionally eat meat for its nutrients or for convenience when eating out.
"I always had concerns about animal welfare and the treatment of animals," Keane said. "But the horsemeat scandal made me conscious of how I didn't know what I was putting into my body – I'd prefer to have the choice not to eat horse.
"I'm sure I'm going to eat meat again, but if I do, I would prefer it to be organic and free range. If I go to a restaurant, and I see meat I like, I'll have it. I'm not on a diet – I'm just making a lifestyle choice."
Some 40pc of Americans define themselves as flexitarians (often known as vegivores), according to the authors of Everyday Flexitarian, a 2011 book on the phenomenon. There are signs, however, that the discovery of equine DNA in beef products across Europe is accelerating the trend on this side of the Atlantic. Quorn, the UK and Ireland's largest brand of vegetarian ready-meals, said sales more than doubled in the second half of February, and a slew of vegan cafes and restaurants have sprung up around Ireland.
Celebrities have been touting the benefits of a completely vegetarian diet for decades. Earlier this year, actress Joanna Lumley said she campaigns for people to eat less meat because "at 66, I'm full of energy and never ill, and I haven't eaten meat for 40 years. It's no coincidence".
Meat-free diets struggled to become mainstream in Ireland, where vegetables are often viewed with as a superfluous side-order to a plateful of roast beef and potatoes and vegetarians were seen as fusspots dependent on tasteless tofu.
The less militant flexitarian movement, which was revived in 2009 by Paul McCartney and his daughters with the advent of their Meat-Free Mondays campaign, is now coming into its own as the horsemeat fiasco prompts consumers to rethink their carnivorous ways.
While there are no figures available yet on Irish followers of flexitarianism, Colin Sage, a senior geography lecturer at University College Cork and an international expert on food production, suspects it is becoming more attractive to one-time meat lovers.
"My instinct is that every time we have another episode that undermines people's confidence in the food industry, then a few more renounce meat and maybe more again choose to go flexi," he said. "There is no doubt that meat is becoming the source of quite a lot more agonising."
Laws and sausages, according to the maxim frequently misattributed to Otto von Bismarck, are the two things one should never watch being made. Now that everything from frozen beef burgers to Findus lasagne and Aldi frozen spaghetti have tested positive for equine DNA, more than a few processed meats could be added to that list.
This is a sentiment shared by Juliette Gash, a newsreader at Today FM, who has sworn off processed meat and now rarely eats any meat at all.
"I'm certainly less inclined to eat any 'blended' meat since the horsemeat debacle," said Gash, whose husband is vegetarian.
"I don't miss meat that much. If I crave meat, it's a nice cut, like a steak. For me, meat is a treat – just like crisps and chocolate."
Consumers in developed countries such as Ireland already eat much more meat than their parents and grandparents, a recent study by the UN Environment Programme has shown. Darina Allen, who runs Ballymaloe Cookery School and leads the Slow Food movement in Ireland, believes the latest health scares around meat will prompt more people to embrace traditional patterns of occasional meat-eating instead of relying regularly on processed meat.
"I'd like to think the horsemeat scandal is a turning point," said Allen, author of Forgotten Skills of Cooking. "We had the life terrified out of us with the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises and things slipped back to the way they were. But each time there is a new crisis, more and more people do change their meat-eating habits.
"Virtually everyone is eating much more meat than we need. It would be so much better to eat a lot less meat and eat from animals that are sustainably reared and where animal welfare has been important.
"That's why flexitarianism is a very good route to go down – you eat less meat and when you do, it's of higher quality. Whether we like to face it or not, it costs 10 times more to produce one kilo of meat than it costs to eat a kilo of vegetables."
That realisation has begun to resonate with consumers. The horsemeat saga, accompanied by a whole new genre of horse jokes, helped drive down Irish sales of frozen burgers by 42pc in the four weeks to February 17, Kantar Worldpanel figures have revealed.
In addition, more than half of Irish people are no longer prepared to buy their beef products at supermarkets, according to a separate survey carried out in February for Checkout magazine. Of the 1,000 people surveyed, 44pc were concerned about where meat originates, while 64pc were more likely to check the provenance of products.
There are also indications that shoppers are following the flexitarian model by cutting back on regular consumption of low-cost processed meat for less-frequent dining on high- quality cuts.
Almost 90pc of the 500 butchers that belong to the Association of Craft Butchers in Ireland (ACBI) have experienced an increase in sales since the horsemeat scandal broke, with the number of shoppers seeking out craft butchers up 20pc in the last month.
"The horsemeat scandal has given the Irish population a wake-up call about what was going on with so-called cheap food," said Hugh Maguire, a craft butcher in Ashbourne, Co Meath, and president of the ACBI. "People are suspicious of it. They now understand the reason why craft butchers were deemed to be more expensive than the multiples.
"We had seen a lot of butcher shops close over the last 20 years, but they've been opening up again in the last six months. Ten more have opened, six of which are in the Dublin area.
"The provenance of the meat is more relevant to our customers than ever before. They are asking where the meat comes from and we show them a round steak or shin beef and mince it in front of them."
That's a trend that Aimee Keane can identify with.
"I used to go to Burger King or McDonald's over the years," she said.
"If I wanted to have a burger for dinner now, I'd go to a butcher in Kerry that my family has known for years. My mother asked them straight out if it's ok for me to eat burgers. She went in, pointed at the burgers, and said 'Eamon, be honest with me now – what's in that?'"