This week marks the inaugural Meat Free Week UK, which is urging consumers to go vegetarian for seven days. It’s just one of a number of high profile events taking place this year that provide a wealth of marketing opportunities for produce
This year is the 30th anniversary of The Smiths’ album Meat is Murder, which in 1985 enraged the popular press, and prompted angst-ridden British teenagers to terrorise their parents with threats of going vegetarian.
At the time no one could have predicted the vegetarian lifestyle The Smith’s singer Morrissey advocated would be so embraced by the mainstream media, but with a plant-based diet representing one of the faster growing trends (see figures further on in article) meat-free is the new version of drinking cocktails out of jam jars.
With the popularity of Meat Free Mondays, a campaign that originated in the US in 2003 and was later spearheaded by the famously vegetarian McCartney family in the UK from 2009, the Australian organisation Meat Free Week launched its elongated initiative in the UK on Monday, March 23.
The event, which asks people to sign-up to go meat-free for one week, and donate/get sponsored to do so with the money going to health and animal welfare charities, has garnered some impressive support.
Chefs Jamie Oliver, Skye Gyngell, Mark Hix and Raymond Blanc are among the names lending their weight to the week. The week will particularly focus on social media, and this is where the fresh produce industry can take the opportunity to raise awareness of the huge variety of tastes a vegetarian diet can contain.
Matthew Rawson, chairman of the Brassica Growers Association, says it’s a great way for producers to get the message across that vegetables are more than just a side dish.
“There seems to be an assumption that meals should revolve around meat as the priority, and that vegetables are a last minute addition to the plate, but that definitely isn’t the case,” he adds.
“Vegetables can, and should, be the star of a dish, and actually, removing meat from your focus really encourages you to be a bit more creative with your veg. For example, a whole roasted cauliflower makes a spectacular centrepiece on any dinner table, and tastes incredible.
“Events such as Meat Free Week and Meat Free Monday are a great way to raise awareness of this, and encourage people to make more of fresh produce.”
The produce industry is in the perfect place to push its offer, with consumer insight company Mintel last year estimating that 12% of UK adults follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, rising to 20% among 16 to 24 year-olds.
The appetite for vegetarian food is also growing, with Mintel stating that 12 % of global food and drink launches in 2013 claimed to be suitable for vegetarians, up from 6% in 2009.
Chef and entrepreneur Jamie Oliver has one of the most high profile international brands, which includes a butcher’s shop, however, he is lending his support to Meat Free Week.
“I’m a passionate meat lover, but I fully support Meat Free Week – it’s a wonderful excuse to focus on the incredible bounty, flavours and colours of veggies,” he explains.
“There’s no question from what world experts are telling us that having more of a plant-based diet, and eating less meat, is the key to a longer, healthier life, and it’s super good for the planet too.”
Supermarkets Asda, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose are all raising awareness of Meat Free Week, with Waitrose in particular doing so in store via a range of promotions of vegetarian food and recipes after having seen increased demand for such products and produce, with spring greens up by 23% last year.
Already the supermarket, which forms part of the John Lewis group, has declared 2015 the year of the kale-like Cavolo Nero, whose sales increased last year by an impressive 343%.
“Generations of Italians have enjoyed Cavolo Nero as a versatile, nutritious and tasty vegetable and I’m delighted to see our shoppers joining in,” says Waitrose buyer Patrick Keane.
“Sales of this delicious green have continued to increase and this is something we can only see continuing into 2015.”
Alongside Meat Free Week there are a number of vegetarian/vegan festivals and events taking place this year. The weekend of March 28 and 29 sees the return of Brighton’s popular Vegetarian festival VegFest, and the Vegetarian Society, which runs its own week from May 18 to 24, has launched a new event called KIN, which takes place on July 11.
Chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, Lynne Elliot, says KIN 2015 is a place where anyone interested in the wider benefits of leading a vegetarian lifestyle can come together to discuss change.
“More and more people around the world are embracing veggie ideals for many different reasons and we want to share those reasons and bring them to a larger stage,” she adds.
Founder of VegFest Tim Barford says that it also encourages fresh produce producers and suppliers to get involved with the festival as a way of promoting the consumption of fruit and vegetables.
"[We] understand the logistics of putting on fresh food at events like ours. We work closely with our caterers and fresh food suppliers to ensure that they are able to trade successfully at our events,” he explains.
And Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of The Vegan Society, says that there is plenty of support for fresh produce that growers, retailers and processors can dip into all year round – especially when it comes to healthy eating.
“There are many more reasons to go vegan than just the animals. The health benefits of a vegan diet are both long established and extensive,” she explains.
Perceptions of a vegetarian diet have changed dramatically since Morrissey first appeared on the television chart show Top of the Pops; today many of those teenagers that traumatised their parents by refusing bacon sandwiches are leading the charge towards meat-free lifestyles. The fresh produce industry is well placed to help them win their battle.
Read more about opportunities for produce within the UK’s progressive vegetarian dining scene in PBUK’s exclusive interview with London-based restaurant Vanilla Black.