Surge in veggie interest rooted in Europe's woes

April 24, 2001 Sacramento Bee by Cynthia Hubert

Television images of mountains of smoldering cow and sheep carcasses. Photographs of dying cattle and sick people. Recorded voices of anguished farmers forced to destroy scores of diseased animals.

"If this kind of footage doesn't turn you into a vegetarian, I don't know what will," says Kim Sturla, who runs a Northern California sanctuary for farm creatures and teaches classes in cooking without animal products.

In fact, activists say the saturation news coverage of the crisis within Europe's meat industry, and fears that mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases could strike here, have been a boon to vegetarianism in the United States.

"We have seen just an explosion of activity," says Laurelee Blanchard, spokeswoman for the Great American Meatout, an annual campaign promoting a diet based on grains and fruits instead of beef and pork. "I can barely keep up with the calls."

Last month, various organizations held Meatout events in more than 1,000 communities in the United States, including Sacramento. Participation was about 50 percent higher than last year, Blanchard says, and much of the increased interest was generated by the situation in Europe.

"When people turn on their TV sets and see piles of dead animals being incinerated, they seem to lose their appetite for meat," Blanchard says. "That is why our phones have been ringing off the hook."

First came news of mad cow disease, formally called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, which causes a slow and painful death in cattle as the brain and other parts of the nervous system waste away. Scientists believe it was spread in Europe by farmers feeding brains from infected cows and sheep to cattle as a protein supplement.

More than 90 Europeans have died of the human form of the disease this year after eating infected beef or beef products, and the outbreak led to mass destruction of cattle and a 50 percent decline in beef sales.

The most recent panic surrounds foot-and-mouth disease, which has prompted a ban on the export of British livestock and led to the destruction of more than 800,000 animals. Humans are generally unaffected by the disease, but it spreads rapidly among cattle, sheep and pigs, weakening them and causing blisters in the hooves and mouths.

Although no cases of either of the diseases have been detected in the United States, and officials have expressed confidence that current safeguards will protect Americans, public anxiety is nevertheless rising. A recent poll found that 76 percent of Americans would be likely to avoid or reduce beef consumption if such diseases were even suspected in this country.

"People are definitely freaking out," says Lori Friedli, wine and cheese buyer at the Sacramento Natural Foods cooperative, which carries an array of vegetarian and organic foods, such as tofu ravioli and soy chicken. "They are really concerned about their meat. They hear bits and pieces of things on TV, and they panic."

Friedli in recent weeks has found herself counseling customers who were afraid that the diseases ravaging Europe's livestock might affect salmon and cheeses in the United States. The diseases do not affect milk or fish, she explained to them.

"I'm not necessarily seeing a lot of people who are giving up meat completely, but I'm seeing a lot of people who are looking for a very clean source," she says.

For others, the European crisis and other negative news about meat production have directly translated into the first steps toward vegetarianism.

Bill Mesa, a retired police officer who works for the Jamul Indian Village of California, near San Diego, says he has been a dedicated carnivore most of his life. But in recent weeks, as he has read and watched news reports about the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and the problems in Europe, Mesa has decided to stop eating meat.

"I started thinking that even though God has given us dominion over these creatures, his generosity did not extend to torture and mayhem," says Mesa, 50. "So I have discovered the joy of soy. It's going to be tough, because I've been a meat-and-potatoes man my whole life. But I don't have any real cravings for meat right now."

Although Mesa may be in the minority in choosing to forgo meat completely, recent news reports about the industry clearly have increased interest in the topic, activists say. Subscriptions to vegetarian magazines have skyrocketed in recent months, and Web sites are getting record hits. Vegetarian events are drawing more people than ever.

The Animal Protection Institute, a national advocacy organization based in Sacramento, recently launched a billboard and Web site campaign offering a "vegetarian starter kit," which includes sample menus, shopping tips and recipes, and has been overwhelmed with responses, says grass-roots coordinator Monica Engebretson.

API started its campaign in January with advertisements on buses in Seattle. By the beginning of March, at about the same time the latest situation in Europe was starting to peak, "I started to get tons of responses," Engebretson says. "I have 50 to 70 pages of e-mails from people who are interested in the starter kits."

Blanchard says she believes the renewed interest in vegetarianism will have a lasting effect.

"There are people right now who are afraid to eat meat, and they're exploring alternatives," she says. "In the process, they are going to find all sorts of good things they love. If they discover some really wonderful fake salmon fillets in the health food store, they will continue to buy it.

"They may start seeing positive health effects. They may lose weight. They may start thinking about the ethical issues. I do not believe this will be a passing trend."

Furthermore, Blanchard and others say, being a vegetarian is no longer a major dietary challenge. Most mainstream grocery stores and restaurants carry vegetarian products, and the taste and selection has improved dramatically.

"When we moved to California 20 years ago, we were surprised how few vegetarians we met," says Betsy Johnson, who was shopping this week at the cooperative. "I've seen a big increase. Fewer people question why we are vegetarians, and it's much, much easier to find products."

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