Jayne Dowle: Culture war over Greggs’ vegan sausage roll sad sign of a divided nation

The new vegan sausage roll at Greggs has been the cause of online arguments.
The new vegan sausage roll at Greggs has been the cause of online arguments.
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As if we don’t have enough to worry about, now the nation is apparently divided over a sausage roll. Sorry. A vegan sausage roll.

While MPs should be concentrating on slightly more important matters, such as impending Brexit, Labour’s Chris Williamson, who represents Derby North, has weighed into the debate. He went on Twitter to tick off Piers Morgan, TV presenter, former journalist and self-appointed voice of moral outrage, who has slated the Greggs takeaway chain for introducing the snack.

Williamson duly informed raging carnivore Morgan that “veganism is the future” and helps to prevent “climate catastrophe”. Morgan shouted something back about “PC-ravaged clowns” and more sensible members of the human race looked on in wonder that grown men really have nothing better to do with their time.

However, let’s not be fooled here. This is about more than a strip of fungus-derived protein encased in 96 layers of puff pastry. It’s about freedom of choice, cultural and religious mores and the nasty climate of judgment which seems to be gathering pace in this country, just as we prepare to cut ourselves off from the generally civilising influence of belonging to the wider continent of Europe.

Do you think that they would bother themselves with such trivialities in the cafes of Paris, for instance? Making an active choice to not eat meat has never been as popular. One in eight British people is now vegetarian or vegan and a further 21 per cent say they are flexitarian, where a vegetable-based diet is supplemented occasionally with animal protein. You’ll find a vegan-friendly option on every pub-food menu and in most school dinner halls. Yet in my experience, when people slate veganism, or vegetarianism, they still do so out of ignorance. The main cause of ignorance is fear. And Britain today is riven with fear. Our long-prized values of easy-going tolerance and a general attitude of live and let live have been submerged by suspicion, anger and generalised bullying.

I say all this as a former semi-vegetarian, so I can speak with a smidgeon of authority. For almost 15 years from my early 20s I chose not to eat meat, although I did enjoy fish and seafood. I don’t recall anyone bullying me. Back then, food was respected as a personal decision, without political connotation. My decision was made on the grounds of healthy eating rather than for moral or religious reasons. I enjoyed learning to cook plant-based dishes using lentils and pulses and learnt a lot about how other cultures eat in the process.

This kind of thing was perfectly possible in the 20th century, and no-one took to social media to justify their position – it didn’t exist – or marched on Parliament to prove their democratic right to eat what they fancied. As far as I am aware, no editor lost their job, as the former boss of Waitrose’s magazine, William Sitwell did last year, because they had a row with a freelance writer over a few vegan recipes.

And no-one felt the need to launch a crusade like Veganuary, which exists to highlight the detrimental effect of an animal-based diet on climate change and claims to be signing up a new supporter every six seconds.

However, when I became pregnant with my first child in 2002, I craved red meat so much, I succumbed. Working on the premise that what my growing baby needed was far more important than what I thought, I trusted my instincts. I didn’t judge others and hoped that they wouldn’t judge me.

Nowadays, I simply concentrate on making healthy, well-balanced meals for my family. Sometimes they include meat, sometimes they don’t. Sadly, I suspect that this makes me weak, or a hypocrite, or a shady recusant with vegetarian tendencies, depending on your point of view. There are extremists on every side. In other words, food politics is polarising the population on socio-economic, education, religious and geographical lines. And this is what is really insidious about the whole thing. You may have noticed that at the same time as Greggs launched its vegan sausage roll, McDonalds brought out a vegetarian Happy Meal.

You won’t have heard half as much furore over this, because a lot of the vitriol launched at Greggs is based on pure snobbery. It’s hitherto been most famous for its steak bakes and pasties, which have become a kind of cultural shorthand for easy, quick, cheap, filling and popular with ordinary folk.

Celebrities such as Piers Morgan don’t like this kind of thing, because they don’t understand it. It’s easier to snigger rather than stop and think. A vegan sausage roll or indeed any sausage roll, would be a luxury to the millions of people who continue to starve around the world and the thousands of families in Britain who rely on food banks to survive the week, every week. If we want to get political, that’s what’s really worth shouting about.