International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

31st World Vegetarian Congress 1994
The Hague, Holland

Press Report

12 August 1994, Netherlands: Vegetarian debate ranges from tofu to toenails

By Alistair Bull

The Hague, Aug 12 (Reuter) - Vegetarians gathered this week to debate their movement's latest burning issues, from equal rights for apes to the proper preparation of tofu.

Unfortunately, egg in the hors d'oeuvres led to a minor commotion as the 31st World Vegetarian Congress got under way. "It's terrible, I warned them, I said the vegans would rebel," said Maxwell Lee, honorary general secretary of the International Vegetarian Union.

Despite the spat over the lunch menu, delegates were united by a common conviction that vegetarianism is the future. In the Netherlands, for example, the number of vegetarians has risen to five per cent of the country's 15 million population from 1.5 percent 10 years ago.

Larissa Koltunova of the Vegetarian Union of St.Petersburg said 100 families were now members. " We have many young people in St.Petersburg with health problems who have turned to vegetarianism. Before we lacked information. Now we lack proper, pure health foods.

She was one of 600 or so smartly dressed, mostly middle-aged men and women who came to The Hague to mingle and debate and do their bit for science.

"We want vegans and vegetarians to send in toenail clippings for analysis," said Alan Long, research adviser to VEGA (Vegetarian Economy and Green Agriculture). VEGA is researching the levels of selenium in vegetarians and invited delegates to answer a dietary questionnaire and provide a clippings sample. A deficiency of this essential trace element can cause heart disease.

"Toenails?" asked a baffled Stephen Connor, campaign director of Britain's Vegetarian Society. He was more interested in a recent study on The Phenomenon of the Bacon Sandwich. "It's one that people really stumble on. But if you slice up a block of tofu (bean-curd), marinate it in soy sauce and then fry, the taste is so similar to bacon it's spooky. And it leaves out all the saturated fats."

The younger generation was present, but in a clear minority and not terribly impressed. "There are a lot of theoreticians here and it's pretty dull. When I want fun I go to a vegan conference," said Alex Bourke, author of the "Hippy Cook Book" and "A Vegan Guide to Paris".

Britain, where the movement was born in the last century, is well represented. The Vegetarian Society's Connor said around seven per cent of the British population were now vegetarians and the consumption of meat was clearly on the wane.

The dual appeal of a healthier diet and a clean conscience has also won the attention of the food industry which is keen to target a wealthy consumer group. More than 2000 products now carry the Society's "V" seal of approval, said Connor. But in its effort to fight back the meat industry is employing sophisticated sleight of hand, he said.

"They are trying to deconstruct meat and move out of the butcher's shop to the plastic packaging of the supermarket. They want the customer to forget that an animal has died. We want the animal back in the equation." Connor said.

Peter Singer's Great Ape Project also sought to elevate animals in the mind of the public. Singer, an Australian philosophy professor, aims to establish legal rights for chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utangs as a first step towards protecting all sentient animals and keeping them off the menu. Apes were the best place to start.

"They are the ones we reckon are most like us and no major industry depends on them," he said, admitting that he faces an uphill struggle to win society's recognition for ape rights. The project has workers in 20 countries collecting data on apes in laboratories and zoos. One of its major near-term goals was to try to build a legal case.

"The U.S. is probably our best chance. Law seems to be more free-wheeling over there," he said. Legal action at national level might be followed by an appeal to the United Nations.

But the appearance of unity belied an undercurrent of dissent from vegans who reject all animal products. Alan Long, expelled from Britain's Vegetarian Society in 1992, wasted no time in lambasting his erstwhile colleagues. "Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism is in a mess. The Vegetarian Society now accepts fees from the dairy industry. It is taking money from the enemy," he thundered.

The Carnivores Club, a London based dining club sponsored by a chain of steak restaurants, would not have been amused. Its celebration of meat included the juggling of offal at one recent event and its advocates served up a full-blooded defence for the member's right to gorge.

"This is the food that won at Agincourt, that won at Waterloo, that won two World Wars. Could that have been done on marrow?" bellowed restaurateur Laurence Isaacson from the pages of on club publication.

"Oh, that appalling bunch of right-wing meat-eaters. Yes, well, they do rather seem to support our point about the pitfalls of a flesh-based diet, don't they," said one young vegan.

(c) Reuters Limited 1994