From Meat Free Days to Meat Free Diets?

From Meat Free Days to Meat Free Diets?

Jo Mylan and Nicklas Neuman

World Meat Free Day can be conceptualised as an intervention aimed at raising awareness of ‘meat-reduction’ as a positive dietary choice. It shares characteristics with other efforts to raise awareness of issues related to environmental sustainability, health or social justice, such as Earth Day, the World Health Day and International Women’s Day. The ambition, according to the official website is not to coerce people into entirely abstaining from eating meat, but rather to encourage consumers ‘just for one day, to show how easy it can be, so that you eat less meat throughout the year, and better quality meat when you do eat it.’ Meat free days are one sign that momentum is building around addressing the environmental problem of meat (Morris, 2017; Vinnari and Vinnari 2014). After years of mainstream environmental NGOs avoiding the issue of meat eating, fearing a backlash from meddling too deeply in their supporters ways of life, various organisations are now advocating reduced meat diets, including Greenpeace, WWF, and the Carbon Trust.

Recognition of the relationship between diet and sustainability has also started to gain prominence in public dietary guidelines. Guidelines, which, until now, have focused on the nutritional aspects of food, are beginning to incorporate environmental concerns. For example, the Nordic Council of Ministers incorporated ‘environmental issues’ into their latest update of the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations, which in Sweden led to the more general advice to ‘eat greener’ – a play on words linking fruit and vegetables to environmentally friendly consumption. Parallel to this, proponents of dietary patterns such as the ‘New Nordic Diet’ or the ‘Mediterranean diet’ make claims of benefits not only for peoples’ physical health, but also for environmental sustainability. Despite the geographical origins, these diets are more similar than different, focusing on eating patterns in which most of our caloric intake comes from plants, with red meat is consumed ‘in moderation’, and with a supposedly holistic approach that incorporates protection of biodiversity and cultural heritage. In the UK this perspective is still lagging behind, however. The latest update of the Eatwell Guide, from 2016, does acknowledge sustainability, but no more than advising consumers to select ‘sustainably sourced fish’. Recommendations about red meat, on the other hand, focus on health, and these dietary shifts pertain to the reduction of processed meats and saturated fat.

Such dietary change initiatives are accompanied by pleas for ‘responsible’ consumers to avoid, replace, or eat ‘less but better’ meat, advocating interventions such as informational campaigns designed to persuade people to change. The logic is that sufficient amounts of adequately persuasive information about the problems of meat eating will shift individual intentions in desirable directions. This has been the standard way of thinking about behavioural change for decades. But, as evidenced by the rise in obesity, diet-related metabolic diseases and the perseverance of unsustainable eating patterns, information campaigns as a means of intervention into peoples’ diets are unlikely to stimulate change. We suggest four reasons why this is unlikely to work when it comes to meat:

‘Proper’ food and ‘normal’ eating
Why do the populations of the rich parts of the world eat so much meat? Well, the causes are many and the individual incentives to keep doing so are strong. Indeed, a more reasonable question might actually be ‘why wouldn’t we?’ After all, most people enjoy the flavour of meat in different forms, meat is filling and nutritious, many popular meat dishes demand no advanced cooking skills while being cheap and accessible. For most people, a ‘normal’ meal is self-evidently about eating meat. Thus, eating meat is rarely a particularly deliberate choice, whereas not eating meat usually is, and shared ideas about what constitutes a ‘proper meal’ places meat at the centre (Murcott, 1982). Moreover, since meat eating is self-evidently ‘the normal’, meat free alternatives are likely to be less accessible and reduced to ‘special diets’ associated with people with certain strong values and opinions. ‘Normal’ people eat meat, whereas people who select meat free alternatives might be perceived as deviant, strange or politically radical.

Wealth and Progress
Meat has historically been associated with wealth, and thus with economic progress as populations grow richer. In the richer parts of the world, such as the UK, meat eating is in general no expression of wealth anymore, but the historical association with a better life turned meat into something highly desirable. We see this today in developing countries in which meat consumption steadily increases as people become richer. One could therefore argue that the meat consumption on a population level is a marker of something good – of people rising up from poverty – but this does not change the fact that the planet and animals will suffer as a consequence.

Sociality, celebration and symbolism
In addition to constituting the centre of a generally accepted proper meal, meat is also at the centre of festive meal occasions. Whether a simple family barbecue or a Nobel prize dinner, the meal is likely to centre on different forms of animal flesh. Meat tends to symbolize something highly valued. In fact, anthropologists have shown that red meat specifically has been the most highly ranked food and simultaneously the most taboo-laden food in cultures across time and place (for example, religious taboos concerning pigs or cows) (Fiddes, 1991). The taboos mostly tend to target women rather than men, however, and this brings us to our final point.

Meat eating and gender
Red meat has a historically strong association with masculinity. As mentioned earlier, vegetarian eating is culturally associated with certain political values and opinions, but it is also associated with women and femininity. Men tend to eat more meat than women and fast foods are often advertised with sexualized images of women. Some feminists have even argued that human dominance over animals and men’s subordination of women are two sides of the same coin (Adams, 1990). Whether or not one accepts this argument, it is still plausible that adherence to meat-reduced diets would, on average, be less likely among men than among women.

In sum, the practical, material and cultural embedding of meat in our diets and wider society means that specific days highlighting meat-free eating are unlikely to deliver mass changes in what we consume. Research on meat reducing consumers conducted at the SCI has uncovered a range of influences shaping consumers orientation to, and experience of, reducing meat eating. The drivers and influences extend beyond people’s awareness of the problems associated with meat – influenced by peoples’ personal relationships and with their own bodies and with other people.

‘Being healthy’ routinely forms part of meat-reducers’ narrative, a common sense notion of meat reduction as being advantageous to one’s physical health. However, health also underpins narratives of why abstinence from meat is not considered good idea. First, because meat offers an important source of nutrition and secondly, because of a deep link between meat and ideas about vitality and the strength of the body. This link, therefore, works in two ways – both in explanations for why meat is avoided – often to make way for other healthy foods – and why meat is not omitted entirely.

Socialising, providing food and being fed by family and friends present a double- edged sword for meat reduction. The social conventions of the group with whom one usually eats will play a role in the food that is eaten – increased knowledge and awareness for the individual will have little effect if this does not fit into established everyday routines. Perceived expectations of others for meat-based meals which aim to please and satisfy, often work to sustain levels of meat provision within the home. Nevertheless, close personal relationships may also stimulate meat reduction, as new dishes are encountered, enjoyed and reproduced. The meat reducing motivations of others, particularly partners, are adopted in support by household members. The conditions of home-life may have contradictory influences on endeavours to reduce meat in the diet.

Concerns about hygiene are a key influence on where people purchase meat. Negative impressions about the hygiene of the premises or food preparation practices were often mentioned as reasons for avoiding meat eating out of the home. More insipid concerns and general anxieties around hygiene also emerge from imagining the journey of meat through production and processing as it becomes food. Fears about cleanliness, sterility, and purity, pervaded explanations of why meat, or certain types of meat, was avoided. Small substances were perceived as posing big threats – bacteria, hormones, antibiotics, genes and their modification, were the sources of contamination that mattered. Meat reducers are not responding to a specific ‘crisis’ in meat production (such as ‘the horsemeat scandal’, E. coli or BSE), but a chronic and pervasive unease about invisible practices of the food industry.

This article has outlined some of the challenges of shifting toward meat-reduced or meat-free diets. We argue that interventions aiming to accomplish general reductions in the consumption of meat must target not only peoples’ knowledge, but also the cultural understandings of what ’proper food‘ is, the meanings attached to certain diets, the accessibility and skills required for vegetarian food to become a ‘normal’ option and so forth. Social change in this area will have occurred when vegetarian options, and generally meat-reduced diets, are no longer ‘deviant’, limited to people who have taken a political stance. Consequently, while World Meat Free Day is a welcome initiative, likely to contributing to establishing ‘meat reduction’ as a positive dietary choice it is only one piece of broader puzzle required limit the disadvantageous effects of industrial meat production.

Adams CJ. (1990) The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory, New York: Continuum.
Fiddes N. (1991) Meat: A natural symbol, London: Routledge.
Morris, C. (2017) ‘Taking the politics out of brocoli’: Debating (de)meatification in UK national and regional newspaper coverage of the meat free Mondays campaign forthcoming in Sociologia Ruralis.
Murcott A. (1982) On the social significance of the “cooked dinner” in South Wales. Social Science Information 21: 677-696.
Vinnari, M. and E. Vinnari. (2014) “A Framework for Sustainability Transition: The Case of Plant-Based Diets.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 27(3): 369-396.


Jo Mylan is a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester. She researches in the area of innovation for sustainable consumption and production, with a particular interest in how large firms and powerful industries shape everyday life. Nicklas Neuman, recently conducted postdoctoral research on meat reduced and vegetarian consumption, funded by The Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF).  He is based at the Department of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics, Uppsala University, Sweden, but at the moment he is a visiting academic at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.