Food critic William Sitwell isn’t the first person to express hatred toward vegans, but he might be the first to lose his job for it.
Sitwell stepped down from his job as editor of Waitrose Food, the magazine of a UK supermarket chain, after his email response to a freelance journalist pitching a series on plant-based recipes went public.
“How about a series on killing vegans one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?” he wrote.
Selene Nelson, the vegan freelance writer, was understandably shocked — and made the email public. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she told BuzzFeed News, which published Sitwell’s email. “I’ve written about many divisive topics, like capital punishment and murder cases and domestic violence, and I’ve never had a response like that to any of my articles or pitches.”
Sitwell’s response created a media firestorm, and Waitrose was quick to distance itself, saying in a statement, “Even though this was a private email, William’s gone too far, and his words are extremely inappropriate, insensitive and absolutely do not represent our views.”
Sitwell apologized immediately after the email was made public, calling it an “ill-judged joke” and claiming that “I love and respect people of all appetites be they vegan, vegetarian or meat eaters.” But when the controversy didn’t die down, he was forced to leave the magazine.
The challenge vegans face
Sitwell’s response was beyond the pale, but he’s not alone in expressing dislike for vegans.
One study by Cara MacInnis, who studies psychology at the University of Calgary, found that vegans are viewed more negatively than atheists, immigrants, homosexuals, and asexuals. The only group viewed more negatively than vegans was people with drug addiction. Labeling a food as vegan can cause its sales to plunge by 70 percent.
Anthony Bourdain once wrote that “vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit” and called vegans their “Hezbollah-like splinter faction.”
So why all the vitriol?
We still don’t know exactly, but there are a few theories. One is that vegans make people feel guilty. People tend to interpret someone’s choice not to eat meat as condemnation of their own choices, which can make them pretty defensive.
Other people have suggested that it comes from the cognitive dissonance that eating meat produces: Most of us like animals, so eating them feels kind of messed up — even if we don’t realize it. Vegans also represent a threat to the status quo, and cultural changes make people anxious.
Plus, even vegans will admit that sometimes, they can be kind of annoying.
“For the three decades I’ve been an advocate, there has always been a segment of vegans who have built vast and elaborate rationalizations for basing their ‘activism’ on screaming and hatred (and attacking anyone who is not sufficiently pure and dogmatic),” writes Matt Ball of the One Step for Animals.
Given all of this, it may not be surprising that the number of vegetarians, let alone vegans, in the US hasn’t really increased. About 1 percent of adults self-identify as vegetarian and report never eating meat (as opposed to saying they’re vegetarian but sometimes eating meat), and that number hasn’t changed much since the 1990s.
But what has changed — and what Sitwell may be behind the times on — is how much the demand for plant-based food has increased: exactly the kind of trend Nelson was presumably pegging her pitch to.
Sales of plant-based meat in the US increased 23 percent in the past year. Sales of plant-based foods now exceed $3.7 billion in the US alone. A study done (ironically) by Waitrose shows that one in five adults follow a flexitarian diet, or reducing the amount of meat they eat.
Those trends make sense — there’s growing consensus that eating less meat is better for us and for the planet. A UK study released just last week found that plant-based diets can improve mental well-being and quality of life, decrease risk of diabetes, and help with weight loss. Eating less meat and dairy also play a huge role in reducing the impact of climate change.
Companies are waking up to these changing attitudes. The American fast-food chain White Castle started offering a plant-based burger last spring and more than doubled its sales goals. Sonic, the popular American burger joint, jumped on the flexitarian bandwagon at the same time, but instead of offering a meatless burger, it started offering a burger with less meat by blending beef with mushrooms.
In fact, Waitrose itself has responded to these cultural shifts. Just last month, it reported that its sales of vegetarian and vegan products were up 85 percent from the previous year, and that it would launch its own line of 25 vegan and vegetarian products. Unlike other companies, Waitrose wasn’t shy about slapping on the “vegan” label. The Times of London even called veganism one of the foodie trends of 2018.
Sitwell, for his part, has apologized “to any food- and life-loving vegan who was genuinely offended by remarks written by me as an ill-judged joke in a private email and now widely reported.” His apology was embedded in an Instagram post that featured a photo of the cover of a past issue of the magazine that advertised “40 gloriously meat-free recipes.” Sitwell added that the magazine had refused advertising for meat-based products to produce that issue.
That Sitwell had to step down and issue such a fulsome apology may be yet another sign that attitudes around veganism are changing.
Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.