United Poultry Concerns August 18, 2005


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Christine Van Dusen, August 11, 2005

For Carolyn S. Englar, dinnertime in the dining center at Emory University was a lot like a scavenger hunt. With tray in hand, she weaved through the aisles, peering behind counters and under sneeze guards, searching for food --- something besides apples and peanut butter --- that would fit her vegetarian diet. The dining hall "wasn't particularly great with veggie options," said Englar, a 20-year-old from Maryland who is entering her junior year. She may have better luck once she graduates from the dining center to the supermarket and trades her tray for a cart. Traditional grocery stores are dedicating more dollars and shelf space to meatless products for the nation's growing number of vegetarians.

Nearly 25 percent of college students say it's important their schools offer on-campus meals that don't contain meat, fish, poultry or other animal products, according to a recent study by Aramark, a provider of food and facilities management for colleges and other institutions. While meatless eating may be a passing fad for some students, for others veganism --- and its less-strict sibling, vegetarianism --- is a lifestyle choice they'll hold on to long after graduation.

They'll join an ever-growing population of vegetarians of every age who are pursuing non-meat diets for political reasons, health concerns or simply because they don't like the stuff. Even carnivores are more often forgoing beef, pork, poultry and fish --- it's estimated that between 35 percent and 50 percent of U.S. adults now eat two to three meatless meals per week, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a Maryland-based nonprofit group.

So traditional supermarkets are slowly adding meatless products while placing greater emphasis on the category in the stores. This allows the shops to meet increasing demand while addressing competitive pressure from stores such as Whole Foods, known for its wide array of fresh vegetarian options. "It's a clearly defined market segment that can't be ignored," said Todd Hultquist, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, an industry trade group.

That doesn't mean meat will be pushed out of freezer cases in favor of veggie burgers, Tofurky and non-chicken nuggets. Demand for meat products remains strong. Traditional grocery stores please those customers as well as the non-meat eaters, and there are only so many shelves.

So for now, vegetarian-type products occupy a fairly small space in most supermarkets. And that's an improvement, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. "In the supermarket, things are much better for vegetarians compared to 10 or 15 years ago," said John L. Cunningham, consumer research manager for the research group.

Sarah Blum would agree. The 22-year-old recently graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and now shops for vegan foods at her grocery store in Maryland. She wishes there were a wider selection of soy products. "It's on their radar screen. It's gotten better over the years," said Blum, who now works as an editor at the Vegetarian Resource Group. "But it leaves something to be desired."

Part of the problem may be that vegetarianism has grown quietly and slowly and hasn't burst onto the scene with a public relations blitz --- unlike, say, the recent low-carb diet craze, which inspired a rapid and sizable response from grocery stores.

"Low-carb came in like gangbusters," said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior research analyst and author of a study on meat-reduced diets for Mintel Group, an international market research firm. "Vegetarianism has been around so long, and its rise is not as dramatic."

Also, manufacturers have continued to battle against the myth that "good-for-you" foods can't taste good, she said.

So the change at grocery stores has been gradual.

About 21 new products were introduced as "vegetarian" in the United States in 2001, according to the Global New Products Database. That number rose to about 94 in 2003, Mogelonsky said.

In 2001, vegetarian and organic items occupied one 8-foot-long shelf in any given Publix grocery store, said company spokeswoman Brenda Reid. Gradually those products, most under the store's "GreenWise Market" label, were interspersed throughout the supermarket. They now take up much more designated shelf space.

"The manufacturing and retail communities have both been providing more options," Hultquist said.

Where in the past soy milk was difficult to find in a traditional grocery store, the beverage now stands side-by-side with cartons of traditional cow's milk and is often produced by the same company.

Kraft bought vegetarian food company Boca in early 2000, and got its veggie burgers into markets and stores that the smaller company wouldn't have been able to penetrate on its own. Kellogg did the same with Worthington Foods, and its Morningstar Farms meatless lasagna and spicy black bean burgers, in late 1999.

The downside of these deals, Cunningham said, is "the large companies don't have the same ideological and philosophical commitment to vegetarianism, and may therefore make compromises that may upset parts of the community, such as fortifying a product with Vitamin D derived from lanolin rather than one derived from non-animal sources."

Regular supermarkets still don't typically offer such products as soy cheese without milk proteins, he said, or cheese without rennet, which comes from the stomach lining of unweaned mammals and has an enzyme that curdles milk for cheese production.

"So to sum up, yes, there has been some improvement. But there is still more progress to be made," Cunningham said. "Grocery markets and producers are not taking advantage of the opportunity to reach this market to the extent that they could."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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