Slowly but surely Britain is becoming a nation of vegetarians.
According to a new study from the University of Manchester, the greatest decline in meat buying has been among women, who were the nation's largest purchasers of meat 20 years ago. The probability of a female-headed household buying meat today is 20 per cent lower than it was in 1975. Furthermore, women who still buy meat are spending a far smaller proportion of their food budget on it.
The University of Manchester study is part of The Nation's Diet, a Pounds 1.6 million programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, of 16 projects examining British dietary trends.
Researchers Trevor Young and Michael Burton based their analysis on two surveys, running from 1975 to 1993, of household expenditure provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries and the Central Statistical Office. They quantified long-term decline by extrapolating their data from households headed by single adults, making it easier to assess whether the household was purely vegetarian.
Dr Burton said: "It was a fairly arbitrary decision based on the need to reduce the amount of calculations. Although it affects probability, it should not change the empirical analysis." The fact that households headed by a single adult account for nearly a quarter of all homes makes it a good indication of national fluctuations.
Overall they found a 12 per cent increase in the number of vegetarian households since 1975.
They then identified the growing number of consumers in Britain who either declare themselves to be vegetarian or who eschew red meat.
Significantly, at least for an industry competing mainly on price, it is factors other than cost and income changes that have become increasingly important in consumer's dietary decisions.
They found, for example, that the presence of children generally increased the chances of meat on the menu. Although there was no simple way of determining why this should be the case, they believe that it may be an unwillingness on the part of vegetarian parents to enforce their dietary habits on their children.
Education was also found to be an important factor. The more educated the head of household the less likely he or she is to buy meat. Again, the reasons for this are unclear, although the researchers believe that the issue is more one of social class than education itself.
Less dramatic was the discovery that age played a role in the decision-making process. The study found that age often reflected ingrained attitudes to meat.
For instance, the elderly often had a predisposition to eat lamb, a very fatty meat, whereas younger generations had a preference for healthier options such as chicken.
Occupation was also found to be important. Those without jobs were more likely to be frequent meat consumers, possibly in the mistaken belief that vegetarianism is an expensive luxury.
The project also examined the effect of the media on beef consumption by observing associations between consumer trends and news stories.
The researchers concluded that the media do have a substantial effect on eating habits.
Beef sales fell by just under 6 per cent in response to a series of bovine spongiform encephalopathy articles in 1990. Sales figures consistently reflected the number of related stories appearing in the national press.
Although the long-term effects of the media on eating habits were less dramatic, suggesting an initial kneejerk reaction, beef's market share experienced a sustained decline over the next three years. This in turn led to a growing preference for other types of red meat such as pork and lamb.
The results of the study are expected to provide the meat industry with a guide to more effective advertising.
What the analysis cannot hope to answer is whether the shift in preferences they have observed is reversible.