Vegan State

1st March 2019

Vegan state by Glynn Davis

For a business best known for its steak slice and traditional sausage rolls, it has been a remarkable turn of events this past couple of months for bakery chain Greggs. Its launch of a vegan sausage roll as part of the Veganuary trend has helped the company enjoy what it describes as an “exceptionally strong start” to the current year.

There is no doubt Greggs was jumping on the vegan bandwagon when it pitched such a product to the growing number of people adopting a vegan diet or flexitarian approach but with a bit of celebrity recognition, demand for its Quorn-based vegan sausage roll went off the charts.

It was originally launched in 950 stores on 3 January but such was the public’s appetite it was quickly rolled out to 250 more stores per week and will be in 1,950 locations this month. The vegan sausage roll certainly helped put some wind into Greggs’ share price and it rose to a record high of about £18 on the back of the group’s overall strong trading performance.

If Greggs can get a bounce from the growth in vegan food I’d argue anyone can and, in reality, every foodservice company is giving it a go in some form or other. The number of vegan restaurants in the UK has risen 55% in the past year to 48, according to the Local Data Company, which found it’s not just a London-based phenomenon. Yes, 18 are located in the capital but the other 30 are spread far and wide, with Yorkshire and Humber having the second highest concentration with 12 outlets.

Further evidence of the momentum behind veganism can be seen in the level of new product development (NPD) surrounding vegan products in the UK. Almost one-fifth (16%) of food products launched in 2018 had a vegan or no-animal ingredients claim, double the figure in 2015. This compares with a much lesser 9% for food products launched across Europe as a whole, which ensured the UK toppled Germany as the top dog for NPD of vegan foodstuffs last year.

It is likely many of these vegan products would have been launched previously as regular food items but in the current frenzied move towards veganism we have producers and foodservice companies recognising the potential of overtly marketing them as vegan products.

Consider technology firm Spoon Guru, which combines artificial intelligence data processing and optimisation capabilities with customer insight and nutritional advice to create dietary tags. With these it can classify food products. When it did this across Tesco’s entire range, it found its vegan range (products overtly branded as such) consisting of a mere 162 items immediately leapt to 16,000 items.

From this we can say a lot more food items and dishes in restaurants are vegan than previously thought, but this has not necessarily been highlighted and certainly not promoted as such. However, there is now a gung-ho rush to add the vegan label in an overt manner and for restaurants to promote their stance in a righteous way. This has worryingly resulted in fall out for some operators deemed not to be fully on board.

William Sitwell lost his job as editor of Waitrose Food magazine for his rather ham-fisted (pun intended) attempt at humour when he responded to a freelance journalist’s pitch for features on plant-based recipes with the suggestion for a series on killing vegans one-by-one instead. There has also been a worrying rise in the number of protests from what are being described as “vegan activists”. Direct Action Everywhere is a group that has held protests outside meat-focused restaurants and disrupted diners’ meals.

It would be a great shame if the positive moves by a growing number of people towards adopting a more healthy and planet friendly diet were hijacked by aggressive groups hell-bent on attacking animal products in all its forms. It would be just as sad if they were hoodwinked into paying more for a vegetarian chilli, for example, on the grounds it was suddenly rebranded “vegan” by cynical companies which, unlike Greggs, aren’t positively developing the vegan category.

Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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