BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans, known for their love of sausages, are eating less meat and more vegetarian food as concerns grow about health, animal welfare and the environmental cost of livestock farming.
Meat consumption is stable or declining in most developed countries but the shift is particularly striking in Germany, Europe’s biggest pork producer and home to 1,500 varieties of sausage including Berlin’s favorite, the “Curry-Wurst.”
The change in eating habits is steady rather than spectacular, but the food industry is facing up to the fact that the sausage - and meat in general - will no longer hold such a revered place in German national culture.
Germans are not about to ditch their habits and traditions. The Greens party stirred an outcry in 2013 by proposing that canteens for public sector workers should serve only vegetarian meals one day a week. Also, while the large Muslim minority avoids pork, other meats such as lamb remain popular with its members.
Nevertheless, overall meat consumption dropped last year to 60.1 kgs per person from 62.8 in 2011. While that was well above the global average, it is still about half that eaten by the average American.
The trend is likely to continue in a country that has a small but growing community of vegetarians; market data firm Euromonitor predicts German fresh meat consumption will fall 2.9 percent by 2019, after a dip of 1.2 percent in 2014, the biggest recorded drop in the world apart from recession-hit Greece.
“People are tired of the many scandals and there is great interest in how animals are treated and what impact my consumption has on other parts of the world,” said Christina Chemnitz, agriculture expert at the Heinrich Boell Institute, a think tank linked to the Greens party in Germany.
Germans’ worries are wide, ranging from antibiotics in meat and the welfare effects of large-scale “factory farming” to the felling of rain forest to make way for crops grown not for humans but to fatten up livestock.
About 50,000 people took to the streets in Berlin in January to demonstrate for better conditions for animals and against genetically modified organisms in agriculture, a technology used in producing grains also destined for livestock feed.
They also rallied against a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and United States that they fear will erode food standards.
Germany has a long tradition of environmentalism and an influential Greens party which won 8.4 percent of the vote in 2013, but vegetarian options were relatively rare in mainstream restaurants and stores until the last decade or so.
That is now changing fast. The number of vegetarians in Germany has doubled in the last seven years to about 3.7 percent of the population, while a survey has shown that 60 percent of Germans would be willing to cut their meat consumption, largely due to concerns about health and animal welfare.
That helps explain why the world’s biggest burger chain McDonald’s Corp is struggling in Germany, along with other developed markets, prompting it to try to improve its environmental credentials and offer a healthier menu.
The German food industry is likewise responding, offering more vegetarian and vegan options. It is also promising to do more to improve animal welfare and make supply chains more transparent, particularly after a scandal in 2013 when horsemeat was found in products labeled as beef across Europe.
Consumption of meat in Germans’ homes has fallen most significantly, while sales from the ubiquitous sausage and kebab stands are more stable, according to Thomas Els, a market researcher at consultancy AMI.
“People are not becoming vegetarians en masse but moral and ethical considerations are playing more of a role,” he said.
Sales of frozen meat substitutes rose more than a quarter a year between 2009 and 2014, the fastest growth in the world, according to Euromonitor.
The biggest supermarket chain Edeka recently launched “Vegithek” counters in 50 stores serving meat-free versions of popular dishes such as sausage, Schnitzel and cold sliced delicacies. It has also joined other leading retailers in a promise to pay 4 cents per kg of meat sold into a fund to promote better conditions for animals.
Even the sausage industry is changing. Mario Ziervogel, whose family has sold sausages in Berlin since 1930, added a soya-based version of the Curry-Wurst - pork sausage smothered with a curry-flavored ketchup - to his menu two years ago.
“You have to be flexible and keep up with the trends to have a successful business,” Ziervogel said as customers lined up to order lunch in his Kult-Curry restaurant in eastern Berlin, estimating about 5 percent of sausages he sells are vegetarian.
“Earlier it was enough to have Bockwurst, Wiener or Knacker sausages. Now they are out of fashion. Then came Curry-Wurst with skin or skinless, then came chicken sausage. Then a customer came in and asked for a vegetarian sausage,” he said. “The next we will introduce will be vegan.”