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April 13, 2011

Veggie revolution gathers pace in Schnitzel State

vegetarianism veganism gathering momentum in Austria

By James Gray

An increasing number of Austrians are shunning meat and dairy products in favour of a more sustainable way of life.

Interest in vegetarianism and veganism is gathering momentum in Austria, according to the Austrian Vegetarian Union (ÖVU) and the Vegan Society Austria (VGÖ). In a country better known for Wiener Schnitzel, tafelspitz and beef goulash than lentil flan or scrambled tofu, figures from the Austrian food report reveal that approximately 3% of Austrians (population 8.38 million) are now vegetarian. Estimates put the number of vegans at anything up to 10% of that figure.

Globally, the demand for meat has burgeoned in recent years, driven by growing affluence and the emergence of intensive animal feeding operations. Per capita meat consumption in the developing world has doubled in the last 20 years and despite the current financial climate is predicted to double again by 2050, according to the United Nations.

Per capita meat consumption in Austria has remained consistent over the past few years at around 65kg per year, according to Statistik Austria. Per capita consumption of raw milk was just shy of 12kg in 2009, up negligibly on the previous year, while butter, cheese and egg consumption have seen no dramatic fluctuation.

Total human consumption; per capita in kg














Raw milk







Eggs, pieces





Source: Statistik Austria, figures compiled August 30, 2010

Sustainability driving younger generation

More and more Austrians are re-assessing their lifestyles and the trend appears to be more pronounced among young Austrians, according to Dr. Erwin Lauppert of the Austrian Vegetarian Union (ÖVU). He describes the phenomenon as a Jugendkultur, or youth culture. “There is a strong trend among young women in particular,” says Dr. Lauppert.

Figures from the most recent Austrian food report also suggest that around 20% of young women in Austria no longer eat meat.

Meat production has devastating impact on environment

The reasons a person might cut meat and dairy products from their diet include health, the environment and religion. The Jewish faith stresses compassion for animals and promotes the tsa’ar ba’alei chayim tradition (“You may not cause sorrow to living creatures”).

But Dr. Lauppert admits that while the driving factors tend to shift over the years, the environmental argument remains a strong one. “Back in the 1980s the Greens were emerging as a strong influence,” he says, “and the main reason right now would seem to be climate change.”

The environmental impact of intensive farming operations is huge. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. This figure includes greenhouse gases released at every stage of the meat production cycle: clearing forested land, making and transporting fertiliser and burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles. Transport, by contrast, accounts for just 13% of the greenhouse gas footprint.

Restaurants buoyed by anti-carnist movement

Dr. Lauppert says there has been a definite rise in the number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Austria. But while he admits they are still “underdeveloped” compared with other European countries, they are well placed to tap into the growing number of people cutting meat and dairy products from their diet.

David Stojanovic runs the health food store “Köstlich” in Vienna, which caters for both vegetarians and vegans. “We wanted to offer an alternative to the usual Schnitzel and meat dishes,” he says, “but we noticed that more and more people are eating vegetarian for allergic reasons.” Although not all of his customers are entirely vegetarian, the majority are office workers who prefer the healthier, lighter option at lunchtime.

Karl Wrenkh, co-owner of one of Vienna’s first vegetarian restaurants, “Wrenkh”, founded in 1982, agrees that interest has been steadily rising. “I would say there has been a significant increase in popularity over the last decade, and the last few years especially,” says Wrenkh. He cites not only health and ecological reasons, but also a general curiosity among meat-eaters. His intention is to show that “vegetarian cuisine can be an excellent and fun alternative.”

Animal cruelty in egg and milk production

Others argue that the most overwhelming ethical motivator is animal welfare. Awareness for the suffering of farmed animals is growing globally. And it’s not just about the slaughter of animals for meat. Many are still unaware of the cruelty inflicted on hens for egg production and cattle for milk.

The Federal Act on the Protection of Animals may have gone some way to easing the situation: a ban on keeping hens in battery cages came into force in Austria in 2009. Many operations switched to floor-rearing, but there has been little regard for genuine free-range. What’s more, “the operation of cages built before January 1, 2005, is permitted until the expiry of 15 years to be counted from the initial taking into operation”, according to the Act.

Selective breeding geared towards higher egg production and therefore higher turnover has resulted in distinct strains of birds for egg laying and for meat production. Consequently, the male birds of the laying strain, who can neither lay eggs nor produce meat effectively, are shredded alive using a “macerator” immediately after birth.

When the productivity of female egg-laying hens drops, they are slaughtered and quickly replaced. The natural lifespan of a laying hen is around seven years; their relentless egg-laying means they can only produce effectively for about a year before being sent for slaughter. And this, according to The Vegan Society, takes place even in free-range systems.

Growing vigilance among consumers

Despite mandatory labelling providing information about the origin of eggs, consumers are still being duped, according to animal welfare organisation Vier Pfoten. In one case several markets in Vienna were found guilty of selling eggs labelled free-range, though it emerged they were imported battery eggs. Eggs laid by floor-reared hens have also been touted as free-range.

And neither is there any obligation for manufacturers to reveal the origin of eggs used as ingredients in products such as pasta, spreads or pastries. According to Vier Pfoten, most industrially produced foods do not contain fresh eggs, rather liquid or dried (powdered) egg.

In light of the dioxin egg scandal in Germany, close relationships with suppliers such as those fostered by “Köstlich” and “Wrenkh” have never been more important. David Stojanovic relies on the Wiener Gärtner, or Viennese gardeners, while Leo Wrenkh knows the origin of all his ingredients. In both cases produce is, wherever possible, domestic, regional and seasonal.

The situation in the dairy industry is just as bleak. Because milk cows can only produce milk when pregnant, they are artificially inseminated and made to produce calves once a year to keep milk output – and profits – high. To maximise production the calves are separated from their mothers within 24-48 hours of birth – as opposed to the usual 6-12 month period during which they would suckle.

Pushed to their physical limits in appalling living conditions, the milk cows are more prone to disease. After four or five years they have served their purpose and are sent for slaughter – despite a natural life expectation of up to 30 years. According to Vier Pfoten, even if the calves were allowed to suckle naturally and we milked only what was left, there would still be enough milk to satisfy demand.

Small wonder, then, that in a world where food scandals are alarmingly regular, more and more Austrians are embracing a healthier, more sustainable way of life.


Austrian Vegetarian Union (Österreichische Vegetarier Union), Graz
Vegan Society Austria (Vegane Gesellschaft Österreich), Vienna
Wrenkh, Vienna
Köstlich, Vienna


Published in:

Austrian Independent, 13.04.2011

Austrian Times, 13.04.2011

Vienna Times, 13.04.2011


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