If you want proof that the world is getting better all the time, look no further than the Greggs vegan sausage roll. I did not queue up early this morning to get one. I can’t comment on the taste, the texture, or the quality. I haven’t tried it, and I’m not sure I plan to. I’m also not a vegan, so even if I did a taste-test, I couldn’t give you an assessment of how it compares to other vegan products, especially in the ‘ready-made’ category. No, my robust defence of Greggs' latest invention is not about the quality of the pasty roll itself, but rather what new products like this show about the times we live in.
A century ago, certain meats like chicken were thought to be a luxury. Thanks to innovators and market advocates like Sir Antony Fisher – the founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who brought factory chicken farming to Britain in the early 1950s – costs eventually plummeted and chicken became significantly more accessible. What was once a rare and sought-after good became a staple in rich and poor homes alike.
Decades later, we are witnessing the benefits of market forces on a much more spectacular scale. Far more options in every area of cuisine are now on offer, including organic and ethically farmed meat products, as well as meat supplements and alternatives. From tiny start-ups to large corporates, the increasing demand for vegetarian and vegan food is being delivered in innovative ways across a string of locations, including local supermarkets, Michelin-star restaurants, and now, at your local Greggs.
And it’s not just the food market where our options have widened so dramatically. The most nuanced, particular interests are now catered for – we can holiday in ice hotels and have ‘salt socks’ or even Nicholas Cage pillow cases ferried to our door with the click of a button. But the rise of alternative lifestyles and unusual products has not been welcomed by all. Yesterday’s announcement about the launch of the vegan sausage roll received a big backlash on Twitter. For the likes of Piers Morgan, the vegan sausage roll was a step too far.
Yes, it's true that those with sustainability concerns and a meat-free conscience have benefited thanks to the free-market. Consumers are now able to purchase every piece of environmentally-friendly gear imaginable: organic cosmetics, tea tree face wash, bring-your-own reusable cutlery, in any colour package or style you want. But they are not alone. Just as market forces have widened the variety and opportunity of those who embrace vegetarianism, veganism, or other such lifestyles, so too has it given more choice to those who enjoy a slab of bacon on their double-beef burger. The migration of foreign cuisine to the UK, especially American outlets (think ShakeShack and Five Guys), have saturated the London market with far more delicious options, while barbecue and tex-mex trends seem increasingly prevalent on the UK foods scene.
It also seems ironic that those rallying against the vegan sausage roll are doing so as a form of virtue-signalling. The 'politically correct' line to take within its own bubble of traditionalism is about trying to deny people with different tastes the same market benefits that brought meat to their plates in the 1950s, and even more so today.
Of course it’s fine to playfully poke fun at certain choices people make (unless you work for Waitrose, then you might get fired), but to speak out against greater consumer choice risks turning those who would like to think of themselves as advocates of freedom and liberty into pseudo-Public Health England officials.
Have I read too much into the launch of a vegan sausage roll? Perhaps. As the Gregg’s official Twitter account so succulently responded to an angry tweet yesterday: “It's a vegan sausage roll Damon.” But in a small way, Greggs’ vegan sausage roll reminds us that there’s never been a more vibrant time for consumer choice. Vegan or otherwise, surely this is something to celebrate. Here’s to the New Year, and all the innovations and pasties it brings.