British consumers are being 'brainwashed' into believing livestock farming is environmentally-damaging and cruel, the country’s top butcher has warned.

Somerset butcher Malcolm Pyne says the meat trade is being unfairly targeted by a tirade of negative propaganda, much of it mischievously inaccurate, from the vegan lobby.

And, he said, thousands of people have been persuaded to take part in Veganuary without being made aware of the implications for their health – and the planet.

Mr Pyne, whose shop in North Petherton, near Bridgwater, was named the best butcher in Britain two months ago, says promoters of veganism have been 'astute in spotting and exploiting a knowledge gap' among consumers about the realities of farming in general and livestock farming in particular.

“It has proved to be a particularly fertile field in which to sow the seeds of misinformation,” he said.

“If that only serves to promote a temporary, month-long spell of veganism that’s fine.

"But the danger is that the misguided, ill-founded beliefs of the extreme vegans are going to influence people’s long-term eating habits so that thousands and thousands of people are going to be turning their backs on the balanced diets they should be enjoying.”

Sales of red meat fell by £185 million last year as more people cut back on eating animal products, while the number of Britons describing themselves as vegans rose to 600,000, double the figure in 2016.

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But, said Mr Pyne, much of the fall was down to people changing their lifestyles and simply reducing their meat intake rather than embracing out-and-out veganism.

“Sadly most people in this country know little about farming.

"That makes them very susceptible to apparently authoritative statements about farm animals being routinely maltreated; about how meat-eating is unhealthy; and how livestock farming is contributing to global warming,” he said.

“And the way the media have jumped on the Veganuary bandwagon is now leading to those same people being brainwashed.

"There is no other word to describe it.

“It doesn’t seem to count for anything that independent agencies have warned that a vegan diet is deficient in vitamins, that putting children on such a diet can lead to early-onset osteoporosis, that vegan alternatives to meat are often high in salt and consume more energy, pound for pound, than the meat-based originals.

"Anyone who speaks out in defence of farming at the moment seems to be immediately branded a villain.

“I have no problem with anyone who wants to remove meat from their diet, if that’s what suits them.

"What I do have a problem with are the incessant and unfounded attacks on the meat industry and in particular on those farmers who supply this country with the safest, healthiest, tastiest and most wholesome meat in the world.

“Sadly our farming leaders have been woefully slow to notice this situation developing and are only now doing something to rectify it.

"But they are on the back foot – never an ideal position from which to launch an attacking campaign.

“But an initiative to counter the outpourings of a tiny but vocal movement which is creating so much suspicion and mistrust among consumers through a combination of half-truths, myths and misleading statements is clearly what is now needed if we are to preserve the fine and well-deserved reputation of British meat.”

However Toni Vernelli, head of marketing and communications for Veganuary, said accusations of spreading misinformation were 'completely unfounded'.

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Mrs Vernelli said: “It’s not a surprise to see this meat industry fightback against the growing acceptance and adoption of veganism, but their accusations that we are ‘spreading misinformation’ are completely unfounded.

"We simply quote the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and researchers at the University of Oxford who are unanimous in their advice that a plant-based diet can help fight climate change.

“Unlike the meat industry, we have no vested interest in misleading the public as we gain no personal benefit from the increased adoption of a vegan diet – other than the shared benefit of slowing the growing climate catastrophe which is vital for the survival of every species on the planet.

“In my previous job I personally carried out undercover investigations inside dozens of British farms and found cruelty and suffering on every one, including a Somerset dairy farm where we filmed a worker kicking cows in the face and slamming newborn cows on the concrete. He was convicted of animal cruelty, as were three workers on a Lincolnshire pig farm just a few months ago.

"The notion that animals are treated humanely on British farms would be laughable if the reality for the animals wasn’t so utterly miserable.”