Operation Vegetarian and Biological Warfare…or Scaring Me To Give Up Meat


Operation Vegetarian sounds like an innocuous quest to go meatless. (The picture of the adorable calf could do it for me.)

Actually, Operation Vegetarian was a secret weapons project of World War II. I’d never even heard of it until recently!

Louie and Microphone

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During WWII, Nazis were experimenting with biological warfare. (Of course they did!) To prepare against a biological attack, Great Britain decided to create a weapon of their own. 

soldiers on field


They experimented with anthrax.

Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacterium anthrax bacillus. People have known about anthrax for over three thousand years. In 1500 B.C., anthrax was the cause of the fifth Egyptian plague. It infected and killed thousands of people. 

Below is an electron microscope image of anthrax.

anthrax bacterium electron microscope

Here’s an icky fact. Anthrax can survive for decades as spores. When the spores find favorable growing conditions, they shed their thick outer coating and begin to replicate. 

Duomo in Florence


In the Middle Ages (500-1500 A.D.) anthrax nearly destroyed all the cattle in Europe. Animals can contract anthrax from drinking water near soil infected with anthrax. Eating dead animals that are infected can also cause the disease. (Not that cows are eating cows, but other animals might….humans, anyone?)

This fact is more interesting.

Anthrax was the first bacteria found to be a cause of disease. Before that, diseases were a mystery! Robert Koch, a German biologist, is the scientist who discovered this fact. In 1871, Koch injected the spores from anthrax bacterium into mice. The mice became ill and died. Koch’s scientific methods were exacting and precise. He’s considered the father of microbiology.  


20 cent stamp Robert Koch


Ten years later, French chemist and biologist Louie Pasteur developed a form of the anthrax vaccine. He went on to develop the first rabies vaccine. (and many other important discoveries, namely what’s known as pasteurization.) He was messy and made many mistakes, but history doesn’t care about that.

His pic is below. He missed a button. Enough said.

Pasteurization is the act or process of heating a food, especially a beverage such as milk or beer, to a specific temperature for a specific period of time in order to kill microorganisms that could cause disease, spoilage, or undesired fermentation.


Back to vaccines.

syringes and such

The way a vaccine works is mind-blowing and brilliant.

A tiny bit of the bacteria in a weakened form is injected into a person, deliberately infecting them. But the bacteria is so weak that it isn’t harmful. The body doesn’t care how strong or weak the threat is, and creates a defense with antibodies. If a person is later exposed to the same full-strength bacteria, the body is ready with antibodies! They attack the foreign substances. The person does not become infected by the disease.

 Vaccines are not routinely given for anthrax because people don’t usually come in contact with it. People can be exposed to anthrax three ways, through the skin—via an open sore or cut—by eating meat from an infected animal, or by breathing in spores.

Mama cow and calf


The British government decided to go the second route. They made ‘cattle cakes’ which were small patties of cow food filled with deadly anthrax bacteria.  If the tainted cows were eaten by people, well, you know what would happen.

“The mortality rates from anthrax vary, depending on exposure, and are approximately 20% for cutaneous anthrax without antibiotics and 25 – 75% for gastrointestinal anthrax. Inhaling anthrax spores has a fatality rate that is 80% or higher.”

sheep grazing

In 1942, the British did a test drop over a flock of sheep. The sheep began dying within three days.

By 1944, The British had more than 5 million cattle cakes.

I doubt they looked like this. 

Cow cake

Or this…

Birthday cake and Louie
Please forgive my horrific photo editing skills….


On June 6, 1944 the Allied forces attacked and pushed the Nazi forces back. This led to an Allied victory.

The cattle cakes were never used. Thank goodness!

If they had been used, only vegetarians would have been be truly safe.  The thought of tainted meat is enough to convert me. After all, chocolate is part of a vegetarian diet.

Meatless Monday, anyone?


chocolate mousse

I’d rather end with chocolate, but I feel compelled to add that bioterrorists used anthrax in October 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They sent anthrax spores though the mail to several influential people along the East Coast. The tainted letters caused illness and the death of five people. This doesn’t sound like a lot of deaths, but only one letter contained 10 billion anthrax spores.

The possibility for infection was real. It led to a nationwide panic. More than 30,000 people were given prophylactic -aka precautionary- antibiotic treatment.  To date, it was the worst biological attack in US history.


reward for anthrax culprits
wikimedia commons

Unlike Operation Vegetarian, vegetarians in 2001 would not have been safe.

FBI agents test area for anthrax

FBI agents testing a known contaminated area in Florida.

For more information about the 2001 attacks, check out this source.

Ok, I decided to end with chocolate anyway.


If you’d like to do more reading about vaccines and how they work, I’ve got a great post here!

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