This is it, your friends are saying: It's finally time to go vegetarian.

Past time, maybe, what with government meat inspectors renewing calls for more staff, and school districts nationwide still trying to sort out, even a week later, whether they got any of the 143.4 million pounds of beef the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled.

Still running on YouTube is the secret Humane Society of the United States video of workers at the Chino, Calif., company that allegedly allowed potentially sick cows into the food supply - it had 30,722 views as of yesterday afternoon. Meat men are seen kicking cows and using forklifts and electric prods to move non-ambulatory cattle. So-called downer cows are not supposed to be sold for slaughter, for fear they carry bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.

It's a mess, people are saying, crazy and inhumane and out of control. Cancel the tenderloin, break out the tofu.

But could a beef recall, even an epic one, really end up altering the culture and breeding vegetarians like ranchers breed cows?

"I have to say, this recall gave me pause," said Pam Jenoff, 36, a Center City attorney and novelist who was eating a salad at Reading Terminal Market the other day with her brother, Jay, 35, a Marlton physician.

"I read about the video and stopped buying meat," she said. "For me, it's more an ethical issue about animal treatment than a health issue. Unfortunately, my cooking is no good without meat."

"Your cooking is no good with meat," joked Jay, who was lunching on Asian noodles. "I eat almost no red meat. I don't worry about the animal. We're a heart-conscious, fat-free family."

The Jenoffs notwithstanding, America continues to enjoy meat. Only about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population over 18 is vegetarian, according to various polls. And that number has not fluctuated widely through the years.

William Rabutino, a former butcher having lunch near Martin's Quality Meats at the market, said he knows why.

"We're meant to eat meat," he said. "It's a little cruel. But they're animals. How else are we supposed to live in this world?"

Americans changed their attitudes toward tobacco only after thousands died from smoking-related illness and the government put its weight behind antismoking campaigns.

Prying a quarter-pounder out of someone's hands is quite another story. The notion that recalls will change the American lifestyle is fairly far-fetched, food experts believe.

"I'm skeptical," said Sidney Mintz, a food anthropologist from Johns Hopkins University. "It's going to take quite a bit to move us firmly in the vegetarian direction." Large numbers of people die in car accidents, but it doesn't curtail driving, he noted.

Since the recall, there has been no measurable drop-off in the purchase of meat around the country, said Meg Major, senior editor at Progressive Grocer magazine. And that's been true after other meat recalls too, she said.

The USDA has recalled beef, poultry and pork products 50 times since Feb. 19, 2007, its figures show.

Generally, people will stop buying meat briefly after a recall, then resume their normal patterns, said Fred Kuchler, a USDA economist who measured consumer response after the discovery of mad-cow disease in U.S. and Canadian cattle in 2003.

Addressing the current recall specifically, Kim Essex, vice president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, pointed out that it was designated Class II, meaning that no specific, known threat was present. "Our beef supply is safe," she said.

Essex added that the video of cows being mistreated was "deeply upsetting," and that the ranchers her organization represents were "utterly outraged."

Complicating any decision to stop eating meat based on recalls is the simple fact that so many other foods get recalled, as well.

In fact, about 1,000 food items are recalled in the United States every year, said Richard George, a food-marketing professor at St. Joseph's University. That comes to about three a day.

"You can get E. coli from lettuce," which itself was recently recalled, he said. "It's a larger issue than 'Do I eat meat anymore?' "

This is not to say, however, that the issues of recalls and humane treatment won't have an effect.

Already, Major said, many supermarket chains around the country have announced that they will buy meat only from suppliers whose animal-welfare standards are monitored and cleared. "More and more people are wanting assurances that animals' last moments are not spent in terror," she said.

Kathy Stevens, a nationally known animal advocate, said that after a large animal recall she notices a "dramatic" increase in people asking questions about vegetarianism. " 'I know it's time,' people say to me," she said. " 'How do I get started?' "

Ultimately, it's nearly impossible to predict whether more people will become vegetarians.

The USDA says that per capita beef consumption will decline nearly five pounds over the next 10 years, from 65 pounds to 60. But much of that may be due to increasing meat prices, attributable to rising grain and fuel costs.

Young people, who demonstrate deep interest in ecology and the planet, may move toward making America a less meat-intensive culture, said George, the St. Joseph's professor.

People like Erin McGrath, 24, a Center City art student, might become more the norm. "I don't eat meat because it's wrong to eat a slaughtered animal that I haven't slaughtered myself," she said. "I'm so far removed from the food production that I shouldn't support the process."

Just don't count on McGrath's to be the majority opinion any time soon.

"I was raised on meat," said Daniel Bundy, a 41-year-old airline worker who grew up in Vineland. He was chowing down on a cheesesteak at Rick's Philly Steaks with his son, Malik, 10.

"I will eat it till I'm gone. To me, it's all about survival of the fittest, man over animal. And I love beef."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.