A scandal of Onion-headline-worthiness proportions has ripped through the Vegan world: Veg News, one of the largest publications catering to vegetarians, used stock photographs of meat to illustrate its meat-free recipes.

A blogger, who asked to go by her online name QuarryGirl, broke the story after a tip from a reader. (Her blog once won an award from Veg News for investigative online journalism — an award she says she has since returned.) She wrote:

It’s sad, then, that the pictures we’ve been drooling over for years are actually of MEAT! Veg News has written tens (possibly hundreds) of articles extolling the virtues of a vegan lifestyle, while purchasing rock-bottom priced stock photos of MEAT, EGGS, DAIRY and other completely non-vegan things.

The reaction to the scandal has had the mixed result of some readers swearing off the magazine, with others defending it. “If the goal of the whole game is to celebrate and promote a vegan lifestyle, how does relentlessly bashing an organization that has spent 11 years championing our shared mission make any sense at all?” asks Michael Parrish at another vegetarian blog.

The magazine’s statement did little to quell the anger. Quarry Girl said in an e-mail interview that the poor response by the company had alienated the community more than the actual transgression of using meat photographs.

When reached by phone, Joseph Connelly, the publisher of Veg News, said he realized they made a mistake with their first announcement and would be issuing a policy change soon. “I apologize to everyone I’ve upset. It was never our intention to deceive our readers.” He said everyone at Veg News is upset by the response.

The incident brings to mind the Cooks Source scandal from last fall, when an editor of a Northeast magazine plagiarized work, was caught by an online blogger and wrote a non-apology, apology letter. A similar outpouring of anger was unleashed online, so much the magazine eventually shut down.

Using a photograph of a real hamburger instead of a vegetarian hamburger is not on par with stealing someone’s work by any means, but it does raise the questions of how stock images are used in magazines, and what airbrushing does to manipulate readers.

A blogger in defense of Veg News said the images were meant to illustrate stories, by being “the idea of the hot dog,” and Connelly concurred with this. However other readers commented online that they had been disappointed when their end product failed to live up to the photographs online.

In one instance, ribs were airbrushed to remove bones to make them look more like vegan ribs. Connelly said that is the only time airbrushing occurred and that “photos of people are airbrushed all the time.” Perhaps, but the practice of airbrushing has come under fire, particularly when it changes a photograph to imply a non-true reality (see, for instance, the kerfuffle over Kelly Clarkson’s Shape magazine cover.)

Despite her disappointment with the magazine, Quarry Girl wrote, “Their credibility and business may be hurt but I doubt the magazine will go away. I hope they begin to use appropriate photography, improve their editorial integrity and prosper.”

Meanwhile in the meat-eating world, the news provoked a bit of rib-poking humor. “It’s brazen and despicable. No more vegetables for me,” writes one comment on a New York Times blog.