Burger King Uncowed

The addition of a vegetarian option to Burger King's sandwich menu last month was greeted with a rousing cheer by a one-time nemesis of the fast-food giant. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which only last year engaged in a heated (and ultimately successful) effort to get the company to hold its meat suppliers accountable to basic animal welfare standards, had high praise for the "BK Veggie." "The new veggie burger is sure to both raise Burger King's revenues and lower Americans' cholesterol levels," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA's national campaign coordinator. "[It's] a winning proposition for animals, people and the planet. We hope everyone will give the veggie burger a royal welcome."

Before rolling out the red carpet, it's worth taking a closer look at Burger King's new product. Nutritionally, the BK Veggie has little to recommend it. The patty alone is composed of an astonishing 48 ingredients, including such marvels of modern food science as sodium acid pyrophosphate, hydrolyzed corn gluten and "grill flavor." Combined with its nutritionally deficient, refined-flour bun, the sandwich reflects the ingenuity of its engineers more than it does Burger King's concern for the health of its customers. Granted, the BK Veggie is less a health nightmare the company's familiar fatty, cholesterol-laden burgers. It has about half the sodium of a Whopper and even has a smattering of grains and frozen vegetables. And when served without its mayonnaise topping, it contains no animal products, except for a trace amount of dairy.

But the mere absence of meat and cheese from the BK Veggie says nothing about its nutritional value. Froot Loops, Pepsi and Burger King's own French fries, for that matter, are also free of animal products, but few health advocates would seriously recommend consuming these foods as part of a well-balanced meal plan. Promoters of the BK Veggie are doing the public a serious disservice by suggesting that it is anything other than a highly processed, nutritionally deficient junk food that just happens to be meatless.

From an environmental standpoint, Burger King's new menu item is also not much to celebrate. A BK Veggie is produced with ingredients originating in disparate locations: The onions might come from Iowa, the smoke flavoring from New Jersey and the jalapeno powder from Mexico. They are brought to a central manufacturing plant, assembled, packaged and reshipped in their new "value-added" incarnation to Burger King franchises far and wide. This method of producing and distributing food draws heavily on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources, a price that our beleaguered ecosphere can ill afford to pay.

True, the ecological footprint of a BK Veggie is appreciably lighter than that left by one of the chain's highly resource-consumptive meat sandwiches. But trumpeting the marginal environmental benefits of a mass-produced industrial pseudo-food--meatless though it may be--does little more than supply the Burger King PR machine with a ready source of greenwash.

Finally, there is the question of animal welfare. Does the addition of the BK Veggie to the Burger King menu stand to improve the plight of the 9 billion animals slaughtered each year for human consumption? In a recent article, vegetarian activist Erik Marcus warned that if the BK Veggie flops, "it might set the growth of the movement [to protect animals] back 10 years." That's an awful lot to hang on the fate of one sandwich. The truth is, Burger King's new entree will do little to keep animals out of the slaughterhouse. What it will do is lend a patina of green respectability to a corporation whose appetite for dead animals is as robust as its desire for greater profits and increased market share. Consumers who believe that purchasing a BK Veggie will encourage the company to scale back its efforts to sell as many meat sandwiches as possible will be sadly disappointed.

Let's not forget that Burger King has been a leading force behind such "enlightened" policies as suburban sprawl, the homogenization and commodification of the global food supply and the backlash against unions and food- and restaurant-industry workers worldwide--points well documented by Eric Schlosser in his best-selling book, "Fast Food Nation." Burger King, McDonald's and the other corporate giants that command the industrial food economy have no vested interest in fundamentally restructuring it.

Some may object that we can't change the system overnight and that people are used to eating fast food, so isn't the availability of a meatless burger in a major chain a step in the right direction? Well, yes, it is a step, but a step toward what, exactly? A nation in which animal-based foods are replaced by plant foods transformed into products bearing little resemblance to actual plants? Our modern food economy was built on the promise of "better eating through technology." We should be working to create a more just, humane and sustainable food system that provides people with produce in its whole, unadulterated form--as nature meant for it to be eaten. Pinning our hopes for a better food system on the fortunes of the Burger King empire's latest junk food amounts to a rather depressing surrender of the imagination.

Written by Rich Ganis, policy director for the Center for Informed Food Choice in Oakland, April 2002


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