Holy cow! Vegans like Burger King

When the British government announced this month that it was considering a ""Big Mac sin tax"" to fund anti-fat initiatives, observers took it as one more sign that Big Food is replacing Big Tobacco as corporate enemy No. 1. But now Burger King — second on

The Globe and Mail
June 26, 2004

Holy cow! Vegans like Burger King
They won’t eat meat, eggs or cheese, but they’re heading in droves to the fast-food chain – and urging others to, writes Andy Lamey
Andy Lamey

Poor, beleaguered fast-food companies. Do they ever get any respect? Books such as Fast Food Nation and the film Super Size Me have recently offered scathing depictions of McDonald's, Wendy's and other giant burger chains, blaming them for everything from low minimum-wage laws to an international obesity epidemic. When the British government announced this month that it was considering a "Big Mac sin tax" to fund anti-fat initiatives, observers took it as one more sign that Big Food is replacing Big Tobacco as corporate enemy No. 1.

But now Burger King — second only to McDonald's in buns and patties served — has found enthusiastic supporters of an unlikely sort: animal-rights activists.

Since Burger King launched a meat-free hamburger across North America, vegans — vegetarians who are so strict they also eschew eggs and dairy products — have been returning to burger culture with the same militant zeal that once drove them to flee. In a strange irony, vegan websites now donate free advertising to the chain, shower the company with awards and record the praise of vegans who do cartwheels at the mere mention of Burger King's name (albeit cartwheels of a delicate and careful sort, so as not to accidentally harm any small creatures).

If "Burger King veganism" has an intellectual headquarters, it is Vegan.com, an Internet news site that is the vegan equivalent of CNN. The site's homepage features the chain's corporate logo — amid links to articles about mad-cow disease and ads for vegan cookbooks — which appears above the words, "Support it or lose it!" Four accompanying articles and an eight-minute audio file urge vegans to head on down to the home of the Whopper.

"When I found out that the BK Veggie was being established, I was pretty excited," says Eric Marcus, the 37-year-old journalist and author who operates Vegan.com from Ithaca, N.Y. Since 2002, Burger King has sold its "meatless alternative" sandwich at all of its 8,000 stores in the United States, a distinct contrast to rival chains such as McDonald's, which offers its McVeggie Burger only at scattered U.S. outlets. (In Canada, both chains provide veggie burgers nationwide.)

At first, Mr. Marcus says, he was scornful of Burger King's move, and posted an article criticizing it. But then he considered what might happen if the BK Veggie caught on and was imitated by other chains. "We'd see a craze for vegetarian eating like never before," he writes in one of his pro-Burger King columns, "and for the first time, society might be ready to ask some hard questions about animal liberation."

Mr. Marcus's initial stumbling block was that the BK Veggie is not strictly vegan: The bun contains trace amounts of dairy products (vegans also need to ask for it without mayonnaise). As Mr. Marcus explains, the dairy industry produces calves killed for veal, so consuming any milk or cheese is, in vegan terms, a culinary crime.

But eventually he decided that the "immense strategic significance" of the product outweighed personal purity, and the only way to become an effective BK Veggie advocate was to start wolfing them down himself. "I wanted to tell all my meat-eating friends it exists and is good," he says, "and if they ask, 'Well how does it taste?' and I say, "I don't know' I've lost all my credibility."

Mr. Marcus's first trip to Burger King was the end of a 15-year personal boycott. He is not the only one heading back. Burger King is a hot topic among visitors to the unforgettably named Vegan Porn, an animal-rights website that attempts to spread the vegan word by luring in Net surfers looking for dirty pictures.

In the Toronto-based site's discussion forum, Burger King and the fast-food industry have long been characterized in negative terms. But after a Vegan Porn member left a post stating, "All these vegan/veggie websights [sic] are telling me to eat the BK Veggie," it triggered a passionate debate as to whether vegans should patronize the hamburger chain.

"Does it exist for vegans?? No!!!!," says one message, representing a popular view. But the critics are almost evenly matched by Burger King boosters. "It is a GREAT chain that starts with supporting vegetarian products," proclaims one.

It isn't just vegan websites that are talking up Burger King. The Farm Animal Reform Movement, a Maryland animal-rights group, has issued a statement urging the BK Veggie on "all our friends and supporters." People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, North America's largest animal-rights organization, takes an even more favourable view. As recently as 2001, PETA denounced Burger King as "Murder King." Today, it not only has given the corporation a "Breakthrough Award," but actively directs visitors to its website to the company's "Find a Burger King" on-line restaurant locator.

Somewhere, deep inside the Kentucky Fried Chicken organization, a corporate vice-president is quietly weeping. KFC officials have recently had to contend with "home visits" from PETA activists, who visit their houses in residential neighbourhoods with bullhorns and a roving "Reality TV" truck that plays footage of chickens being killed. On the anniversary of the BK Veggie launch, by contrast, PETA urged its members to "invite their friends to Burger King restaurants across the country … for veggie burgers, balloons, and fun!"

Some of PETA's traditional allies have been taken aback by its metamorphosis into a Burger King PR firm. Adbusters, the anti-consumerism magazine based in Vancouver, has tweaked PETA in print, saying its embrace of the multinational organization leaves "the after-taste of a bad infomercial."

"We're not taking away from PETA's larger agenda," Adbusters senior editor Nicholas Klassen says, "[but] you can advocate eating veggie burgers without advocating you go to Burger King or McDonald's."

But vegans like Eric Marcus plan to keep bellying up to Burger King counters for the foreseeable future. In addition to offering the BK Veggie, he says, the company has also become an "industry leader" in the humane treatment of food animals. When corporations change their behaviour, he says, so should their critics.

"Effective activism depends on progress and co-operation," Mr. Marcus says. "Confrontation should always be a last resort."

Andy Lamey is a Toronto-based writer.

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