Phillip Williams has just filed a class-action lawsuit suing Burger King, after buying a vegan Impossible Burger in Atlanta. Realising that his burger had been prepared on the same grill as the chain’s meat burgers, he took to the law courts, according to TMZ. He contends that his burger was not really a vegan alternative at all – it had been contaminated.
What the fast-food giant should have done, contends the litigant, is give full disclosure on its menu that the vegan burger might have some cross-contamination with animal product owing to the cooking process.
Williams’ lawsuit notes that there have been many posts online by “outraged” vegans, and he is seeking damages and a judicial order to stop Burger King cooking its vegan offerings on the same grill.
The idea that a judge could order a private company how it runs its kitchen does seem somewhat far-fetched.
The burger is served in the standard sesame seed bun with tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, pickles and sliced white onions. The mayonnaise can, of course, be removed to make the option entirely animal-free.
A burger may be meat-free but not necessarily vegan-friendly
It is completely understandable that anybody who has made a conscious decision not to ingest any animal products of any kind into their body, then it is completely unacceptable for someone to eat a vegan patty that has been soaked in meat juices.
The question arises of course as to whose responsibility this is. Should Williams not have specifically asked the staff how the burger was being prepared if he was that sensitive to the issue? Was it a reasonable assumption for him to assume that there would be no potential for contamination?
Some people, of course, simply will not be able to understand why anybody would care that a little bit of cross-contamination may have taken place. For the vegans amongst them, it is a case of cross-contamination being a price worth paying today for a better tomorrow. But nevertheless, it beggars belief that Burger King’s management cannot have been aware that such an issue would arise in the context of the very successful introduction of the Impossible Burger. Surely management would have known that the potential for such court action could arise in such a litigious country as the USA?
A tiny footnote on Burger King’s website is, however, simply not going to cut it. Burger King’s website describes the Impossible Burger as “a savoury flame-grilled patty made from plants topped with juicy tomatoes, fresh lettuce, creamy mayonnaise, ketchup, crunchy pickles, and sliced white onions on a soft sesame seed bun. 100% Whopper, 0% Beef.” Nowhere does it use the word “vegan”. So perhaps the reference to “plants” rather than using the “v” word will be enough to win the case for Burger King.
The site then states that “for guests looking for a meat-free option, a non-broiler method of preparation is available upon request.” It has been well documented on social media that any customer can ask for the patty to be microwaved instead.
If the chain was therefore prepared to offer vegans the choice of microwave preparation, then it would have been sensible to place a prominent message on its menus at all relevant locations to that effect for those customers who wished to avoid the potential for cross-contamination.
That said, the product is fundamentally designed for meat-eaters who want to consume less animal protein, and not for strict vegans or vegetarians. If Burger Kings wants to rebrand itself as a vegan conscious company it is going to have to try a lot harder.
Vegans will be divided over the rights and wrong of the case
Vegans are a very disparate group with differing opinions. Some will welcome a chain like Burger King introducing a vegan option arguing that it represents progress and that it will encourage more people to eat plant-based food. They will consider legal actions like this to be an embarrassment to the vegan community and to be a backward step, and discouragement to other outlets to bring in vegan options.
That line of thinking will take the view that the litigant was naive to expect an outlet that had largely sold predominantly meat for decades to do anything else, and that the responsibility was on him to take the necessary precautions to avoid consuming meat juice being dripped onto his patty.
The other viewpoint is that vegans consume no animal products. That is a fundamental tenet of veganism when it is taken to its logical conclusion. So many vegans simply will not want to consume a product that has been dripping in animal fat. That is fair enough.
But was there not an onus on Mr Williams to ask the appropriate question and ensure that his patty was heated up in the microwave instead?
Let’s not forget the animals in all of this
Ultimately there is an argument that the issues raised are more about the animals involved than about Mr Williams. It is fair to say that a patty being cooked on the same grill as the meat burgers is not adding to the suffering of animals or adding any more unnecessary harm. That does not retract from Mr Williams’ disgusted at the idea of the animal juices going into his body, and that is his prerogative.
Disappointingly the fact remains that the Impossible Burger was tested on rats. One of the ingredients, soy leghemoglobin, was fed to 188 rats in three separate tests which involved the rats being killed and cut into pieces. Impossible Foods ignored the advice of PETA. One of its scientists advised the company that it was not necessary to subject rats to that level of cruelty in order to test the meat-free meat.
Arguably, a strict vegan such as Mr Williams whose vegan sentiments are admirable should not have been eating the burger in the first place.
As with so many instances where the issue of veganism arises, there are quite a few delicate nuances to be considered.
Whatever you may think of the merits of this law-suit, Burger King would have been well-advised to give clearer notifications at is locations. To that extent, this PR disaster was entirely predictable and therefore avoidable.