Can expect to be grilled in cross-examination
MIAMI, Florida––Vegan Man on November 18, 2019 served notice on the Miami-based Burger King fast food chain in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that he hopes to meet twelve Florida men––and Florida women––in a jury box soon, with a judge presiding.
Seeking class action status on behalf of vegan and vegetarian Burger King customers who bought the BK Impossible Whopper over the past three months without realizing that the plant-based burger is cooked on a rotating grill also used to cook meat, vegan man Phillip Williams is seeking at least $5 million in collective damages for potential class action members.
Williams is also asking Burger King to “plainly disclose” that the Impossible Burger is prepared on the “same grill” as meat products.
Ordered BK Impossible Whopper without mayo
“According to the complaint, Phillip Williams of Georgia said he visited an Atlanta Burger King in August and ordered an Impossible Whopper that, when prepared without mayonnaise, he believed conformed to his ‘strict vegan diet,’” summarized Washington Post reporter Kim Bellware.
Williams alleged in his lawsuit that he was unaware that Impossible Whoppers are “cooked on the same grills as its traditional meat-based products, creating a meat-free patty that is in fact covered in meat by-product.”
Wrote Bellware, “It is unclear how Williams became aware of how Impossible Whoppers are prepared. Burger King advertises the plant-based burgers as ‘100% Whopper, 0% Beef,’ and notes on its web site for the product that the burger is made with mayonnaise — a non-vegan product that contains eggs.
Did BK tell a Whopper?
“In smaller print below the description,” Bellware added, “the company says guests who want a ‘meat-free option’ can request their Impossible Patties not be prepared on the broiler where beef and chicken products are cooked.”
Williams contends that the Burger King franchise where he purchased an Impossible Burger had no such signage in the drive-through area. The lawsuit says there have been “numerous consumer complaints posted online” from other vegan and vegetarian customers who are likewise dismayed that their Impossible Burgers may have had contact with beef or chicken fat.
Restaurant Brands International, the parent company for the 66-year-old Burger King chain, said through spokesperson Veronica Nur Valdes that it will not comment on pending litigation.
Marketed to meat-eaters
Introduced in August 2019, the BK Impossible Whopper is marketed to appeal to meat-eaters as the target audience, with vegan and vegetarian customers of secondary concern.
“We use the same cooking method,” said Chris Finazzo, Burger King president for the Americas, told Bloomberg when the BK Impossible Burger was added to Burger King menus nationwide.
“This product tastes exactly like a Whopper,” Finazzo pledged. “We wouldn’t want to lend our name to just anything. It looks like beef, smells like beef, and has the same texture as beef.”
Restaurant Brands International told Bloomberg that about 90% of the BK Impossible Burger customers during an introductory trial period were normally meat-eaters.
“Subset of vegans”
Responded Good Food Institute spokesperson Matt Ball to the Phillip Williams lawsuit, “Why must a subset of vegans make it so easy for everyone else to hate vegans?”
Ball, who with Jack Norris cofounded Vegan Outreach in 1993, has spent most of his life simultaneously encouraging people to eat a plant-based diet and urging vegans to take a tolerant, welcoming approach toward others who give up animal products only one step at a time.
“The goal isn’t to provide vegans with a product. It’s not like Burger King is advertising this as ‘hey vegans, here’s your burger,’” Ball told Bellware. “It’s targeted toward flexitarians, people who are looking toward eating less red meat. That’s why they prepare it so it prepares the same culinary experience as someone who eats Whoppers.”
Delivered wrong Whoppers in Brooklyn
Noted New York Times reporter Abdi Latif Dahir of the Phillip Williams lawsuit, “It is not the first time this year that Burger King has faced criticism over its meatless burger. In early June 2019, the company apologized after it surfaced that a Brooklyn-area location had been delivering beef Whoppers to customers who had ordered Impossible Whoppers on the Seamless app [during a trial sales period]. Burger King ascribed the problem to a ‘technology error,’ according to several news reports.”
Burger King encountered similar issues after introducing the BK Veggie sandwich in March 2002, the first inexpensive vegetarian burger to become a longtime successful addition to a major fast food chain menu.
BK Spicy Bean Burger
Burger King had experimented with introduced vegan burgers since the 1980s, beginning by adding a spicy bean burger to the offerings at some British outlets.
Eventually, remembered former VegNews editor Joseph Connelly, “Farm Sanctuary persuaded Burger King to import a supply of Spicy Bean Burgers from England. The burger was offered at 39 Burger King restaurants in upstate New York.
“Within a month,” Connelly said, “the supply was exhausted. Burger King substituted a different product, called The Griller, and it also sold well. Then it disappeared. Burger King claimed there wasn’t a market.”
The BK Veggie
The BK Veggie disproved that, but appeared to be welcomed with more enthusiasm among the general public than among vegan and vegetarian activists.
Common activist objections were that the BK Veggie was served with mayonnaise, was not served on a vegan bun, and was cooked on the same grill as meat.
But the BK Veggie did show the way toward the introduction of Impossible Burgers, the first fast food burger to demonstrably cut into meat product market share.
Abdi Latif Dahir of The New York Times also recalled that, “In November 2016, a woman sued Buffalo Wild Wings in New York, arguing it had failed to disclose that its French fries and mozzarella sticks had been cooked in beef tallow. A judge dismissed the case in 2018, saying she had failed to show how she was ‘injured’ as a result of the company’s cooking methods.”
McDonald’s paid $10 million in 2002 settlement
The case against Buffalo Wild Wings, as Abdi Latif Dahir noted, appeared to be modeled after a case brought against the McDonald’s Corporation in May 2001 by Seattle attorney Harish Bharti on behalf of 12 Hindu, Sikh, and vegetarian clients.
Less than a year later, on March 1, 2002, McDonald’s settled the Bharti case by agreeing to pay $6 million to several vegetarian organizations, plus $4 million to charities serving Hindus, Sikhs, children’s nutritional needs, and promoting kosher dietary teachings.
McDonald’s also agreed to more extensively and formally apologize for failing to disclose for years that its French fries were, and are, passed through a beef broth steam for flavoring during pre-cooking preparation, before distribution to McDonald’s restaurants.
McDonald’s admitted in a public apology that “Mistakes were made in communicating to the public and customers about the ingredients in our French fries and hash browns,” including “instances in which French fries and hash browns sold at U.S. restaurants were improperly identified as ‘vegetarian.’”
After McDonald’s announced with great fanfare in 1990 that it would henceforth cook French fries only in vegetable oil, Hindus, Sikhs, and other vegetarians around the world mistakenly assumed that McDonald’s fries were suitable for their diets.
Only after Bharti filed his case did the use of beef fat as a flavoring agent become general knowledge. Not until August 20, 2001 did McDonald’s begin revealing whether so-called “natural flavorings” are of dairy, meat, or vegetable origin.
Bharti emigrated to the U.S. from Patiala, Punjab, India, in 1984.
Riots in India
McDonald’s franchises in India were flash points for minor rioting in 1996, when a rumor spread that the then newly opened restaurants would sell beef hamburgers, and again in 2001 as the use of beef fat to flavor fries became known. McDonald’s insisted that beef fat had never been used to flavor fries sold in India, but protesters stormed franchises in Mumbai and Thane anyway
to “purify” them with cow dung.
“I’m not happy with the $10 million and wish I could do better in terms of money, ” Bharti said at the time. “But our focus was to change the fast food industry. This was a big victory for the 16 million vegetarian consumers in the U.S.”
Even before reaching settlement with Bharti, McDonald’s moved to reduce the potential for future misunderstandings with Indians and Indian/Americans by dropping the mutton “Maharajah Mac” from its Indian restaurant menus. A Big Mac lookalike, the “Maharajah Mac” reportedly never sold well, and had already been dropped by three of the then-100 McDonald’s franchises in India.
A comparable class action lawsuit brought against McDonald’s on behalf of Muslims residing in Michigan over claims that a franchise in the Detroit suburbs falsely advertised its chicken as prepared according to Islamic law resulted in an April 2013 settlement for $700,000. The settlement was shared among lead plaintiff Ahmed Ahmed of Dearborn Heights, co-plaintiffs, a Muslim-run Detroit health clinic, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, and the lawyers who pursued the case.