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Lawsuit highlights restrictions of plant-based burgers

A vegan has sued Burger King over the Impossible Whopper, which is made on the same grills as meat burgers.
Photograph courtesy of Burger King

A lawsuit filed this week over Burger King’s Impossible Whopper has shed light on one of the limitations of the plant-based burger trend: Many of the menu items aren’t strictly vegan because of the way they’re prepared.

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Miami, alleges that the Impossible Foods burger used to make the Whopper is prepared on the same grills as its traditional meat burgers. The lawsuit seeks $5 million in damages and class-action status.

Phillip Williams, a vegan, went through a Burger King drive-thru in Atlanta and ordered an Impossible Whopper with no mayonnaise. He ate the Whopper, only to later discover that it was made on the same grills as meat and therefore “covered in meat byproducts,” the complaint says.

Burger King began selling the Impossible Whopper in St. Louis in April and expanded it nationwide in August, joining chains such as Carl’s Jr. and White Castle in selling plant-based burgers using one of the popular meat analogues from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.

Numerous other fast-food chains have started selling plant-based products in the months since.

The burgers aren’t necessarily targeted at vegans. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have worked aggressively with fast-food chains to sell versions of their products and have largely targeted meat-eaters in a bid to generate sales.

Only about 8% of Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan, but a much larger percentage of meat-eaters wants to cut down on meat products.

The products themselves are vegan. But the burgers frequently feature cheese and mayo, products that are typically off-limits to people following strict vegan diets, which forbid any animal products.

To add the fake-meat products to their menus, however, a number of chains have also simply prepared the patties on the same grills they use for their traditional burgers. Burger King’s website, for instance, says that “a non-broiler method of preparation is available upon request.”

Similarly, Carl’s Jr. notes that its Beyond Famous Star burger is “not vegan” because of the mayo and cheese, and “the product is cooked on a charbroiler with beef so there is probably crossover of beef liquid to the Beyond patty.”

In his lawsuit, however, Williams argues that Burger King needed to go further. He notes that Burger King advertised the Impossible Whopper as being “0% Beef, 100% Whopper.” He says he was “misled into consuming meat and/or meat byproducts” and also “suffered monetary damages in the amount that he paid to purchase the product.”

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