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June 1998
Editorial: McDonald's and Veggieburgers

By Martin Rowe


If you walk into the McDonald's restaurants at Broadway and Waverly Place and Sixth Avenue in the Village you now have a rather unusual option: a veggie burger. This trial run is nothing new to large burger chains: Burger King tried a veggie burger a few years ago in their restaurant near Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, and I remember all too well eating Burger King's Spicy Mexican Chili Beanburger when I lived in Britain.

As expected, such a move has begun a lively debate among vegetarians of my acquaintance about whether vegetarians should eat in McDonald's or, more appositely, encourage others to eat there. Now it should be fairly obvious that whether McDonald's trial succeeds or fails is not dependent on whether hardcore vegetarians actually eat at McDonald'sÑwe flatter ourselves if we think we're that important. Instead, McDonald's is trying to capture the same market that Gardenburger hoped to capture when it spent $1.7 million on 30 seconds to promote its product on the final episode of Seinfeld. That market is people who might accompany your average burger eater to a barbecue or, for that matter, to McDonald's. These folks are becoming conscious of their health, or they never liked to eat meat, or they generally feel that meat is not a good thing.

Personally, I'm not going to be a cheerleader for McDonald's move. Its rapacious grasp of the global market, the sheer vastness of the slaughter its products result in, and all the revelations about its company practices that the McLibel trial threw up in its three yearsÑall point to a company that needs no help from vegetarians to keep going. It is a strange quirk of our globalized world that individuals of conscience should want to sponsor a multinational like McDonald's in the slender hope that it might see the error of its ways and let its cows come home rather than go to slaughter.

That said, it seems somewhat perverse actively to protest such a move. Greenpeace International, which waged such a valiant fight against McDonald's in the McLibel trial, has now turned its attention to The Body Shop, claiming that it has lagged behind on its claims about animal testing, defaulted on its arrangements with indigenous tribes to supply ingredients for its cosmetics etc., and perpetuates the policy of globalization and multinationalism that is homogenizing the world and reducing the rights of native peoples around the world. All these issues may be true, but The Body Shop is surely not the worst of offenders. As activists of conscience, environmentalists, vegetarians, and animal advocates need to pick their targets more judiciously and act with a little less purism.

There are two larger issues hereÑboth of which extend beyond the space that can be allotted here. The first is whether global capitalism is the problem or the solution. I for one don't think it would be any better if chains of McSprouts, Veggie King, or Kentucky Fried Tofu dominated Main Streets around the world. We need to appreciate variety and difference, recognize the importance of our local regions' foods and businesses. I liked the Spicy Mexican Chili BeanburgerÑeven though it momentarily stunned my tastebuds into silence. But I wouldn't want to eat it every day.

The second issue is more strategic. Mankind, as the poet T.S. Eliot once said, cannot bear very much reality. Like everyone else, I respond better to pleasure than to pain. I like to feel useful rather than useless, a contributor rather than a detriment. I want to know how I can do something good rather than why I should not do something bad. The vegetarian, environmental or animal advocacy movements will never progress if they are seen as movements of denial. They will, however, if they are seen as something affirming and enjoyable, to which people can belong, comfortable with their own rates of progress and affirmed by their sense of doing something. All this tells me is that McDonald's move is a step in the general direction of the right direction! So, if someone comes up to me and tells me that they love to go to McDonald's to eat the veggieburgers, I'll remember my Spicy Mexican Chili Beanburger, rub my mouth, and ask innocently if they've ever eaten at Angelika's.


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