At White Castle and Chipotle, Fast Food Goes Vegan

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Old fashioned White Castle hamburger restaurant from the 1940s American life in Columbus Ohio USA
Bill Bachmann/Alamy
By Erik Baard

The American hunger for meat, especially beef, is abating for the first time in living memory. Now vegetables are claiming more space in an unexpected place: the fast food counter, with White Castle and Chipotle (CMG) heavily promoting new vegan entrees.

The new options come as Washington and the United Nations are pushing plant-based diets to save the environment and lower health care costs. The restaurant chains, however, say they're just answering consumer demand with new products, not letting bureaucrats lead them by the nose. White Castle introduced its vegan slider, made by Dr. Praeger's Sensible Foods, on Dec. 30. The product was trial tested over the summer in New York and New Jersey. Chipotle Mexican Grill is promoting its new vegan organic tofu Sofrita burritos.

Jamie Richardson, vice president of government and shareholder relations at White Castle System, said customers, particularly millennials, "have a range of reasons for wanting a vegan option, and they might not be vegan but have friends who are." The new sliders, which cost 99 cents, are "chock full of vegetables like carrots, zucchini, peas, spinach, broccoli and more" and come with a choice of three sauces.

Does Uncle Sam Want You to Eat Less Meat?

Food experts summoned by the Obama administration are wooing the same demographic. The committee charged with drafting the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (and the accompanying "food pyramid" graph recently redesigned as a plate) for the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to include a blurb about the environmental costs (and therefore future food security impact) of meat consumption.

"A green message can be a real motivating factor," Miriam Nelson, a Tufts University professor of nutrition, told Science. "It could be used as another messaging tool."

Congress balked at this new environmentalist inroad and demanded in its late December budget package that the Dietary Guidelines stick strictly to nutrition. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in November that eating less meat could slow global climate change, confirming earlier findings published in peer-reviewed science journals. Those papers prompted pronouncements against meat overindulgence by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

The UN has a tough row to hoe. Where wealth increases, as in China and even India, meat consumption tends to follow. In many nations, agriculture is a bigger contributor to climate change than even transportation. The U.S. is, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the second largest per capita meat eating nation after Luxembourg. That said, "Per capita meat consumption in the U.S. has stagnated in recent years and may be declining," noted Emily Cassidy, research analyst with the Environmental Working Group. That's because omnivores have shifted to eating more vegetables. Vegetarians, who eat eggs and dairy but not meat, make up just 5 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, flat or slightly down from 1999. About 2 percent of Americans say they're vegan, abstaining from all animal products.

Environmental Effects

Over 9 billion farm animals are slaughtered each year for meat, according to the Human Society. Americans eat nearly 271 pounds of meat per person annually, with chicken now surpassing beef for the first time in a century. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division reported in October that U.S. operators landed 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish in a year, up 245 million pounds from just two years before.

"If all Americans forego meat and dairy for one day a week, that's the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road for the year," Cassidy said. "From 2001 to 2011, all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions were up 14 percent. Globally, livestock accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions." Going vegan isn't the only way to reduce emissions -- the U.S. has already reduced its carbon footprint by eating chicken instead of beef.

When asked if such information spurred Chipotle's menu expansion, Chipotle's communication director Chris Arnold said, "That's not the motivation. ... It's not about the environmental benefits. That's not what drives our business. Great-tasting food is." Ditto for meat. "We started down this path because we think meat from animals that are raised in humane ways and without the use of antibiotics or added hormones simply tastes better."

But because of short supplies of meat measuring up to Chipotle's standards -- trademarked as "Responsibly Raised" -- the company has at least twice in the past year needed to suspend selections, first beef and then pork. Sofritas accounts for about 3 percent of sales.

Eschewing conventional modern livestock practices -- the much lambasted "industrial farming" -- might preserve soil and biodiversity, Cassidy said, but at the cost of increasing greenhouse gas emissions like methane from ruminant digestion. That's because Chipotle's "Responsibly Raised" cattle take longer to reach slaughter size. Chipotle might not be able to account for such environmental impact complexities anytime soon. In May, shareholders rejected by 2:1 margin a motion by Trillium Asset Management and Domini Social Investments requiring that the company issue an annual sustainability report.

Different Philosophies

White Castle hired Social Responsibility and Sustainability Manager Shannon Colliver four years ago. While the company reuses cardboard boxes and piloted a composting program in Columbus, Ohio (and is exploring composting in New York City and Chicago), "we're in the early stages of being able to understand better what our impact is."

That White Castle and Chipotle concurrently have major vegan rollouts is more striking for the companies' dissimilarities. Columbus-based White Castle is an old, family-owned stalwart that prefers to add outlets to its established markets. Chipotle is a hot young company that in a single generation swooped down from hipper Denver and into 44 states. Chipotle went public in 2006 and remains a darling among investors even as fast food giant McDonald's (MCD), which once owned a chunk of the burrito maker, stumbles.

Herbivores are finding ways to graze at other fast food chains. The other American burrito grande, Yum Brands (YUM) subsidiary Taco Bell, replaced lard with soy oil in its beans more than 20 years ago, making possible a range of dishes that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls "accidentally vegan." Even Dairy Queen sells dairy-free Starkiss treats, and Burger King started slinging vegetarian burgers in 2002.

Richardson says White Castle underestimated how popular vegan sliders would be and is racing to reformulate its buns to be vegan too. They are made with L-Cysteine, which Richardson admitted was derived primarily from "duck feathers."

The company went to market with that incomplete package, because "we didn't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good," Richardson said. Glossing over the fine print while trumpeting a switch away from animal products can ignite vegan ire. In 2002 McDonald's settle a lawsuit for $10 million and suffered bad press when American Hindus discovered that while the company switched to vegetable oil from tallow for its french fries, one of the product's unspecified "natural flavors" still came from beef.
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