Germany’s Plant-Based Fast Food Is Years Ahead of the US

·5 min read
Vegan doner plate prepared in Berlin
Vegan doner plate prepared in Berlin

Here in Germany, they famously have a word for “happiness at the misfortune of others”: Schadenfreude. Good thing, too, because that’s exactly how vegans in this country felt after hearing the news that McDonald’s was discontinuing its meatless McPlant burger in the US after an unsatisfactory test run. After all, German McDonald’s restaurants have been offering plant-based patties since 2019, with no plan to stop anytime soon.

The McPlant, or as it’s known here, the Big Vegan TS, isn’t the only plant-based fast food dish that’s available in Germany but not the US. At Burger King, every single menu item—not just the Whopper—is available in veggie-friendly form. (The chain even went as far as to open an entirely meat-free outpost in Cologne as a promotional event.) And both Pizza Hut and Domino’s serve pies with vegan cheese, something PETA has spent five years unsuccessfully petitioning for in the States.

Read more

You might be confused at this point. Isn’t this Germany we’re talking about, the country with as many types of sausage as indigenous Alaskans have words for snow? But there are a few possible explanations for why vegan fast food has made such great inroads among the same population that considers raw pork a fun party snack. Let’s take a closer look.

Germans like vegan food—even if they’re not vegan

As this recent Vox article points out, meat consumption in Germany has plummeted over the past decade, contrary to the trend in nearly every other country. Bratwurst and schnitzel stereotypes aside, the average German now eats way less beef, pork, and poultry than the average American: 121 pounds per year versus a gut-busting 225.

My personal experience bears this out: Over the 10-plus years I’ve been living in Berlin, I’ve watched veganism go from the domain of dreadlocked anarcho-hippies to the mainstream. We’ve got vegan supermarkets, vegan Vietnamese restaurants, vegan pizzerias—the kebab shop on my block even offers a seitan döner now. And yes, the German capital is something of a special case, but even in small-town Bavaria, many restaurants go out of their way to offer vegan and vegetarian menu items.

Experts say the decline in meat eating isn’t necessarily because more people are going vegan, but rather because of a growing interest in flexitarianism. Faced with the knowledge that meat production has been driving climate change, an increasing number of Germans have started swapping their daily Fleisch for plants, even if only a couple of times per week.

Why are Germans eating less meat?

The Germans are generally an eco-conscious lot; just ask anyone whose neighbors have spotted them committing the grave sin of failing to separate their recyclables. But for the recent surge in climate awareness, we can at least partly thank Greta Thunberg. The stalwart Swede struck a particular chord over here, inspiring millions of youngsters to march for the planet on Fridays. As my harried friends with kids can testify, they’re also pressuring their parents into joining the cause, whether that means vacationing by train instead of plane or buying soy patties instead of beef ones.

Of course fast food chains, with their get-’em-while-they’re-young marketing philosophy, would want to tap into this growing demographic. And they receive a lot less backlash for doing so than in the US, where Cracker Barrel recently had to fight off a barrage of social media attacks for daring to put Impossible sausage on its menu. Meat isn’t as big of a political issue here, or if it is, it’s split along weirder, less obvious lines. (Never forget who the most famous vegetarian in German history was.)

Moving into the realm of conjecture, it’s possible that Germans just aren’t as loyal to their meaty fast food as Americans are. There’s a pretty huge chunk of the country where the Big Mac and co. didn’t even show up until 1990. If you associate a beefy burger with childhood memories, you’ll be a lot less likely to order a plant-based version than if you’re just trying to fill your belly on a road trip.

A final, more cynical theory

In the case of McDonald’s and Burger King, the reason behind the bouquet of vegan options overseas could also have to do with who’s making the patties. In the US, the chains are partnered with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, respectively—both alternative meat startups for whom fast food sales constitute a critical part of overall revenue. When the McPlant test didn’t go as well as expected, Beyond’s stock dropped precipitously, lowering the chances of the experiment being repeated.

Meanwhile in Germany, the patty in the Big Vegan TS is made by Nestlé, and Burger King’s plant-based menu relies on meat substitutes from The Vegetarian Butcher, a subsidiary of Unilever. These are both massive multinationals with net worths in the hundreds of billions; for them, the fast food partnerships are a drop in the bucket. If a vegetarian or vegan item is slow to gain momentum, they can afford to wait until demand catches up with supply.

Does this mean vegan fast food fans in the States should pray for megacorps like Nestlé and Unilever to swoop in and deliver their soy or pea protein salvation? Maybe; if you’re eating at McDonald’s or Burger King in the first place, you’re clearly in the no-ethical-consumption-under-capitalism camp anyway. In the meantime, you can always come visit Berlin and find out what you’re missing. Preferably by boat.