Last month zoologist Jordi Casamitjana won a tribunal which recognised ethical veganism as a philosophical belief. This cemented its status as a protected characteristic, alongside the likes of religion, climate change conviction or a belief in Scottish independence, thus safeguarding followers of ethical veganism from societal and workplace discrimination.
The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism provided a basis for the ruling, with Judge Robin Postle referencing it as “helpful” in his final written judgement. The definition reads:
“[Veganism is] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Jordi’s case concluded in the same week that Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s released plant-based products. Across the country, vegans and Veganuary adopters salivated at the prospect of eating something other than a falafel wrap at 1am on a Saturday. Although 57% of respondents to a recent survey conducted by Vegan Food & Living said they wouldn’t eat in KFC, the chain reported selling one million vegan burgers in January. It seems Jordi’s case has raised the question of what veganism actually represents. Is it a philosophical code or a dietary choice? Does eating in the fluorescent-lit halls of fast food chains which kill animals on an industrial scale preclude you from defining yourself as truly vegan?
I was vegetarian from 5 years old (through personal choice; my family were carnivores) until 27. I’ve tried every dietary iteration since and I’m now around 70% vegan but still like pizza with real cheese, almond croissants (obviously) and will occasionally eat meat or fish at a restaurant if I know it’s well sourced.
Does eating in fast food chains which kill animals on an industrial scale preclude you from defining yourself as truly vegan?
My choices place me in the 14% of UK people who follow a ‘flexitarian’ diet. According to the Vegetarian Society, 2-3% of the country are veggie, while the Vegan Society says that 1.16% are vegan (though numbers have scaled hugely recently, from 276,000 in 2016 to 600,000 in 2019). Within these dietary signposts, there are now many different roads for people to follow: you could be a dietary vegan (‘following a plant-based diet’ in the modern parlance). You could be vegan or vegetarian as a stand against a livestock industry that generates 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases. You might love sashimi too much to quit fish and be pescatarian like 4% of the UK population. You could be cutting down on meat because the World Health Organization classifies processed foods like bacon as a Group 1 carcinogen or you might be an ethical vegan, like Jordi Casamitjana.
“It’s inevitable that when anything becomes mainstream it becomes more subcategorised,” Jordi tells me shortly after his historic case. “The term ‘ethical’ added in front of vegan was a needed reaction to non-vegans defining themselves as vegan when they only adhered to one aspect (the diet). It is my hope that in the future all those who define themselves as ‘vegan’ will be ‘ethical vegan’ so the adjective will no longer be needed.”
Jordi and the Vegan Society tell me they broadly support vegans eating vegan-friendly products in fast food chains, but some members of the community have differing opinions. In a terse Metro article from 2019, activist and journalist Chas Newkey-Burden writes: “Vegans aren’t changing the world by buying plant-based products from big chains, they’re just making animal slaughterers even richer.” He goes on to take a pop at neo-vegan culture, postulating that “as veganism becomes increasingly trendy … a lot of vegans are secretly ‘vegan for the trendiness’ or ‘vegan for the consumerism’.”
The Vegan Society tells me: “The vegan community is divided on whether it is appropriate for vegans to buy products from companies that otherwise specialise in meat products.” They encourage harmony though, saying that Jordi’s ruling should “not be considered to have created a two-tier system of veganism. When 99% of the population of the UK is not vegan, it is unhelpful for vegans to argue about these issues instead of modelling what they feel is best practice and hoping to inspire others to join them.”
When 99% of the population is not vegan, it is unhelpful for vegans to argue about these issues instead of modelling what they feel is best practice and hoping to inspire others to join them.The Vegan Society
I experienced my own little nub of negativity after posting a poll on a prominent UK vegan group, asking whether anyone there would eat in a fast food restaurant like KFC. Before I was booted out for my impertinence, one member replied that they’d rather buy from a local, sustainable business. With this in mind I contacted The Vurger Co – a vegan fast food restaurant in Shoreditch which sends nothing to landfill – and asked how they feel about Burger King’s Rebel Whopper, McDonald’s vegan dippers and the KFC Original Recipe Vegan Burger.
“I genuinely believe that if the market is catching up [with veganism], that is only a good thing,” Rachel Hugh, cofounder of The Vurger Co tells me. “However, it can be frustrating for a small business owner that has grown a brand from the ground up with a genuine mission to revolutionise fast food, at a time when all said businesses were not interested in catering for this so-called ‘fringe’ movement. Ultimately, convenience always wins but without the support for small vegan businesses, how can they grow?”
José Cil, CEO of Burger King parent brand Restaurant Brands International, added fuel to some vegans’ ire last year when he said: “We’re not seeing guests swap the original Whopper for the Impossible Whopper. We’re seeing that it’s attracting new guests.” The Impossible Whopper (sold as the Rebel Whopper in the UK) is made of plant-based materials but cooked on the same grill as meat patties, rendering it non-vegan and demonstrative of a decision seemingly based on profits rather than ethics.
I asked Burger King why they chose to make the Rebel Whopper this way. “We know there is such a demand for plant-based food with the change in behaviour towards flexitarianism,” they said. “We want to give our customers what they have asked for. It is cooked in the same broiler as our beef to create our signature flame-grilled flavour that our customers love.”
For the vast majority of people, ethical veganism is a big reach in a capitalist world.
A major driving force in fast food’s popularity is the cheap price; an argument that can be extrapolated to supermarkets and vegan stores which, by and large, are more expensive than your average Tesco. Is ethical veganism just another indicator of privilege?
“You can do a vegan diet on a budget, but I think it’s impossible to be 100% ethical and sustainable,” says Jack Fletcher, founder of the sustainable lifestyle and fashion website, Wild Electric. “It’s hard to escape big corporations in the world we’re living in. I try to support local, sustainable businesses but sometimes that stuff is expensive and it’s not accessible for everyone yet.”
Jack identifies as an ethical vegan and tells me how his old band Of Empires once turned down a $10,000 offer from a major fast food chain because he couldn’t be associated with a company which is responsible for animal cruelty. He tells me he wouldn’t generally eat the vegan burger at said fast food chain but “probably would” if he were drunk, extremely hungry and had no other choice.
As with most decisions made during life’s grand and confusing parade, when it comes to the question of vegan food from non-vegan fast food chains, we must applaud those who nurture principles and be supportive when they bend or don’t entirely conform to our own. We need the likes of Jordi Casamitjana but, for the vast majority of people, ethical veganism is a big reach in a capitalist world.
Ultimately, choosing whether to eat in a fast food restaurant comes down to the severity of a person’s vegan beliefs; that, and perhaps how much they’ve had to drink.
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