The non-meat offering still in the testing phase, according to a corporate official, will be the first of its kind offered by a fast food behemoth.
"We are in the process of testing the product in Canada and on the West Coast," said Kim Miller, a Burger King spokesperson. "We offer spicy bean burgers in the UK and that has performed well. We think offering a veggie burger keeps us true to our heritage."
Miller dismissed the suggestion the decision was a nod to animal rights activists who, despite a reputation of being splintered, unfocused and radical, have chalked up what many consider to be impressive gains in the treatment of animals in the past years.
"This was a customer focused choice we made," Miller said. "We wanted to offer product variety and eliminate the veto vote. That is, if there are three or four people in car, we want to have something on our menu that appeals to all of them."
"Frankly it seems they are about 15 years late," said Warren Belasco, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the author of "Appetite for Change, How Counterculture Took On the Food Industry."
"Restaurants and supermarkets have been offering veggie burgers and garden burgers for a long time. It has been well established that since the '80s a substantial population of more affluent people, not the super rich but the top 40 percent or so, began cutting back on meat," Belasco said.
Belasco said he believes a collective withdrawal from meat products was less motivated by altruistic concerns over animal welfare and more concerns about meat's health impacts.
"I think animal rights awareness is growing but the primary motive is still health," he said.
Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal-rights group based in Norfolk, Va., said his organization is pleased to see Burger King's offering, adding PETA has lobbied the major fast food chains for a veggie offering for years.
"Clearly with 17 million vegetarians in this country, including more than 10 percent of teenagers, it makes good business sense to offer them something to eat," he said. "It's surprising that it has taken this long for a fast food behemoth to give us something to eat."
A Wendy's spokesman told United Press International the company had no plans to release a vegetarian burger.
Whether motivated by money or pressure from human rights watchdogs, the fast food industry has made significant changes regarding how their food animals are treated.
In August 2000, McDonald's said it would purchase meat from suppliers that could ensure livestock was treated humanely. On June 28, Burger King met McDonald's declaration and implemented even tougher standards on its suppliers.
U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., earlier this year made an impassioned speech about animal rights on the Senate floor.
"I believe the American people are concerned and are becoming increasingly sensitive to the treatment of animals," Byrd said at the time. "Reports of cruelty to animals through improper livestock production and slaughter practices have hit a nerve."
The European Union has mandated agribusiness by 2012 phase out so-called battery cages or controversial holding pens for chickens that activists decry as cruelly unfit.
Both McDonalds and Burger King have said they would only buy chicken from suppliers who increased the size of their battery cages.
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