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wasted time: fighting for veg options in fast food joints

October 29, 2010

One of the mistakes that the vegan movement is making today is its push for “vegan options.” I live near Los Angeles, and one of the better formal animal rights organizations we have here spends a majority of its time asking restaurants to add vegan options. The fervor with which the addition of a vegan option at Chipotle was met in LA was nothing short of crazed. Here we have a restaurant that refused for years to accommodate the fair labor requests of the Immokalee workers to receive fair wages by simply purchasing tomatoes from a different producer, but a socially conscientious hoard of vegans in LA flocked to the place when Gardein was introduced. (FYI, in 2009 Chipotle eventually gave in and workers received more than a 50% by getting an extra penny for each pound of tomatoes picked. You do the math…still not that great).

Around the age of 20 I formally banned fast food restaurants from my life. I don’t remember clearly how this happened, but I think it must be some combination of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a book about the myriad problems with the fast food industry, and George Ritzer’s theories of routinization and the “McDonaldization” of society. I have not eaten in one in almost a decade and I only enter them if I intend to use free resources, such as using to the bathroom or taking water from the soda fountain.  I believe fast food restaurants are bad for myriad reasons: poor labor practices, public health issues, the propagation of capitalist enterprise, the degradation of health and foodways in other nations, and (of course) encouraging and bolstering factory farming.

Fast food restaurants in the United States support a system of inequality that is reliant on government food subsidies, the exploitation of human labor and the factory farming of animals for their flesh.  I feel that my public health and anti-capitalism arguments are important, but they stand apart from my basic argument that fast food restaurants generate and promote abuses to human and non-human animals on a grand scale, so I will not detail them in this post. I also love Ritzer’s work on the routinization of society. You will never stand in a line at a fast food restaurant and feel like anything other than a putz again, but in this post I am only going to address the animal issues.

Many have explained the push for vegan incorporation into fast food restaurants to me as a way to “mainstream” the movement. The thought is it will make veganism appear less freakish to the masses, people will be educated as to what veganism is, and with options available people will be more open to becoming vegan. I disagree that any of these things will happen on a large scale. I know plenty of “exposed” people who still belittle veganism and its goals and I have yet to meet a vegan who said they wouldn’t be vegan if it proved to be inconvenient. But just knowing that there are vegan options does not a vegan make. It might encourage an occasional vegan meal, but certainly not a vegan nation. And, unfortunately, a few vegan meals is not doing much to save animals’ lives. At best some necrovores will have a veg burger here or there but unless this happens en mass (which is likely not going to happen with this tactic) it will not change the production demands of factory farms. (Read: Even if people buy the veg option, the same number of animals will be slaughtered, regardless). At worst, and what I feel is more likely, this will have very real negative effects that will be detrimental to veganism and, more importantly, to animals.

One way in which I think this will be detrimental to vegans is by creating yet another disgusting, unhealthy vegan food. One of the benefits of veganism is health. It is a fortunate side effect of our diet that gives us a little more bargaining power when arguing with the selfish. For those who cannot concede that it is not okay to confine, torture and murder other living creatures, we can at least say, “Hey, it can help save*your* life.” I am guessing McDonalds vegan burgers will not be healthy and, because the ingredients will not be heavily subsidized—as are so many steps in the meat production process—I have to guess they will not make the dollar menu (again, needlessly blocking access of veg food to the poor). People don’t understand that their tax dollars subsidize cheap meat, and so to most a cost disparity between the vegan option and the murderous meat option may reinforce the erroneous idea that a vegan lifestyle is expensive and out of reach.

Most importantly though, any support of fast food restaurants in America supports the factory farming system which is responsible for billions of deaths of non-human animals every year in addition to being one of the most dangerous and exploitative industries for North American human laborers. The Human Rights Watch has deemed slaughterhouse jobs the most dangerous in America. I have previously discussed the human issue on this blog, so let me return to the nonhuman animals.

The economic push for fast meat cheaply is driven by places like McDonalds, Kentucky Fired Chicken, Jack in the Box and others. According to a recent PBS interview with Eric Schlosser the fast-food industry has driven much of the way that the meatpacking industry is organized:

[T]he fast-food chains played a major, major role in pushing centralization and industrialization of meatpacking. These chains want a huge amount of product that’s uniform in consistency, so they’re not buying from little suppliers anymore… So this had the impact of creating bigger and bigger meatpacking companies to supply the fast-food chains…today, the top four [meat packing] firms control about 85 percent of the market. So we’ve gotten bigger slaughterhouses, bigger processing facilities, and really, really big meatpacking companies.

Veganizing the fast food joints in the US will not do much to foster a vegan society. It might make life a little more convenient for those vegans who prefer to slide comfortably into the confines of a normal America by eating with necrovores without contention and quickly scooping up food at the drive-through, but that is all it will do. I might argue that it could actually forward animal exploitation by increasing the revenues these evil businesses bring in, but the vegan market just isn’t big enough to really create a bump in sales for these companies. Veganizing fast food does nothing more than encourage the few of us who were forced to avoid these exploitative enterprises out of necessity, to spend our money in support of the oppressive, disease-causing, labor exploiting, environmentally degrading, murderous machine that is the fast food industry.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2010 3:50 pm

    I completely agree with you! I thought this post was spot on! As a college student I am one of the few on campus that does not fall into the rut of eating McDonald’s. I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in about six years and the thought of going there never crosses my mind, I would rather go hungry. I loved the use of your links and background knowledge you have aided in making this such a great post.

    • October 31, 2010 7:58 pm

      Thanks Stephanie. Given the number of fast food places on campuses that is not a simple feat. Good job and keep it up!

  2. Julz permalink
    October 29, 2010 3:57 pm

    Excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly! I get so annoyed whenever vegans promote evil companies just because those companies decided to add *one* vegan item to their menu.
    Just one question… For me, one of the many reasons why I boycott evil fast food companies is the destruction of the rainforest (in order to raise cattle). Is this no longer a concern? Or is it still going on and you just chose not to mention this in this post?

  3. October 29, 2010 5:03 pm

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Why are animal protection organizations spending money, resources and time trying to convince large franchises that profit off of the torture and death of animals to carry vegan items? Why would vegans spend their money in said franchises? Any uptick in sales allows these enormous corporations to expand their businesses, meaning the death of more animals.

    Putting the ethical issue aside, why would a vegan choose to frequent a restaurant that serves dead animals? Why would you want to eat in a place where you smell the charred flesh of an animal? Why would you want to risk eating the flesh or secretion of an animal that a chef mistakenly puts on your plate?

    Meanwhile, vegan restaurants are going out of business. When we have lines out the doors at vegan restaurants, we can begin to pressure omnivore franchises to carry vegan options.

  4. Denis permalink
    October 30, 2010 1:36 am

    Morality should never be an “option.” Such thinking marginalizes the ethical strength of the movement, which I believe, at the end of the day, is the only thing that will make it succeed. MLK said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” He did not say, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards accommodation.” Vision and courage are what inspire people to action.
    Am I in favor of encouraging fast food restaurants to use their enormous economic power to lessen the suffering of animals on factory farms? Yes. Am I in favor of encouraging them to add vegan options to their menu? Yes. But that doesn’t mean vegans should ever eat at them. Nor does it mean much money or resources should go towards these pursuits unless it’s clear to everyone at the table that this is not the end goal. In a conflict, you may negotiate battles, but you never pretend there is not a war and that you intend to win it.

    • October 30, 2010 1:24 pm

      Agreed with Denis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with vegans showing their support for vegan items to be added to large chain restaurants. However is that where we should pool all of our advocacy resources? No. And should we trust that said restaurants will actually adhere to vegan food preparation? No.

      I also agree with the point Gary made about how delicious restaurants staunchly committed to veganism are going out of business, not to mention how a lot of omni restaurants are offering “vegan” options to appear trendy/make a quick buck but are not conforming to vegan standards. This recent post from Quarry Girl and the ensuing comments illustrate a few such examples in the Los Angeles area. http://www.quarrygirl.com/2010/10/22/manis-on-maple-vegans-dont-bother/

  5. October 30, 2010 2:37 am

    Well said Vegina. I also strongly believe that ANY support of these global entities is a mistake – they would have to do a whole lot more than have vegan meals on their menus to become socially and globally responsible. While you’ve specifically mentioned your home country of the United States, the damage caused by these chains is really in-your-face when you visit poverty-stricken developing countries where outlets are popping up like mushrooms. People there are encouraged to spend their limited earnings on a higher meat-containing, nutritionally poorer diet – and to engage in the Western ‘glitz and glamour’ of neon lights and shiny chrome fittings; poor nutrition courtesy of a requisite increase in animal use and abuse is just the beginning. And these developing countries are taught this is progress. So no, these fast food outlets should not get our patronage.

  6. Julia McKenzie permalink
    October 30, 2010 8:13 am

    Whilst I have for the past 20 years avoided fast food chains for the exact reasons you quote, I did try the Chipotle vegan option a couple of weeks ago at the behest of a non-vegan friend who was so enthusiastic about trying it that I decided encouragement was the best choice for that moment then more verbiage about abuses. Although I don’t intend to start frequenting fast food chains at all and much prefer to go to vegan restaurants I do think that if you travel to any great extent I for one have loved finding vegan options in unusual places which I can imagine someone has spent time and money to promote. I don’t think it’s a “mistake” to promote vegan options, not something I would chose as my priority, but I do feel that to criticize others work on the animal rights issue is not something we can make blanket statements about it like calling it a “mistake”. A discussion about the issue is great and pointing out reasons it may not be an ideal place to put all your energy whilst there is still so much work to do is also extremely valid. However, I think about the overweight person in middle America who is not as educated or at liberty to go to a vegan restaurant and regularly eats fast food because they don’t know any better and/or have little choice and choosing the vegan option as a first step. Perhaps that doesn’t outweigh the amount of work it takes to change the menus I really don’t know. All I know is that if I listened to everyone on what I “should” be doing and what a waste of time/energy it is to fight for the specific issue I have chosen I wouldn’t get anything done. I guess my entire point can be boiled down to perhaps not calling others works a “mistake” but more like “the problem with”??

    • October 31, 2010 8:11 pm

      Well noted Julia. I think that it is always difficult to critique and improve our movement from the inside without it turning into an unproductive internal debate that takes away from the animals that are our focus. I think that the very strong feelings I have on this issue are due to the fact that I do believe that precious few resources are being wasted; at least in my anecdotal experience. I don’t know what it is like in the midwest where there are few vegan and an all vegan restaurant may not survive, veg options may be as good as it gets, I don’t know. However, what I see in LA is that some very hard working, extremely dedicated, compassionate and well organized people are 85% devoted to the restaurant issue. They are putting on big fundraisers becasue they have the best human resources; and they are getting a huge chunk of the donor money that I wish was going to other issues. (They are so good that I was at one of their fundraisers just last night, even after I wrote this post!) It is sad that I feel like I am in competition with my own movement but I often (and unfortunately) do.

  7. Tigre permalink
    November 1, 2010 1:36 pm

    I agree for the most part, especially with large chains, but with independently owned restaurants it makes sense. Cruzer Pizza started with a couple vegan pizzas and now is a totally vegan joint. In NYC, Cafe Viva added vegan options and after they started to sell, the place went mostly vegan with some vegetarian. It has to be case by case.

    If If I had been a vegan kid, it would have totally sucked to not be able to have food while out with friends…and not just fries. A minority of people are vegan and a super minority of those are vegans that are hardcore/will boycott all that is evil and corporate. The few will set the example for the rest. Only 10% of the population is needed to reach the tipping point.

  8. November 3, 2010 1:36 pm

    Dear Vegina,

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

    I live in France, where there are too few vegan restaurants. As often as not vegans have to either accommodate to non-vegan restaurants or avoid eating out.
    Most non-vegan restaurants don’t even have ONE meat-free ‘alternative’ (other than a tasteless salad); and there are chances that even if you clearly explain that you’re a vegan, you won’t be served a vegan meal. The vast majority of people don’t know what the word ‘vegan’ means.
    Personally I rarely eat out and when I do, I go to vegan restaurants. A few months ago my parents invited me at a non-vegan restaurant, where I had a vegan meal. I felt quite uncomfortable and I didn’t enjoy myself. I think I won’t renew this experience.

    I saw you use the word ‘necrovore’; I would suggest ‘necro’ instead. In fact, death doesn’t reside solely in their [necros] eating habits, but in their whole lifestyle: they perpetuate and propagate (and sometimes commit) exploitation, torture, murder, destruction, and death [on themselves, other animals (human and non-human), and the Earth] . For more information about the word ‘necro’ : http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=103578901665

    Yours,

    Camille.

    • November 6, 2010 10:41 am

      Hi Camille,

      I’ve long refrained from moving or even traveling to other countries because they might be really difficult to be vegan in.

      France is one, Japan another.

      I know it would be no problem if I cooked for myself, but that would mean I would have to rent someplace with a kitchen, which is too expensive.

      Anyway, I’ll check out the FaceBook there.

    • November 6, 2010 5:28 pm

      I do have the advantage of living in Southern California, where there are restaurant options for vegans. Thanks for the heads up on the Vegan Vegetarian Terminology page. Interesting stuff, I just joined 🙂

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