In our dystopian fast food culture and its cycle of worker exploitation and environmental decay, there is a new burning question for our times: Is it wrong to ask employees at Burger King to clean the grill before placing a vegan’s Impossible Whopper in reach of its flames?
Vegetarians and vegans began to express alarm at eating a patty tainted by meat residue almost as soon the new burgers arrived at Burger King nationwide this summer. The potential for contamination has been repeatedly mentioned in news coverage, including in Today and CNBC. One potential solution involved using a broiler, away from fat-stained beef grills. But to get the best taste, respondents on vegan forums and Facebook groups have suggested asking employees to clean the grill before fulfilling their order and to cook it that way instead.
Au contraire, countered some vegan activists. A couple of weeks ago, Seitanosaurus, a vegan blogger, implored her fellows to please, for the sake of solidarity, stop asking Burger King employees to clean the grill, in a post that has been widely shared and discussed in these same circles (see the discussion on the Facebook group for The Bearded Vegans podcast). The argument contained these points:
A worker could be fired for taking the time to clean a grill, because fast food restaurants time their employees on every order. It is an offense to the dignity of Burger King employees to ask them to clean the grill for you. Working at Burger King is hard enough already without adding superfluous grill cleanings. The reputation of vegans will suffer if vegans go around making unreasonable requests, such as asking for a clean grill.
Is this correct? What are a vegan’s responsibilities here? This entire debate will inevitably inspire eye-rolls from many people, and I understand the instinct. But it goes to the heart of the quandary, and opportunity, Impossible burgers represent.
In some ways, this might seem like a moot question. So you believe it’s ethically wrong to eat meat, as most vegans do. Is it really equally wrong to inadvertently eat a bit of meat residue from a previous customer’s meaty Whopper that has attached itself to your vegan patty? There are no additional animals harmed if the residue is left to accrue than if it’s cleansed, so by that measure, the act of consuming microscopic particles of meat would be ethically nullified.
But even if you accept that premise (and many vegan and vegetarians wouldn’t), there’s still reason not to keep quiet. If eating animals is ethically wrong, then the 5 percent of Americans who are vegetarians have a lot of work to do in convincing the 95 percent of us who tear into the flesh of beasts with our teeth for sustenance. In that context, it is no virtue to be a well-behaved vegetarian who avoids drawing attention to himself. Alerting others, including Burger King employees and people waiting nearby, to one’s abstention from carnivorous pursuits could serve as a small act of consciousness-raising. Vegans can decide for themselves whether avoiding meat residue is an important part of their practice, but it doesn’t seem wise to avoid this issue for the sake of tactical civility.
What to do, then, at Burger King, when a worker is in the crosshairs of your struggle? This does seem to be a widespread issue. Even at my local Burger King in a rural California town where agriculture is the primary industry, a girl I recently met at the counter told me she was asked for a grill cleaning to prevent protein contamination in Impossible Whoppers “all the time.” This young employee also suggested that this particular store’s grill could not be cleaned without substantial disassembly but that an uncontaminated Whopper could be cooked in the broiler, far from any meat. I proceeded to order an Impossible Burger with just a slight feeling of embarrassment at having passed, briefly, for a finicky vegan whose lips must not touch meat. (I can, at least, report that the taste of the Impossible patty was … quite good. After announcing to my companion that I’d only have a bite or two—just to see what it was like—I soon found I’d been seduced into polishing off the entire thing.)
In the screenshotted examples the vegan blogger provided, vegans often treated Burger King employees rudely, refusing to accept the broiler-substitute solution instead of a flame grill and insisting on watching as the grill was cleaned, then crowing about it online. I must stipulate that treating others rudely is wrong, and no desire for patty purity, however intense, counteracts that. But my own request for a freshly cleaned grill was polite, even downright demure. Was this, too, dehumanizing, unreasonable, and wrong? Well, probably, in a way: Burger King employees work hard in unstable conditions and aren’t paid anything close to the sort of decent, living wage all workers deserve. By participating in the system at all, I was validating it, in some small way, and this was wrong, granted. But … was it more wrong than any other attempt to Have It My Way? I have concluded that it was not. If a vegan is disgusted by animal residue, or if she feels she is doing her small part to spread an ethical truth by bringing public attention to her order, these are at least as valid concerns as another customer’s desire to hold the pickles or add an extra slice of tomato. In at least one restaurant I now know that the grill cannot properly be cleaned, but who’s to say that, in time, the weight of repeated requests for a clean grill might not add up, encouraging franchises to dedicate some untainted cooking real estate to the purpose?
In an email exchange, I spoke with the vegan blogger, Seitanosaurus, about solidarity and what it looks like to stand with the workers at your local burger joint. “The biggest thing people can do is fight for $15 an hour, unions, Medicare for All, etc.,” she wrote. But she said smaller acts of solidarity are an important step. “First, you need to see people as people. Then you can see them as also deserving of the things you have because of class privilege. I think that not asking someone to clean the grill, for most people, is a really big start, because most people are asking in a rush or asking to watch it be cleaned. To begin to step back from that is the beginning of solidarity.”
I can’t agree with her entirely, for reasons I’ve outlined here. Vegetarians are a deep minority—5 percent, according to the Gallup poll I linked above. That’s larger than the number of transgender Americans, a group to which I proudly belong, who are requesting changes in the medical system, changes to state IDs, changes in the use of language, and changes to the TSA screening process, just to name a few. Vegetarians’ relatively few numbers are no reason they shouldn’t be accommodated within a restaurant that recently began serving a patty intended primarily for them. In every dirty grill, these people see the promise of a cleaner, kinder, more ethical, meatless future. This is their dream, and I say let them dream on.