Who: The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Burger King
Where: United Kingdom
When: 15 April 2020
Law stated as at: 22 June 2020

What happened:

Burger King launched a new meat-free “Rebel Whopper” in January 2020 to coincide with Veganuary. The Rebel Whopper was packaged in a green wrapper and the advertising made various meat free claims such as “100% WHOPPER. NO BEEF” and “our first plant-based burger!”.

The patty was supplied by The Vegetarian Butcher, a meat-free food company, whose logo featured in some of the ads and there was no dispute that the Rebel Whopper was vegetarian. However the patty was cooked in-store alongside meat patties and the final Rebel Whopper included egg-based mayonnaise. This meant that it did not meet the standards of the Vegetarian Society’s definition of vegetarian or vegan, which is widely used as the food industry’s standard for such terminology.

Burger King did not claim that the rebel whopper was suitable for vegetarians or vegans and even added a disclaimer
disclosing that the patty would be cooked alongside meat patties. However, the ASA upheld the complaint that the advertising nonetheless misleadingly suggested that the Rebel Whopper was indeed vegetarian or vegan. The disclaimer that the product was cooked alongside meat products was considered insufficient to prevent consumers from being misled. This was partly because the disclaimer was rather small and not included in all ads but also because the ASA took issue with the fact that the disclaimer did not mention the egg mayonnaise in the product.

Why this matters:

There has been a massive increase in interest in vegetarian and particularly vegan products among consumers in recent years. This has been partly spurred by initiatives such as Veganuary, which encourages people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January, but also as a result of new emerging reasons to eat differently including environmental reasons and more recently concerns that animals are linked to the spread of viruses such as coronavirus.

With the rise of interest in veganism claims such as “plant-based” and Veganuary have become widely used but not, as yet, been formally defined. This has led to some uncertainty as to whether these claims are equivalent to claiming a product is vegan or perhaps vegetarian.

This ruling has established that the ASA considers “plant-based burger” to be synonymous with vegan. Further the ASA has made it clear that certain tactics will tend to suggest that a product is vegetarian or vegan and this could be misleading if the products do not meet accepted standards of vegetarian or vegan.

The British Standards Institution is due to publish a new standard for “plant-based” later this year which will likely help to further refine exactly what a plant-based claim means so we can expect further developments in this area.

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