Burger King’s bold move to bench beef

The burger chain has flipped its menu and made plant-based patties the default option. Behaviour change specialists are impressed, says David Burrows.

“Normal, oder mit fleisch”. “Normal, or with meat?” That was the question presented to Austrians visiting a Burger King restaurant in Vienna recently. The fast food chain has said it is “making meatless indulgence a permanent fixture on our menu” as it moved to make plant-based patties the default option. Is this the future? 

It’s certainly bold. Marija Banovic, associate professor of consumer behaviour and food marketing at Aarhus University in Denmark, suggests it’s a well thought-through nudge that “changes the context and usual order of choice. It doesn’t change people’s own choices, but makes them think. I love it,” she adds.

video showing the reactions of regular customers suggests most are simply baffled by the move. “Should I order my coke with meat as well?” asks one. “Our soft drinks come standard as veggie,” comes a deadpan reply from the BK employee.

Making meatless the default will certainly court controversy in a nation that consumes an awful lot of meat – 87kg per person per year, according to UN data from 2017 (the UK figure was 80kg). Levels of meat consumption in some parts of Europe are falling (26% of Austrians say they’re flexitarian) but arguably not fast enough. Bold moves like Burger King’s are “long overdue”, notes Nicole Darnall, foundation professor at the school of sustainability at Arizona State University. 

Pushing plants

Indeed, this could really push behaviour towards more sustainable consumption patterns of meat – if it’s rolled out nationally, or even globally (the UK, often seen as a pioneer of plant-based products could be the next stop, though an intervention like this in markets like the US would be a far tougher sell).

Burger King has remained reticent to say what its next move will be. The website reads: “We could do exactly that from now on: define plant-based as ‘the new normal’. But first, with this campaign, we want to challenge the traditional notion that meat is the absolute norm, and stimulate a discussion about how the increased switch to plant-based alternatives will affect our perception of the norm.”

Lorraine Whitmarsh from the centre for climate change and social transformation at Bath University says it’s a “fantastic” initiative. “There is good evidence that verbal ‘nudges’ like this can help break people’s habits, and the use of language here – framing non-meat as ‘regular’ – can also help challenge and change social norms around what is ‘normal’.”

Whitmarsh is currently involved in an experiment using a similar verbal nudge in a café setting. Rather than assuming dairy is the default, baristas are asking ‘what milk would you like with that?’. “We’re expecting sales of oat and soya milk to increase as a result of people reflecting on their choice of milk,” she says. 

What Austria’s move does for meat versus plant-based sales isn’t yet clear. What it has done is stimulated debate and challenged social norms. The campaign will also stir scrutiny about the nutritional credentials of plant-based alternatives. As the experts involved in a recent European policy roundtable (led by the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands) noted: knowledge is still scarce on the right meat substitutes to promote, considering the economic, environmental and health impact of different options.

The roundtable, which involved policymakers, NGOs, food brands and researchers like Banovic and Whitmarsh, looked at the role of behaviour change in achieving net-zero across food, energy and transport. “The way we have changed dietary behaviours over just one generation shows us that it is possible to further change them,” a report from the roundtable noted. 

That won’t be easy though. Food choices are deeply engrained in everyday practices, habits, cultures and lifestyles which means it will take substantial efforts to change them. Some governments believe it’s too hard. UK environment secretary George Eustice said recently that changing the diets of livestock would “probably be a better” approach than lecturing people on eating less meat. 

The likelihood is that both behavioural and technological interventions will be needed, but politicians are in “a different place than the public because of lobbying pressure”, the roundtable experts noted. “Meat and dairy lobbying are particularly sensitive issues that limit the type of interventions that can be put in place on a government-level.”

Fleisch in the pan?

Which leaves it up to businesses like Burger King, which is certainly paving the way for more plant-based options. “[…] great meat alternatives are not a passing trend for us, but a focus for the future,” it said. The place of meat as the default on burger bar menus is less secure than it has ever been. 

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