Meet the McPlant: McDonald's joins fast food vegan burger wars

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·5-min read
McPlant, a new exclusively-formulated plant-based burger, will be the first item out of the gate in what could be an upcoming vegan menu at McDonald's. (Photo: McDonald's)
McPlant, a new exclusively-formulated plant-based burger, will be the first item out of the gate in what could be an upcoming vegan menu at McDonald's. (Photo: McDonald's)

Coming on the heels of its well-received return-of-the-McRib news comes another big announcement from McDonald’s — this one aimed at a decidedly different crowd: vegans, vegetarians and those who lean that way.

On Monday, the fast-food giant shared exclusively with USA Today that it had developed a new plant-based “platform,” called McPlant, with tests of a vegan burger expected in some markets around the world next year. Yahoo Life confirmed the announcement with a McDonald’s spokesperson.

“As we have worked to better understand customer demand, some markets around the world have tested plant-based products. Informed by those learnings, we have created a delicious burger that will be the first menu option in a plant-based platform we are calling McPlant,” Ian Borden, McDonald's international president, said during its virtual investor update on Monday.

“McPlant is crafted exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s,” he continued. “In the future, McPlant could extend across a line of plant-based products including burgers, chicken-substitutes and breakfast sandwiches. And, we expect some markets will test the burger next year. We are excited about the opportunity because we believe we have a proven, delicious-tasting product. When customers are ready for it, we are ready for them.” (For its poultry eaters, McDonald’s also confirmed for USA Today that its new Crispy Chicken Sandwich would arrive in the U.S. early next year.)

McDonald’s offered a short video preview of McPlant on its website, where it acknowledged customers looking for “exciting new tastes” and noted, “Last year, with those customers in mind, we tested our first plant-based burger in select restaurants in Canada. Based on what we learned and an encouraging response, we’re excited to give you a sneak preview of the McPlant – a delicious plant-based burger crafted for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s, and with the kind of craveable McDonald’s flavor our customers love.”

McDonald’s lags a bit behind in the current fast-food “burger wars,” although it has dipped its toe into the veggie-burger pond around the world in fits and starts — including early this year, when Australia added to all of its menus the McVeggie burger, a more traditional veggie burger made of pulverized vegetables rather than one that’s trying to imitate meat, introduced in 2012 in India and offered since in countries including Hong Kong, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand. And in 2019, the chain offered the “P.L.T.” (plant, lettuce, tomato), an “exclusively crafted” Beyond Burger, for 12 weeks at locations in Ontario, Canada.

Before that, locations in Finland and Sweden reportedly introduced the McVegan. But many of the launches have been criticized for not going all the way with its vegetarianism, with McDonald’s often cooking the burgers on the same surface as its beef patties.

It’s something vegans in the Twitterverse were concerned about on Monday, while others expressed a mix of excitement and skepticism, and some took issue with the name of the new line.

Plenty of other fast-food chains have rolled out their own version of vegan or vegetarian offerings in the recent past, including Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, Dunkin’ Donuts’ Beyond Sausage Sandwich, Carl’s Jr.’s Beyond BBQ Cheeseburger, White Castle’s Impossible Slider and Subway’s Beyond Meatball Marinara. An Atlanta KFC tested Beyond Fried Chicken that sold out in five hours in 2019. And Starbucks is reportedly testing a fully vegan breakfast sandwich — going beyond its current vegetarian version, which pairs a vegan Impossible sausage patty with dairy cheese and a real egg, similar to the Dunkin’ Donuts and Carl’s Jr’s offerings, which add dairy cheese to the mix, making it not fully vegan.

Most worrying some, though, in response to the McDonald’s announcement, is that the plant-based patties will just be cooked on the grills already used for meat, such as is allegedly standard practice at Burger King, which prompted some vegans to sue the chain for meat-juice contamination.

Still, the plant-based burger game — not to mention that of other vegan products, from Field Roast sausages and Gardein meatless balls to the popular Just Egg, on supermarket shelves — has been strong enough to prompt angry backlash, led by both an aggressive ad campaign and a series of legislative efforts last year that aimed to paint the vegan products as “ultra-processed imitations” filled with mystery ingredients. And it’s no wonder meat producers are feeling threatened, considering that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 11.4 percent over the past year — which is five times faster than total food sales, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.

Note to McDonald’s, which said that “when customers are ready for [McPlant] we are ready for them”: The time, apparently, is now.

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