Under pressure from consumers and lawsuits, restaurant chains are being pushed to disclose the presence of meat or meat-products, even in dishes not described as vegetarian or vegan.
Chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panda Express are looking at ways to better communicate that certain dishes that don’t appear to contain meat – beans, rice and vegetables, for example – either include meat as a seasoning or may have been cooked in equipment in which meat was also cooked.
Other chains, such as the Souplantations/Sweet Tomatoes chain, are posting signs throughout restaurants specifically indicating which items are vegetarian or vegan, and which are not.
The spotlight was on Chipotle recently after a Maxim senior editor Seth Porges learned that the fast-casual chain cooks its pinto beans with a small amount of bacon. The chain’s black beans are vegetarian, which is indicated on the menu.
After Porges, who reportedly said he avoids pork for religious and cultural reasons, expressed outrage in a series of Tweets, Chipotle officials responded by saying the menu boards would be redesigned to indicate the beans are made with bacon.
Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director, said the chain has always made its pinto beans with bacon and they have never been described as being vegetarian.
“Our black beans are vegetarian and are described that way on our menus and our website,” he said. “Our website clearly and accurately describes the pinto beans as being made with bacon.”
Still, over the next several months, the chain will be rolling out new menu boards on which the bacon-flavored beans will be disclosed, he said.
The issue has also resulted in a lawsuit filed by customer Kevin Shenkman. Filed on Aug. 19 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Shenkman charges false and deceptive business practices and representations, arguing that Chipotle mislead the public into believing its pinto beans were vegetarian.
Shenkman, who describes himself as Jewish and a vegetarian, has reportedly also sued Panda Express for its alleged use of meat-based flavorings in rice.
Panda Express spokeswoman Thien Ho, however, said the rice and vegetable dishes do not contain meat products.
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However, the chain does not describe such dishes as vegetarian because they and other entrees that may appear meat-free are “prepared and cooked in the same kitchen and prep areas where meat and meat broth are present and being used,” which could be a problem for some who don’t eat meat.
In an Orange County location of Panda Express, for example, a sign is posted warning customers that the rice and vegetables are not vegetarian.
Ho said the sign is an “internal training aid developed to assist our associates with informing guests who ask about potential vegetarian options.”
Though these cases have arisen recently, the controversy is not new.
McDonald’s was sued in 2001 by Hindus concerned about the use of beef seasoning on French fries.
On its website, McDonald’s now discloses the presence of “natural beef seasoning” on fries, though it is not disclosed on menu boards, notes Lindsay Rajt, associate director of campaigns for animal-welfare advocacy group PETA.
“It’s becoming an increasing concern. It’s a matter of consumer trust,” she said. “I think every consumer deserves to know what they’re eating. If a restaurant says something has a natural flavor, we need to know if it’s meat based.”
Tracy Marks, public relations specialist for Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., parent company to San Diego-based Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, agrees, saying “it’s a conscious decision all restaurants should make.”
Souplantation units, which are called Sweet Tomatoes outside California, have signs posted throughout the buffet-style units indicating whether dishes that may appear meat free, such as soups or breads, are either vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
Marks said the cream of mushroom soup, for example, one of the most popular, is clearly noted as non-vegetarian because it is made with chicken broth.
The restaurants strive to always have at least two vegetarian soups, as well as prepared salads for non-meat eaters.
“We’ve always done it because the question comes up so often,” she said.
Now vegan customers are asking for more bread options with no eggs or dairy. Marks said the chain is working on it.
“We’ve been testing some with potato starch, but we’re not quite there yet,” she said.