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In Europe, consumers who prefer to eat plant-based meals have abundant choices when they visit their local fast-food eateries. Whether on the go or seeking cheaper options, fast-food restaurants have these consumers covered, with a variety of vegan options: McDonald’s offers animal-free French fries and a meatless Big Vegan TS Burger; Pizza Hut and Dominos deliver pizzas covered in vegan cheese; continental Starbucks locations offer an option for non-dairy whipped cream; Belgian Dunkin’ stores offer 41 vegan flavors on their menus; Burger King even goes so far as to provide a vegan version of every item on its menu, along with an exclusively vegan outpost in Cologne, Germany.

But in the United States, where the majority of these companies are headquartered, customers looking for plant-based options at fast-food restaurants are mostly starved for choice. Some quick-service chains are beginning to offer plant-based options, such as Panda Express selling a vegan orange chicken dish, but the majority of U.S. fast-food restaurants still offer drastically fewer choices for plant-based food than their European counterparts. The vegan offerings they do sell tend to be advertised as limited-time offerings: When McDonald’s tried selling a vegan “McPlant” burger at 600 locations, for example, it led to poor sales, especially in low-income and rural areas. Dunkin’ added a breakfast sandwich with plant-based sausage in 2019, then retired it from the menu within two years.

Despite this seeming evidence that U.S. consumers do not want vegan options, European consumers are not any more likely to be vegan than Americans. Instead, the average European is more open to eating plant-based options compared with U.S. peers, reflecting a more widespread recognition of the benefits of eating plant-based foods, including the reduced emissions it promises. In the United Kingdom, for example, about 41 percent of people are actively reducing their meat consumption. For these diners, who are more likely to seek out and buy vegan options, U.S.-based companies are happily willing to sell plant-based options to them.

In contrast, U.S. conventional meat eaters appear hesitant to try plant-based options. Some of the reason might be that plant-based options tend to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts: An Impossible breakfast sandwich at one Starbucks location was $1.50 more expensive than a conventional sausage equivalent, and adding milk alternatives (e.g., soy, oat) to a beverage incurs an extra $.60 charge, while dairy milk is included in the advertised cost of the drink. For many U.S. consumers, who already are less likely to prioritize climate concerns or recognize the health benefits of eating plant-based, paying extra for vegan options is simply not worth it.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think vegan options could find success in the U.S.? Why or why not?
  2. How could U.S. fast food chains make plant-based options more appealing to the average consumer?
  3. What are other examples of products that could be more or less marketable in specific locations?

Sources: Grace Dean, “Why Europe Is Leading the Way in Plant-Based Food Innovation,” Insider, March 3, 2021; Mary Meisenzahl, “The Dream of Plant-Based Meat in Fast Food May Already Be Dead,” Insider, November 23, 2022; Rachel Glassberg, “Germany’s Plant-Based Fast Food is Years Ahead of the US,” The Takeout, August 12, 2022; Anna Starostinetskaya, “Dunkin’ Just Launched 41 Vegan Doughnuts in Belgium,” VegNews, April 6, 2021.