Why animal rights groups target the veal sandwich

''Aren't you hungry?'' asks Burger King's jingle.

''No!'' retort some animal rights groups -- at least not as long as the fast-food chain dishes out its new veal parmigiana specialty sandwich.

A coalition of 50 animal rights groups, including the New York-based Fund for Animals and the 100-year-old American Anti-Vivisection Society in Jenkintown, Pa., have boycotted Burger King outlets for the last five months in cities in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

The coalition says that veal is ''the most cruelly produced meat'' and wants Burger King -- owned by the Pillsbury Company -- to stop serving its new sandwich. The group claims that Burger King uses special-fed calves that are separated from their mothers at an early age, confined in two-foot-by-four-foot stalls, unable to turn around, until they are slaughtered at three months old. They charge the animals are confined in order to fatten them, and are fed an ironless diet to produce the milky white flesh so prized by gourmets.

The animal rights groups are blasting the wrong target, protests John Lawlor, Burger King's manager of public relations. He claims that the Miami-based fast-food chain does not use the controversial special-fed veal. The type used -- known as ''range-raised'' -- is free to roam with its mother, is fed hay and grain, and is often not slaughtered until 18 months old, Mr. Lawlor says.

Burger King conducted a nine-month test marketing of the veal sandwich around the country starting last spring, says Lawlor, with favorable results among a wide variety of age groups. Burger King, he adds, has seen no effect of the boycott and has no plans to remove the veal sandwich, which garners 6 percent of its $2 billion-a-year international sales.

Meat industry analysts say range-raised veal is the appropriate product for Burger King's needs. They say special-fed is not resiliant enough -- and at up to $15 a pound, it's too expensive for the $2 veal parmigiana sandwich Burger King sells.

Cleveland Amory, president of the Fund for Animals, says even if the chain does use range-raised veal -- a fact he says he can't verify because Burger King refuses to divulge its veal sources - the boycott will continue until the product is taken off the menu.

When asked to name its supplier, Burger King gave the name of its processor. But the processor refused to name its sources for veal.

Since mid-April, the boycott has spread to 14 US cities, ranging from Gainesville, Fla., to New York. Four Washington, D.C., Burger King restaurants have been picketed a total of 20 times, says Lia Albo of the Fund for Animals, who reports strong interest from passers-by.

So far, Burger King is the only major fast-food chain selling veal sandwiches. Jack-in-the-Box and McDonald's representatives report no plans to jump on the bandwagon. A Wendy's International spokesman says it's possible that chain may use veal in the future, but plans for it are ''on the back burner.''

However, Papa Gino's, a New England-based restaurant chain, has sold a similar product for five years, and veal parmigiana appears on countless restaurant menus.

So why boycott only Burger King?

The fact that it is the second-largest restaurant chain in the world, say animal rights representatives, means that if this veal product is successful, public taste could increase for the meat from calves.

The coalition claims its chief aim is to sensitize the public to the plight of the calves. Mr. Amory says ''this is a new mass consumer who has had no knowledge of veal conditions. Since Burger King is the newest and biggest public promoter of veal, it seems to us a good time to call a halt.''

A separate group also seeking to educate the public about special-fed veal is the Humane Society of the United States. The society is placing newspaper ads and contacting food editors, restaurateurs, and meat suppliers to register its objections to the use of veal. While not boycotting businesses, its members leave ''No veal this meal'' cards at restaurants selling veal.

''When animals are not properly raised, transported, and slaughtered, consumers would be best advised before eating such products,'' says Humane Society director Michael Fox.

James Mallman, general manager of Wisconsin-based Provini Inc., producer of the milk substitute fed to calves, denies the cruelty charges.

''Animals have a right to humane treatment, and this system does that,'' he says. ''The calves are warm, clean, and well-cared for.'' He notes that Provini, the originator of the special-fed system, is experimenting with more humane ways of raising the calves.

The Humane Society supports farm welfare legislation, particularly that of Rep. Ronald M. Mottl (D) of Ohio, which would establish a farm animal husbandry committee to study conditions of intensive animal production systems. The bill, stuck in subcommittee, has not been scheduled for any hearings.

While long a favorite in Europe, veal hasn't met with widespread success in the US, food industry sources say. According to Tom McDermott of the National Livestock and Meat Board in Chicago, only about 1 million special-fed calves a year are slaughtered. While Americans consumed an average of 83 pounds of beef per person last year, he says, they only nibbled at two pounds of veal.

However, says Mr. McDermott, consumer demand for the special-fed type of veal has doubled in the last 10 years. That, combined with hard times for farmers necessitating intensive farming practices, he predicts more calves will be raised in confinement.

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