Behind the veal protest that hit Burger King

Who would have thought a sandwich would have raised such a ruckus?

When Burger King put its new veal parmigiana specialty sandwich on the market two years ago, marketing directors thought the product would lasso the public.

A nine-month marketing test of fast-food aficionados from New York City to Lincoln, Neb., showed ''very favorable results,'' according to John Weir, Burger King's manager of corporate communications.

But one group thought it was a bum steer. A coalition of animal rights activists started boycotting the restaurant chain because of it, calling veal ''the most cruelly produced meat.''

The boycott may have succeeded. Burger King officials recently disclosed that the chain over the last month has gradually phased out the sandwich from two-thirds of its US market.

Cleveland Amory, president of the New York-based Fund for Animals, charges that ''special fed'' baby calves are confined in too-small stalls, not allowed to exercise, separated from their mothers, and fed a milk solution that makes them anemic, in order to produce the white flesh demanded by consumers.

Burger King spokesmen contend that they don't use ''special fed'' calves. The meat is too delicate and expensive to be ground up, breaded, and slathered with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce and served as the veal parmigiana sandwich. Meat industry analysts agree it's unsuitable.

The spokesmen claim to use hardier ''range-raised'' calves, who are allowed to graze with their mothers up to 18 months. Animal rights groups approve of the ''range-raised'' method, but say that they can't prove that Burger King does indeed use that method since the chain won't divulge its veal sources.

James Mallman, general manager of Provini Inc., the major producer of the milk substitute drunk by ''special fed'' calves, denies that the calves' living conditions are inhumane. Tom McDermott of the National Lifestalk and Meat Industry Board agrees, ''If the animals were being treated with cruelty, they wouldn't feed properly.

Burger King's Weir says that the boycott had ''absolutely no effect'' on the corporation's decision to pull the product. Their reason? ''Not enough consumer demand,'' he says. He adds that the sandwich sold best in the Northeast corridor and Midwest - where picketing was the heaviest.

The boycott, which started in Boston and spread to 14 states, Canada, England , and New Zealand, linked humane societies, anti-vivisection societies, and vegetarian groups.

The coalition is proclaiming a ''major victory,'' says Nellie Shriver, of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. But the boycott will continue till the veal sandwich is removed from the rest of the Burger King market, she says.

After that: persuading fast-food chains to serve vegetarian dishes. Tofu tetrazzini, anyone?

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