[author note - I wrote this months ago but it got lost somewhere in the editing shuffle and I just decided, “what the hell, I’ll Kinja it...”]
A few months, Carl’s Jr. (Hardee’s, if you live in a region that insists on having your fast food joints named after a male enhancement pill) launched the first “all natural” burger in fast food. All natural is one of those amorphous terms that can mean just about anything – I mean, everything came from the Big Bang, right? – but in this case it means a patty composed of free-range, grass-fed, steroid-and-antibiotic-free Australian beef. Yes, it’s the first fast food beef patty ever composed almost exclusively from hyphenated products. This is exciting and very progressive, but do you want to eat it?
To answer this pressing question, I undertook a highly scientific empirical study in which one user (me) ate a couple of them. First, a note about your study subject: I’m a vegetarian, and have been for a decade. For those of you who are unfamiliar with vegetarians, this means I do not usually eat hamburgers or other products made out of dead animal parts. It’s a personal choice, and not one to which I’ve ever attached any judgment, other than that I’ve always been puzzled by people who somehow feel like it is wimpy for a person to choose to abstain from something he or she wants out of a personal moral belief. It’s like judging someone for choosing to go the gym instead of eating potato chips in his or her underwear, “ha, this would be easier, so you are a wimp for choosing something that is harder.” Ok. Besides, we all know those goddamned gluten-free people are the real assholes, please quit causing me to accidentally purchase godforsaken cookies that taste like cardboard, you worthless flour-cowards.
This may raise two questions for you: first, why would a vegetarian eat a hamburger?, and second, what qualifies some kale-muncher to tell me about the finer points of a beef patty raised by some jackaroo station manager in Iggy Azalea’s outback? Let’s start with the second point, because I can answer it in fewer than 10,000 words. I wasn’t always a vegetarian and, as teenager, I consumed approximately 8 trillion hamburgers from locations ranging from McDonald’s to Spago, In n’ Out to Houston’s, and of course, my personal favorite fast food burger, Carl’s Jr. Now, you might think that those memories have long since faded, and thus have little validity in a contemporary analysis, but that would just make you a smarmy jerk. In fact, as most (honest) vegetarians will tell you, the opposite is true: we cling to those memories of our last bites of meat with the dedication that Tom Hanks clung on to that undelivered package in Castaway, with the intensity of Sylvester Stallone clinging to that cliff in Cliffhanger, and with the pathetic inability to let our past escape us that explains why Lance Bass hasn’t gotten a new haircut since NSYNC broke up. If anything, I am more attuned than ever to subtle differences between hamburgers.
Now, the tougher question: why would a vegetarian eat a hamburger? Well, like most vegetarians, I stopped eating meat for a combination of reasons, but in large part because I care about animal welfare. And the life of a factory-farmed cow is pretty goddamned horrifying. If you believe an animal is capable of suffering – and it’s hard to imagine anyone who has ever nursed a pet through an illness or injury who doesn’t believe that – then it is almost inexcusable to sanction what goes on at modern factory farms. But I’m not here to propagandize and that’s hardly the only reason to avoid factory-raised meat. Worried about global warming? Well, factory farming releases more damaging greenhouses gasses than all the autos in the world combined. Worried about a new disease epidemic that could make the last brush with Ebola look like, well, the last brush with Ebola? Factory farming is a perfect storm for creating the next superbug: hyper-concentrated animals, filthy conditions, open untreated wounds, sloppy antibiotic distribution. Worried about the environment? The run off from factory farms is choking our rivers. In fact, depending on your political and religious bent, you can find plenty of good reasons avoiding factory-farmed meat from anyone from your favorite celebrity to Michael Pollan to Matthew Scully. There’s really only one reason why factory farming hasn’t been drummed out of existence is because people like cheap meat, and factory farming does deliver cheap meat.
The All Natural Burger is an important first step away from all the evils of factory farming. It’s crafted from grass-fed, free-range cattle. Not only does that mean they are lower in saturated fat and higher than omega-3s than their factory farmed brethren, it also is far friendlier to the animal. It allows the cows to live something of a natural life, instead of the continuous suffering they experience in a factory farm. And a good life and dignified death has increasingly replaced outright vegetarianism as a goal for the animal rights movement. It’s also more sustainable. Because the cattle are fed a natural diet, there’s no risk of them developing Mad Cow Disease, and they don’t suffer from the crippling ulcers our corn-fed factory raised cows do. This means they don’t need to be force fed antibiotics (the All Natural Burger is 100% antibiotic free), which is a major benefit for both animal and human well-being. Not only does it make a drug-resistant superbug less likely to arise in cramped farming conditions, it also means we won’t be consuming huge amounts of second hand antibiotics, which might result in our own bugs becoming antibiotic resistant. And finally, because the cattle are pasture raised, there is far less harm to the environment.
Now, humanely raised grass-fed beef with all these benefits has been available for years at Farmers’ Markets and high-end restaurants, but it’s remained mostly outside the general public’s grasp. The All Natural Burger finally allows the mainstream consumer, who does not want to fully abandon meat but does care about the parade of horrors outlined above, a way to vote with his or her pocketbook for healthier, more sustainable, and more animal friendly conditions. This is a really big deal. And it’s why a vegetarian like me decided that it was in the greater interest of animal welfare to support a move in this direction than to strictly and unconditionally abstain from meat. So, there. That’s how I justify it to myself. And, yeah, I am fully aware that there’s also just a big part of me that really wanted to eat another Carl’s Jr. burger at some point in my life and POW this opportunity sorta dropped into my life, so cool.
All of which brings me to my review of the actual burger: It’s good! I’d say it is noticeably better in quality than your typical fast food burger. The meat has a slightly nutty texture and taste that is common with grass fed burgers, and which contrasts really nicely with the typical salty sweet fast food preparation of cheese, pickles, onions, tomatoes and a ketchup mustard blend. The patty itself is larger and slightly more rectangular than your usual burger, which means it extends outside the bun, where the browned edges can be nibbled at for a taste of pure beef between shoveling oversized burger bites down your gullet.
Let’s be real, though. While this may be a damn good fast food burger, it’s still a fast food burger. It is at least as good as the other offerings you can get at your local McDonald’s or Burger King, but it’s not like what you might find at your local steakhouse. And, at over 700 calories and close to $6 with tax, it’s not without its drawbacks. As much as it may be healthier for you than some of the factory-farmed alternatives while remaining more affordable than what you’d pay at Ruth’s Chris, it’s not likely to spawn any Jared Fogle stories [author note - I wrote this before Fogle’s scandal broke so just imagine it’s January and you only know him as the guy who lost weight eating fast food, okay? Did that work? If so, seek mental help.]. Still, it’s important. It’s important for what it shows – that a fast food company recognizes a demand for more eco- and animal-friendly products – and for what it may portend: an age when people are willing to pay a bit more for an objectively better product. So, the next time you’re craving a burger but feeling a little tinge of guilt about the usual fast food junk, you’ve got a real alternative worth trying.
Now, if we could only get them to do something about their commercial…