The UAE's vegan community is disappointed by what they deem as "false advertising" after Starbucks launched an expanded selection of "plant-based" offerings last week.
This includes two sandwiches made using Beyond Beef, a vegan meat substitute, both of which include either cheese or labneh.
The term "plant-based" is more commonly used to describe vegan food, rather than anything containing animal products, and so there was confusion over the inclusion of dairy.
"Seriously?! Take a Beyond Meat product and add cheese to it!" wrote one user on the Facebook group Vegans take Dubai.
The new additions are also being marketed as in keeping with the coffee shop chain's "sustainability commitment and global aspiration to be a resource-positive company". However, the vegan community argues, dairy farming practices are among the most unsustainable.
Another user on the Facebook group commented: "Starbucks doesn’t exist for me anymore. First they were charging for plant milks, then they refused to give coffee in our own cups, then all that [rubbish] with removing plastic straws and redesigning a cup that is lined with plastic and has a plastic lid to save the environment. Those wraps are a joke."
Becoming more 'socially inclusive'
Ananda Shakespeare, founder of public relations agency Shakespeare Communications and pop-up Dubai Vegan Days, says brands need to be careful when using the term "plant-based" in their marketing.
Shakespeare, who has been vegan for 27 years, says: "I was confused when the term ‘plant-based’ came along. In the vegan community it seems to refer to people that eat vegan, but still wear animal products such as leather shoes or aren’t as vigilant with the toiletries, make-up, cleaning materials, etc, they use."
The words "vegan" and "vegetarian" have clearer definitions, she says, "so why not stick to them and avoid confusion?"
"Similarly, why not make sure vegans can enjoy the new food launch, so that the brand is more socially inclusive, more ethical and build more goodwill with all your customers?"
That said, she adds she's happy that there is one clearly labelled vegan option available across Starbucks branches in the UAE. "I think the disappointment is centred around using a vegan burger with non-vegan ingredients. People think it's non-sensical when it could be completely vegan."
'Do it properly or not at all'
Longtime vegan and Dubai resident Emily Evans agrees. "I think it's great mainstream restaurants and cafes are including more meat-free options, but calling these items 'plant-based' is wrong.
"Yes, the patty might be 'plant-based', but to state they’re from ‘the new plant-based menu’ is just false advertising.
"I’m really not sure who their target audience is here. If they’re trying to attract vegans, then it’s a waste of time as we can’t eat it. If they’re trying to attract health conscious folk, then it’s a waste of time as dairy is far from healthy.
"Companies need to stop half-heartedly adding 'plant-based' items to their menu – either do it properly or don’t do it at all."
The National reached out to Starbucks for comment.
"The new Beyond Meat menu has been specially developed to address customer demand for meat-free options, which include increased plant-based protein content in the Middle East," a spokesperson said.
The brand says it will continue to expand its menus, aiming to also launch another fully vegan product this year, "which will be an exciting experience for our vegan and non-vegan customers".
'It says zero per cent meat'
A similar situation occurred recently when Burger King UAE began advertising its "plant-based" burger, which not only uses non-vegan ingredients, but is also cooked on the same grill as meat products and so is not suitable for vegetarians, either.
This spurred users of Vegan takes Dubai to submit a complaint of "false advertising" to the Department of Economic Development.
"It seems that not only the mayo has egg like the disclaimer states, but they told some people that the patty itself has egg, too," wrote the user who created the DED complaint. "It’s also grilled on same equipment and so in the UK it has the disclaimer 'not suitable for vegetarians', but here they are getting away with it."
The brand later released imagery that explained more about its ingredients, clarifying that its patty and bun contained no animal products at all.
Others argued that the brand had been transparent in this case.
"How’s it false advertising?" asked another user on the Facebook group. "It says 0 per cent meat which is true. It doesn’t say it’s vegan on the advert? It’s just a vegetarian option. Yes, they could’ve put the effort in to make it vegan, but they didn’t. Plenty of vegan restaurants / options."