Pizza Shop Prompts Backlash By Secretly Using Fake Meat in Its 'Burger Pizza'

"HELL Pizza has taken more than 3000 customers by complete surprise with our meat-free Burger Pizza."
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
a Hamburger Pizza with Beef, Pickles, and Onions on a dark brown wooden cutting board
Photo by bhofack2 via iStock/Getty Images Plu

When high-tech alt-meats partner with brands and chains, it's usually announced with quite a bit of fanfare. When fast food adopts Beyond Meat or Impossible Burgers, the stories rack up online, proving that—aside from the case of Burger King stuffing "Impossible Whoppers" with real meat—the partnerships are generally good publicity.

New Zealand's HELL Pizza, however, decided to roll out Beyond Meat secretly, and that decision has since spurred not just online backlash, but also an official government inquiry, according to Australian news site 10 daily. The chain released the Burger Pizza in late June, and while one might have assumed from the chain's meat-filled menu that the burger chunks were beef, that wasn't the case: it used Beyond Meat burgers instead.

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HELL made that information public a week later, when it copped to the swap in a blog post. With the meat-free pizza, the company wrote, it had "taken more than 3000 customers by complete surprise" in order "to see if people could tell the difference between a plant-based patty and a meat version" and to "raise awareness about sustainable food choices." Eighty percent of customers surveyed were happy about the swap, HELL claimed, and as the company later told the BBC, the pizza didn't mislead customers, since it "rightly called the product 'burger patties.'"

Not everyone is convinced by the gimmick, though. Some people pointed out that the move was the latest in a long line of stunts from HELL; in 2014, the company attached rabbit skins to a billboard to promote rabbit pizza, wrote the New Zealand Herald.

But promotions aside, critics called out the potential danger to people with food allergies, who rely—sometimes on a life-or-death level—on clarity when it comes to ingredients. While the Beyond Burger pointedly skips high-profile allergens like soy and gluten, it relies on pea and mung bean protein, and Beyond Meat cautions that "people with severe allergies to legumes like peanuts should be cautious when introducing pea protein into their diet because of the possibility of a pea allergy."

Unknowingly being served beans could result in a hospital visit, wrote one Twitter user. That potential for danger was echoed by Chris Simpson, the chief executive of New Zealand's Waikato Chamber of Commerce, who wrote an open letter to the company on LinkedIn. "You have failed at a very basic human level. Not just at a #marketing level. What you did is not funny, clever, witty or even smart," Simpson wrote. "Is it #negligence? I'll have to ask Lucifer when I arrive in Hell based on eating something unknown."

While HELL's intentions might have been sustainability, the promotion still fell into the trope of fast food's "mystery meat," packed with unspoken ingredients. Taco Bell, for example, has been known to use additives like sodium phosphate and soy lecithin to improve the texture of its meat products, and a controversial 2017 study suggested that Subway's "chicken" was actually 50 percent soy.

In response to the discussion, the Ministry for Primary Industries announced earlier this week that it was meeting with HELL to discuss the importance of making ingredients clear to customers. MUNCHIES has reached out to the MPI for comment and has not yet received a response, but according to a statement posted on HELL's blog earlier today, the meeting was "very positive," and "MPI indicated it was satisfied with our response to these concerns."

According to HELL, because of Beyond Meat's current cost, it has no plans adding the Burger Pizza to its permanent menu anyway.