THE Garden Whopper could soon be available on a high street near you. This mixture of bulgar-wheat, brown rice, chopped onion, mushroom and vegetarian cheese, selling at £2.09, is the latest weapon in the burger wars.
Currently being tested at two Burger King restaurants in Guildford, Surrey, the Whopper is aimed at customers who have resisted the lardy lure of saturated fat. Geoffrey Parsons, the franchisee who runs both outlets, says: 'I believe vegetarian products will be a growing part of our mix because many under-twenties, particularly women, are vegetarian.'
Nearly two million people a day are fed and watered at McDonald's and Burger King, whose combined total of UK outlets topped 1,000 this year. Their products are regularly slated by food writers. In a recent survey of fast-food burgers, restaurateur Stephen Bull dismissed them as 'travesties and betrayals of the real thing'.
The companies reply that their food is perfectly healthy as part of a balanced diet and say they have taken on board recent criticisms: McDonald's has replaced lard in its buns with vegetable oil and reformulated its dressings.
But, for those who believe the rise of the burger chains represents the end of civilisation, the nightmare is only beginning. Both companies are planning a host of new products, new price deals and, above all, new outlets. McDonald's has a restaurant for every 26,000 people in the US, compared with one for every 95,000 in the UK.
As high streets become as saturated as the fats, fast-food restaurants are appearing in motorway service areas, railway stations, airports, cross-Channel ferries, leisure centres, hospitals and museums. Suggestions that this is too much of a good thing get short shrift from Samantha Smith, now head of marketing at Burger King and a former senior executive with McDonald's.
'A few years ago they were saying that in the States there was this feeling that every mall was covered. But we've kept on growing there: the US has four to five times the number of burger restaurants per capita.'
Campaigns against McDonald's - over issues ranging from treatment of its workers to its environmental record - seem to have no effect on its phenomenal growth. Tomorrow is the eleventh annual Worldwide Day of Action Against McDonald's, while the ' McLibel Trial' - in which two environmentalists are defending themselves against accusations that they libelled the company in leaflets - is in its sixteenth month.
Many of McDonald's planning applications have run into local opposition, from the long-running campaign to keep it out of Hampstead, north London, to protests over its first NHS outlet, in Guy's Hospital, London.
McDonald's will open another 50 restaurants by the end of the year, heading for a total of 780 by 1997 and 1,000 by 2000. Burger King opened 76 outlets during the last 12 months and has 363 in operation.
What does the public make of this invasion? Customers in Burger King and McDonald's last week seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the fast-food burger.
Jackie Barber, 22, a receptionist eating a quarter-pounder with cheese in a McDonald's, said: 'I know it's bad for me but it's easy, tempting and cheap. I try not to eat here too often.'
John McFarland, 36, a bank employee, said: 'It's not the greatest food in the world but it fills you up and you don't have to think about it.'
McDonald's acknowledges that children are often the key decision-makers in families' eating habits and last year began opening Children's World stores. Analysts believe that schools will be next on its hit list.