(Aug. 2) MIAMI — Another contestant has emerged in the race to be king in the fast-food salad derby.

Miami-based Burger King Corp., which is on the verge of being sold by its London-based parent, Diageo PLC, has joined a trend toward featuring more fresh produce options on its menu by launching two salads nationwide.

The second-largest hamburger chain in the U.S., Burger King introduced its chicken Caesar salad, priced at $3.99, July 15. The salad is a mix of romaine and iceberg lettuce that is topped with grilled chicken and Parmesan cheese, said Kim Miller, spokeswoman for the chain.

“Consumers are demanding greater variety, and what we learned in our research is that some consumers would actually make the decision for the entire party, and if there was nothing on the menu that would appeal to that one person, the whole group would go elsewhere,” Miller said. “We call that the ‘veto factor.’”

The salad offerings are a way to negate that factor, she said.

“We formulated a number of products in the last couple of months, including the BK Veggie, a nonmeat burger, and the salads.”

Burger King also is rolling out nationwide a 99 cent side garden salad with romaine and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cabbage and carrots, along with a choice of dressings, Miller said.

Salads and other specialty items — generally involving chicken — have become a focus of the fast-food industry in recent months. Both McDonald’s and Wendy’s, the No. 1 and No. 3 chains respectively, launched new salad offerings in the spring.

Wendy’s has reported brisk sales from its four Garden Sensations salads. Those salads include grape tomatoes and mandarin oranges — ingredients not typically found in a fast-food salad.

McDonald’s followed suit in June, rolling out a line of that contain mandarin oranges and other upscale ingredients in its 1,250 Canadian restaurants.

“You’re going to see menu expansion in this category because of the phenomenal success that Wendy’s has enjoyed by serving better quality salads than the QSR (quick-service restaurant) industry has normally provided. And you look at the sales, and it’s clear that there’s consumer demand,” said Allan Hickok, a foodservice industry analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, Minneapolis. “Will these other players enjoy the success that Wendy’s has? Who knows. Wendy’s has done an extremely good job. What they have done is stand for higher quality food at a higher price.”

Miller said the new salads were just a part of a shift in Burger King’s focus.

“It wasn’t just salads. It was a host of elements,” she said. “But, certainly, salads as a lighter fare played a role in dining choices. Those choices could impact the decision of where an entire party will eat.”

Hickok agreed that consumer demand for more nutritious choices was steering the trend.

“The demand is there. So wherever you see demand, the industry will respond,” he said. “It’s a very competitive business. No one is going to leave you alone and give you that sliver of the market to yourself. Whenever you see a market that works, you’ll see others get involved.”

The shift does have its limitations, however, Hickok said.

“There’s a practical limit,” he said. “You can’t just continue to add to the menu board, or you’ll bring the operation to its knees,” he said. “You take the fast out of fast food. If you do that, you have a big issue, because you get rid of the convenience part.”

The product launchings come at a time when Burger King’s parent company, Diageo PLC of London, is about to unload the chain. Miller said Diageo is planning to sell the 11,457-unit chain to equity group Texas Pacific, Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners.

“That’s in progress,” she said, adding that Diageo expects to close the deal, reportedly worth about $2.8 billion, by the end of the year.

It’s a healthy move in numerous respects, said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation.

“I think this is a response to that demand for healthy fast food,” Pivonka said.

But Burger King and other chains may be just scratching the surface of possible profits in introducing new salad lines, Pivonka said.

“It’s just my opinion, but I think they need to go beyond the standard, the chicken Caesar salads,” she said. “The side salad is another one of those standards. I think the saturation point may be the consumers wanting a different salad, and I’d hope all of them offer that.”