Fat flap at McDonald's
May 3, 2001: 4:01 p.m. ET

McDonald's refutes class action suit alleging deceptive use of beef flavoring
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - McDonald's Corp. said Thursday it "has always used" beef flavoring in its French fries, refuting allegations made in a class action lawsuit brought against it by a vegetarian lawyer.

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graphicCNN's Lilian Kim reports from Seattle on the lawsuit
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"While we are not familiar with the details of the litigation filed in Seattle, we have never made any vegetarian claims about our French fries or any other product," McDonald's said in a statement.

The statement is in response to Seattle attorney Harish Bharti's decision to sue Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's (MCD: down $0.55 to $27.00, Research, Estimates) after reading an e-mail from the company to a California man acknowledging its suppliers use tiny amounts of beef flavoring to flavor its fries.

Bharti, who filed the suit on behalf of all vegetarians, said the e-mail contradicts previous claims McDonald's has made assuring customers it uses 100 percent vegetable oil for its fries.

"This is an outrage. This is the height of corporate greed," Bharti told "How can you be so insensitive? This is something that is ingested. You can't take it back."

In its statement, McDonald's said beef flavoring is added during potato processing at the plant, and is standard in making French fries.

"The natural flavoring consists of a minuscule amount of beef extract," the company said. "These fries are then shipped to our restaurants. Our French fries are cooked in vegetable oil at our restaurants."

The company also said its nutrition facts brochures available at all restaurants strictly follows U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for product information.

Bharti's suit comes just as McDonald's is struggling with lower profit as the scare over mad cow disease in Europe keeps customers away from stores.

John Glass, an analyst with Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, said he thought it unlikely the lawsuit would have any long-term effect on earnings or sales because, while it may have offended vegetarians, it is not a health issue.

In the suit filed in King County, Wash., Superior Court, Bharti said he wants McDonaId's to stop using beef fat on its fries and to come clean about its food preparation practices.

Bharti, a native of India who avoids meat in accordance with his Hindu religion, said fast food chains Burger King, a unit of the Britain's Diageo PLC (DEO: up $0.18 to $42.25, Research, Estimates), and Wendy's International (WEN: down $0.42 to $25.13, Research, Estimates) both stopped using beef fat in their fries about 10 years ago, and that McDonald's soon followed suit, publicly stating they would use 100 percent vegetable oil.

However, McDonald's said that its 1990 switch to vegetable oil in the United States was made for nutritional reasons "to offer customers a cholesterol-free menu item."

McDonald's said the switch received wide media coverage, but that the company never made any vegetarian claims about its fries or other products."

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Bharti, who said he has received hundreds of phone calls from vegetarians and other Hindus since the story first broke in California, said he has brought his own sons to McDonald's in the past for fries, believing they never touched beef products.

In an e-mail sent to Hitesh Shah on April 9, Megan Magee of McDonald's Home Office Customer Satisfaction Department said the company uses a minuscule amount of beef flavoring "as an ingredient in the raw product," and that it is not required by law to list it as an ingredient. Instead beef flavoring falls under the term "natural flavors."

"This is a deceptive practice and this is against the law," Bharti said.

McDonald's said it uses no beef or pork flavorings whatsoever in predominantly Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa for religious and dietary reasons. graphic