French fry lawsuits
Anger sizzles over seasoning used in McDonald's fries
By Lylah M. Alphonse,
Globe Staff February 22, 2006
Kathleen Fischbach's 6-year-old son, Andy,
has autism as well as celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by
gluten, the protein found in wheat and many other grains. He is also sensitive
to casein, a dairy protein. On his strict gluten- and casein-free diet, known as
GFCF, anything with wheat or dairy in it -- bread, pasta, cheese, almost all
fast food -- is off limits. But McDonald's french fries were a ''safe"
Not any more.
As news broke last week that the fast-food giant has
been using wheat and dairy ingredients to flavor its fries for years, people in
the celiac and autistic communities were up in arms. As of Friday, at least
three lawsuits had been filed against McDonald's. For those with celiac disease,
even a trace of gluten can lead to severe intestinal damage; for many autistic
children, gluten and casein cause hyperactive behavior and a host of
''Parents of children on the GFCF diet drive
themselves nuts checking and rechecking every ingredient in every item they
buy," says Nicole GuBrath of Colorado Springs, Colo., whose 5-year-old son has
been on the diet for about three years. ''I am furious that McDonald's was able
to lie for so long and poison our children with known allergens when we work so
hard to keep them away."
Lynne Monnett, who grew up in the Boston area, lives
with her husband and six children in Central Florida. All of them suffer from
celiac disease, and they used to stop at McDonald's for french fries. ''My
children have various food allergies in addition to celiac, and they've been
increasing instead of decreasing," she says. ''McDonald's fries were one item
they were always allowed to have, that we thought was safe.
''My life and my
childrens' lives were unnecessarily toyed with," Monnett says. ''And I'm pretty
upset about it."
McDonald's acknowledged on Feb. 13 that a seasoning agent
containing beef, wheat, and dairy ingredients -- previously listed as ''natural
flavor" -- is added to the oil at the factory where the potatoes are precooked
by the supplier. McDonald's director of global nutrition Cathy Kapica told the
Associated Press that the supplier removes all wheat and dairy proteins from the
flavoring. ''Technically, there are no allergens in there," she said.
disclosure was in response to new rules by the Food and Drug Administration for
the packaged foods industry, including one that requires that the presence of
common allergens -- including milk, eggs, wheat, fish, and peanuts -- be
reported. Because it is a restaurant, McDonald's does not have to comply with
the new regulations but is doing so voluntarily.
''We knew there were always
wheat and dairy derivatives in there, but they were not the protein component,"
Kapica said. Those who have eaten the french fries in the past without an
adverse reaction should be able to continue to do so, she said.
McDonald's early this month removed the fries from its list of gluten-free
Fischbach, who lives in Minneapolis, says she caught wind of the
change the day after the Super Bowl -- which was also the day after she had
taken her son to McDonald's. She contacted the company, based in Oak Brook,
Ill., to see if the rumors were true. ''I called three times," she says, ''I
spoke with three different people and got three different answers."
Friday, Debra Moffatt of Lombard, Ill., who has celiac disease, filed a lawsuit
in Cook County Circuit Court accusing McDonald's of misleading the public. The
lawsuit seeks class-action status. McDonald's Corp. senior vice president Jack
Daly said in a statement that the company has not yet reviewed the case, but is
testing its french fries for gluten through a food allergy research program at
the University of Nebraska.
Also on Friday, Mark and Theresa Chimiak of
Juptier, Fla., sued McDonald's, claiming that their 5-year-old daughter has a
gluten intolerance. Nadia Sugich of Los Angeles filed a suit on Wednesday since
she is a vegan and would not have eaten the french fries if she had known they
contained dairy products.
In 2001, several lawsuits were filed after
McDonald's confirmed that it had used beef tallow to season its fries since the
early 1990s, even though McDonald's told consumers the fries were vegetarian.
Others would consider joining class-action suits. ''I think the thing that makes
me the most angry is that they promoted the fries as gluten free," says GuBrath,
whose 4-year-old son has been on a GFCF diet for years. ''I would like to see
[McDonald's] give a substantial donation to autism and celiac causes."
M. Alphonse can be reached at email@example.com.