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McDonald's faces lawsuit after nutritional info slip

By Lorraine Heller , 22-Feb-2006

Inconsistencies in information provided by McDonald's over the allergen content of its French fries have resulted in the fast food giant facing a public relations nightmare together with possibly unfounded lawsuits.

The confusion resulted after McDonald's last week acknowledged that its fries contain wheat and milk ingredients.

It immediately came under attack by consumers who suffer from celiac disease, which is characterized by an intolerance to the gluten found in wheat, who filed three lawsuits against the burger chain.

However, McDonald's has since modified the information, announcing on Monday that new tests reveal its fries are actually "gluten and allergen free."

"Scientific evaluation by one of the world's leading experts on gluten sensitivity and allergenicity, Dr Steven Taylor of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program of the University of Nebraska, has confirmed again that our fries are gluten free and allergen free," said McDonald's senior vice president Jack Daly in a statement.

Daly added that "based on this analysis, we believe the lawsuits filed are without legal merit."

In an attempt to appear responsible and sensitive to consumer needs, McDonald's seems instead to have dug itself into a hole with this back and forth of information, marked by the appearance and disappearance of check marks in the French fries 'milk' and 'wheat' boxes on the corporation's allergens web page.

The issue also raises questions as to the quantity and form of allergen-derived ingredients necessary in order for a product to be classed as containing these allergens.

According to UK solicitor Jessica Burt, "technical advances with the ability to show up more and more minute levels of contamination, illegal or unlisted ingredients" are set to be "a major liability risk" for manufacturers and caterers.

And fears of a legal backlash are likely to place a limit on the type of nutritional claims companies will chose to make when not legally required to do so.

Indeed, the Celiac Spruce Association (CSA), which claims to be the largest non-profit support group for celiac sufferers in the US, has announced that it does not support the lawsuits brought against McDonald's.

"What incentive will there be for restaurants to offer or continue to offer gluten-free menus or even provide voluntary information for customers?" it said in a statement.

"McDonald's has been one of the most understanding, cooperative food establishments on behalf of celiacs. They have worked very closely with CSA and those with celiac disease to learn about celiac disease and to provide the best information available."

According to CSA executive director Mary Schluckebier, the current confusion has resulted from the "complexities of communication" brought upon as companies and suppliers try to comply with new allergen labeling regulations, which require all products labeled for sale in the US to indicate the presence of any of the eight major food allergens.

McDonald's was unavailable for immediate comment.

This is not the first time the fast food chain has faced legal action over its nutritional statements. Last year it was ordered to pay $8.5 million after Californian attorney Stephen Joseph sued the corporation for reneging on its promise to reduce the amount of trans fats in its cooking oils.

Together with similar cases brought against companies for the nutritional content of their products, this demonstrates how litigation is being increasingly used in the US as a method of "raising awareness," with well-known brands and companies standing straight in the line of fire.

Indeed, Joseph is currently pushing for more awareness at the point of service, something that could spell tough times ahead for the food service sector.

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