SEATTLE - Facing a class-action lawsuit from angry vegetarians, McDonald's this week confirmed that its French fries are prepared with beef extract, a disclosure the company said is not new.
Although the fast-food giant has been saying since 1990 that its fries are cooked in pure vegetable oil, company spokesman Walt Riker said Wednesday that McDonald's never said its fries were appropriate for vegetarians and always told customers that their flavor comes partly from beef.
The list of French-fry ingredients that McDonald's offers at its franchises and on its Web site includes potatoes, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and ''natural flavor.'' The list does not mention that the ''natural flavor'' comes from beef. To discover that, one would have to contact a McDonald's customer-satisfaction representative.
A class action suit has been filed for ''emotional distress'' caused to vegetarians, some of them vegetarian for religious reasons, who thought McDonald's fries were in line with their strong feelings about not eating meat.
Harish Bharti, the Seattle lawyer who filed the suit against McDonald's Tuesday, said the confirmation that the company uses beef extract to flavor its fries validates his case.
Bharti argues that a reasonable person who heard that McDonald's fries are prepared in ''100 percent vegetable oil'' and read the list of ingredients would assume the food is suitable for vegetarians.
Yesterday, after news of his suit spread across the nation, Bharti said he was receiving hundreds of calls from vegetarians who think they were misled by McDonald's and want to join the suit. Some of them, he said, say they were told by McDonald's employees that the fries were vegetarian.
Beef extract, not beef tallow, as the suit alleges, is the only natural flavor in McDonald's French fries, Riker said. Asked why the company simply did not write ''beef extract'' on its list of ingredients, he replied, ''It's a good question. We're sensitive to all our customers' needs and concerns. We try to be as forthcoming and user-friendly as possible. We'll review it. We'll take a look at it.''
He added that using ''natural flavor'' as a synonym for beef extract is within federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
McDonald's French fries are essentially cooked twice. Central suppliers wash, steam-peel, cut, blanch, dry, par-fry and then freeze the potatoes that make the famous golden slivers. During the par-frying, ''a minuscule amount of beef extract is added,'' the company said.
Later, after being shipped to McDonald's franchises, the frozen fries are cooked in pure vegetable oil.
However, in countries such as India, where large numbers of people are vegetarian for religious reasons, McDonald's suppliers do not add beef extract to the fries, Riker said.
Bharti's suit seeks unspecified damages for the ''emotional distress'' caused to vegetarians, some of them vegetarian for religious reasons, who thought McDonald's fries were in line with their strong feelings about not eating meat.
Bharti said McDonald's contention that the information was available to people if they had only asked is insulting.
''Not only did they deceive these people,'' he said. ''Now they are claiming that all these people were deceived because they were stupid. This adds insult to injury.''
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