May 25--In a rare corporate mea culpa, McDonald's Corp. has apologized for not being upfront about its use of beef extract in French fries sold in the United States, an ingredient the company describes as "natural flavor" in its nutrition brochures.

The apology comes after American Hindus and vegetarians sued the world's largest restaurant chain earlier this month in Seattle, accusing the company of deliberately misleading its American customers. The plaintiffs said they believed they were eating vegetarian fries because McDonald's has marketed its fries since 1990 as cooked in "100 percent vegetable oil."

The lawsuit has sparked a public-relations backlash against McDonald's. Chat rooms on vegetarian Web sites are filled with messages from customers who feel deceived. In India, where the cow is sacred to Hindus, demonstrators smashed restaurant windows and smeared signs with cow dung. The protests prompted McDonald's to run advertisements in Indian newspapers reassuring consumers that it used no animal extracts in fries it sells there.

Despite the negative publicity, McDonald's chose not to issue a public statement, instead carrying the apology on an obscure page on its corporate Web site.

"Because it is our policy to communicate to customers, we regret if customers felt that the information we provided was not complete enough to meet their needs," the company said. "If there was confusion, we apologize."

The apology did little to soothe the feeling of vegetarians. "It's a little bit late and doesn't do much good for all the damage they've done over the years to a lot of vegetarians," said Sunil Khemaney, a television programmer in Ventura, Calif., who doesn't eat meat because of his Hindu faith. "It's easy to apologize after the fact, after they've been exposed."

Khemaney is one of the plaintiffs in a legal suit lawyer Harish Bharti filed in California in recent days, similar to the one he filed in Washington on May 1. Bharti said he plans to consolidate the two lawsuits.

The apology, said Bharti, a native of India and a Hindu, "is a good start ... but it's not going to put the brakes on the lawsuit."

McDonald's disputes the contention in the legal action that it "secretly" adds beef flavoring to fries. When the company started cooking fries in vegetable oil instead of a combination of beef tallow and vegetable shortenings, it made the switch for nutritional reasons, said McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker. "McDonald's has never made any claims about the vegetarianism of our French fries or any other product."

In other countries, McDonald's prepares its food according to the population's cultural or religious dietary considerations. For example, in predominantly Muslim regions - as in Middle East - the company conforms to Halal standards, using no beef or pork flavorings in its fries.

Moreover, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company has always disclosed the makeup of its fries to customers and vegetarian groups who asked, Riker said. In the United States, a small amount of beef flavoring is added during potato processing at its suppliers' plants before the fries are shipped to restaurants. The description of beef extract as "natural flavor" in McDonald's ingredients list meets Food and Drug Administration regulations, he added.

But plaintiffs and other vegetarians contend that some McDonald's restaurant employees were not aware that the fries contained beef flavorings. "I inquired a couple of times with restaurant employees, and they assured me the fries were completely vegetarian," Khemaney said.

The public-relations problem comes at a difficult time for McDonald's, which has seen European sales fall because of consumer concern over beef safety. The mad cow crisis, coupled with weak foreign currencies and sluggish U.S. growth, has hurt profits the past two quarters and may pressure earnings in the second quarter, analysts said.

Now, it will have hard time regaining the trust of vegetarians, a small but growing part of the U.S population, said Howard Lyman, past president of the International Vegetarian Union. "Isn't it amazing that when they get caught lying, it's `confusing?'" he asked.

Along with its apology, McDonald's is evaluating its labeling policies, Riker said. But when asked if the company plans to alter its fries recipe, Riker chuckled and said, "We have no plans at this time to change the recipe in the U.S."

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