In an Aug. 13 press release, the chain said the company's Web site, www.mcdonalds.com, now includes updated details on whether "a natural flavor comes from a dairy, meat or vegetable source." The site admits the natural flavors used in McDonald's french fries contain beef, whereas previous ingredient listings did not explain the makeup of "natural flavors." The updated information also will be available in printed pamphlets in McDonald's restaurants.
McDonald's spokesman Mike Gordon refused to comment on the lawsuit, saying only that the company had received "an increase in consumer requests for additional information beyond what the (federal) guidelines require." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require food producers to specify ingredients within natural flavorings.
The class-action lawsuit, filed in May by Seattle lawyer Harish Bharti, claims McDonald's willfully misled customers by not explicitly stating that its french fries still contained beef extract even after the company began cooking them in vegetable oil in 1990. Hindus regard the cow as sacred and do not eat beef.
Bharti, who is Hindu and a vegetarian, called the action "long overdue" and "a big benefit in the long range for the whole food industry," adding that he hoped other fast-food chains would follow McDonald's lead.
A few weeks after Bharti filed the lawsuit, McDonald's issued an apology for creating confusion among customers and admitted beef extract was used in the fries' par-frying process. The statement said, however, that the company had never claimed its french fries were vegetarian.
But in a 1993 letter to a vegetarian customer, a scanned copy of which Bharti made available to Religion News Service, a McDonald's customer service manager included french fries among "several items that vegetarians can enjoy."
He said the letter is crucial to his case and that he has asked McDonald's to hand over all similar documents.
Gordon said he had not seen the letter but that "there may have been some misstatements" regarding the french fries' ingredients since the switch from beef tallow to vegetable oil.
The case is expected to go to trial in December 2002.