Walk into virtually any American McDonald’s and the menu is roughly the same, as is how that food is prepared. The french fries, for example, are processed at a central plant before sent off the local restaurants for deep frying soon before sale. While for many years, McDonald’s restaurants cooked the fries in lard or beef fat, as of 1990, that changed. That year, corporate decided that the “side dish” of sorts was fried in vegetable oil, in response to similar menu changes by Burger King and Wendy’s. McDonald’s, per their press announcement of that change, wanted to offer a lower cholesterol option for diners. (Really.) In doing so, they also created what many believed to be a vegetarian option — except that, it wasn’t one.
The confusion was simple: frozen fries come pre-prepared from the plant, where there is no obvious reason for any beef, chicken, or pork additives to be included. When they arrive at the restaurant, they go into the vegetable oil, and, while there is risk of cross-contamination, the fries were not intentionally subjected to the grill or anything else which would have an animal product in it. One can understand why customers would be misled; after all, and as seen below, McDonald’s own corporate communications team thought that the fries were one of a few “items which vegetarians can enjoy at McDonald’s” because “they are cooked in 100% vegetable oil:”
But there was beef in the fries. Beef tallow, specifically. A very small amount — McDonald’s would later use the word “minuscule” in a 2001 statement to CNN — was added to the fry-making process in the plant, and always had. McDonald’s further told media outlets that it never claimed that the fries were vegetarian, although the letter above says otherwise.
On the basis of this letter and the press release, lawsuits followed. One attorney, a Seattle-based man named Harish Bharti, took the error personally. Bharti, born in India and a practicing Hindu, maintained a vegetarian diet for religious reasons, and filed a lawsuit on behalf of a class of plaintiffs in similar situations. His demand? That McDonald’s be transparent in their processes insofar as animal products are used, make the fries truly vegetarian, and pay millions in damages to the “billions and billions deceived,” per ABC News. Bharti noted that the recipe for Hindu-friendly fries should not be a difficult one for McDonald’s to implement in the United States, as they already had such a recipe in place in India and in countries with large Muslim populations as well.
In the end, McDonald’s settled the claims of Bharti’s clients and others, paying $10 million to a variety of religious and vegetarian non-profits. But to date, the fries still contain that minuscule amount of beef in them. Per their official ingredients list (a pdf of which can be found here), the fries have a “natural beef flavor” which, in brackets right after, is described as “wheat and milk derivatives.” As this can be confusing — is it beef? or is it milk and wheat? — in 2011, Doris Lin, a writer for About.com on animal rights topics, investigated further. Mickey D’s reply? In part: “any customer in the U.S. who contacts McDonald’s USA to ask if they contain beef flavoring is told “yes.” For flavor enhancement, in the U.S., McDonald’s French fry suppliers use a very small amount of beef flavor as a natural flavoring during the par-frying process at the potato processing plant.”
From the Archives: Regal Potatoes: How reverse psychology made Germans into potato eaters.
Related: A play McDonald’s fries container. Probably not vegetarian; certainly not edible.