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Wednesday, May 2, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vegetarians beefing over fries: McDonald's uses beef fat, suit claims

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A charge of fraudulent french fries is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit filed against McDonald's in King County Superior Court yesterday.

The suit alleges that the fast-food giant misled its customers by presenting its golden fries as vegetarian for more than 10 years.

Harish Bharti, the Seattle lawyer who filed the case, says that contrary to the company's public statements and advertising, McDonald's fries are prepared using beef fat.

If Bharti is right, the class of people with a grievance against McDonald's - which reported U.S. sales of more than $19 billion in 1999 - could be huge. He believes the suit is the first of its kind nationwide.

Essentially, Bharti said, any vegetarian who ate McDonald's fries after 1990 believing they contained no meat can be a party to the suit here or to suits he plans to file in other states.

The lawsuit began as an attempt to address concerns of American Hindus, who are largely vegetarian for religious reasons, but has grown into something much larger.

"They shouldn't be deceiving people," Bharti said. "I am going to go forward and stop this giant."

Officials at McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Bharti says he has proof that McDonald's fries are prepared using beef. He cites his own research, an e-mail from the company that says as much, and the recently published best-seller "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal."

In that book, investigative reporter Eric Schlosser notes that before 1990, when concern about cholesterol spread across the nation, McDonald's used beef fat, or tallow, to flavor its fries.

"For decades, McDonald's cooked its french fries in a mixture of about 7 percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow," he writes. "The mix gave the fries their unique flavor - and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald's hamburger."

"Natural flavor"

Then in 1990, in response to health concerns, the company publicly announced that it was changing from beef fat to pure vegetable oil. However, Schlosser suggests that the company could still be using beef tallow to flavor its fries while listing the ingredient as "natural flavor."

According to an e-mail printed in the American newspaper India-West on April 6 - and later obtained by Bharti - an employee in McDonald's customer-satisfaction department confirmed this.

In the e-mail to Hitesh Shah, a vegetarian who had written the company with concerns about beef in the fries, McDonald's staff member Megan Magee allegedly wrote: "For flavor enhancement, McDonald's french-fry suppliers use a minuscule amount of beef flavoring as an ingredient in the raw product."

The e-mail goes on to say that the beef is among the "natural flavors" reported in the fries' ingredients.

"We're sorry if this has caused any confusion," Magee wrote.

Unspecified damages

Brij Sharma of Lynnwood, a strict vegetarian, is listed as one of three parties to the complaint filed yesterday, which seeks unspecified damages.

He says a McDonald's employee told him the fries are vegetarian.

"I belong to a very highly respected Brahmin family," Sharma said. "It's making me feel sick. It is something like a question of saving our souls."

Bharti says he has not accepted any money to take the case and will be paid only if a settlement or jury verdict is reached. And he sees this as an issue that stretches into every society where the multinational corporation operates.

McDonald's prides itself on standardization - that its fries taste the same in Bombay as they do in Bothell.

Bharti sees that standardization as proof that millions of religious vegetarians in India, where a number of McDonald's franchises operate, have also been misled.

Eli Sanders can be reached at 206-748-5815 or esanders@seattletimes.com.

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