The Surprisingly Bitter and Occasionally Deadly Fight Over McDonalds’ Fries
Crispy and golden-brown on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside, with just the right amount of salt and the perfect hearty finish. McDonald’s French fries are one of the world’s favourite snacks, with an astonishing 4 million kilograms being sold every single day. A full quarter of these are sold in the United States alone, accounting for nearly 33% of all French fries sold and 7% of all potatoes grown in the country. With over 37,000 restaurants worldwide, McDonald’s is by far the largest fast food company in the world, serving its world-famous fries, burgers, and other items in more than 120 countries. However, as we have previously covered in our video When Did McDonald’s Start Super-Sizing Meals? this sheer ubiquity has become something of achilles heel, turning McDonald’s into a global symbol of – and scapegoat for – issues as diverse as global capitalism, abuse of workers, American imperialism, environmental degradation, and the obesity pandemic. McDonald’s restaurants are often the target of violent protests, and the chain is banned in over 90 countries. But perhaps the greatest single controversy the fast food giant has been involved in centres not on its global business practices or the treatment of its workers, but the contents of its most popular and seemingly innocuous product.
At first glance it might be difficult to see how French fries could possibly be controversial. After all, aren’t they simply sticks of potato fried in oil? But in today’s processed food landscape things are never as simple as they seem, and according to official McDonald’s sources their famous French fries actually contain a whopping 19 different ingredients. They are:
- Canola Oil
- Soybean Oil
- Hydrogenated Soybean Oil
- Hydrolized Wheat
- Hydrolized Milk
- Citric Acid
- Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate
- Canola Oil (*note to Simon, some listed twice for a reason)
- Corn oil
- Soybean Oil
- Hydrogenated Soybean Oil
- Citric Acid,
- Natural Flavour
While this list might seem alarmingly excessive for a simple French fry, you probably noticed right away that many ingredients are listed twice. This is because the fries are fried twice in the same oil mixture – once before being frozen and shipped to restaurants and again before being served to customers – and FDA rules require both mixtures to be listed separately. Eliminating these repetitions reduces the list to a shorter but still eyebrow-raising 14 ingredients. Yet despite their intimidating names, most of these additives are simply meant to ensure the stringent location-to-location uniformity McDonald’s food is famous for. For example, dextrose gives the fries their distinctive golden-brown colour, sodium acid pyrophosphate prevents discolouration during freezing, citric acid and tert-butylhydroquinone prevent the fries from oxidizing and turning grey, and dimethylpolysiloxane is an anti-foaming agent that prevent the frying oil from splattering. But while these ingredients may raise some eyebrows, none have generated as much controversy as the last item on the list: “natural flavour.” And the source of this controversy? Whether this seemingly nondescript ingredient contains any beef.
Beef has always been the key to the distinctive flavour of McDonald’s fries. From the chain’s founding in 1955, the potato sticks were fried in a mixture of beef tallow known as “Formula 47”, giving the fries their unique crispiness and subtle meaty taste. However, this all changed in 1990 thanks to a man named Phil Sokolof. After surviving a heart attack, Sokolof became concerned about the amount of saturated fats in fast food and launched a $14 million ad campaign against McDonald’s and other chains aimed at pressuring them into changing their recipes. Eventually McDonald’s caved in and announced that it would no longer be cooking their fries in beef tallow, switching instead to a mixture of canola, corn, and soybean oil.
While intended as a means of improving the healthiness of the McDonald’s menu, the switch from tallow to vegetable oil convinced many that the chain’s fries were now vegetarian. This attracted a whole new demographic of customers who had previously shied away from the chain. But then, on April 9, 2001, an article by Viji Sundaram appeared in the newspaper India-West titled Where’s the Beef? It’s in Your French Fries. In the article, Sundaram tells the story of Anand Kulkarni and Hitesh Shah, software engineers from Los Angeles who regularly ate at McDonald’s. Kulkarni was a devout Hindu and thus forbidden from eating beef while Shah was a follower of the Jain Dharma, a Hindu sect that opposes all forms of killing. So extreme is this aversion that certain devout Jains refuse to wash any part of their bodies except their hands to avoid killing bacteria and sweep the sidewalk before them with a broom so as not to step on any insects. Due to their religious beliefs the men’s typical McDonald’s order consisted of a veggie burger, a soda, and an order of fries, all of which were vegetarian – or so they thought. But then Shah read an article revealing that the supposedly vegetarian fries actually contained beef, hidden behind the innocuous ingredient label “natural flavour.” Enraged at being deceived into violating his religious beliefs, Shah called McDonald’s customer service and demanded to know whether the fries did indeed contain beef and, if so, why this was not listed as an ingredient. The McDonald’s representative, Megan Magee, replied that the fries did indeed contain a “minuscule amount” of beef flavouring, but that this was not listed because FDA regulations did not require the ingredients of natural flavourings to be broken down. Sundaram’s article set off a storm of controversy, especially in India where 84% of the population is Hindu. Violent protests erupted across the country, with protestors smashing restaurant windows and smearing statues of Ronald McDonald with cow dung while nationalist politicians like prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for the immediate shutdown of McDonalds’ 27 Indian locations. Of the scandal, Shanka Gankar of the ultra-nationalist Bajrang Dal party stated”
“They have betrayed the faith of millions of our countrymen by serving food cooked in beef fat. It is unpardonable. If they don’t close the outlets with immediate effect, we will be forced to take extreme steps.”
Meanwhile, in early May, Harish Bharti, a Hindu lawyer from Seattle, launched a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s, quipping that:
“They say billions and billions served. I say billions and billions deceived.”
The suit was filed on behalf of law students from George Washington University, fellow concerned Hindus, and secular vegetarian advocacy groups like the Vegetarian Legal Action Network. This group, which represents nearly 15 million vegetarians across the United States, had previously petitioned McDonald’s to fully disclose its products’ ingredients, but to no avail. As James Pizzirusso, the VLAN’s founder, stated:
“Corporate America needs to pay attention to consumers who avoid certain food products for religious or health reasons, or because they have allergies.They say they are complying with the law in terms of disclosing their ingredients, but they should go beyond the law.”
Meanwhile, the Hindu case against McDonald’s was passionately stated by Brij Sharma, a Seattle electrical engineer and one of the defendants named in the class-action suit:
“I feel sick in the morning every day, like I want to vomit. Now it is always there in my mind that I have done this sin.”
Bharthi and his clients were soon joined by six Hindus from British Columbia, Canada, including Harjinder Kainth, who claimed that a McDonald’s employee assured him that the restaurant’s fries were indeed vegetarian. A second lawsuit against McDonald’s Canada was filed later that month.
In response, McDonald’s Canada denied ever claiming that its fries were vegetarian, stating:
“In fact, at McDonald’s Canada, we have always prepared our french fries in a blend of beef and vegetable oil. Furthermore, this information has always been readily available to our Canadian customers through our Food Facts brochure…the lawsuit filed in British Columbia is totally misguided and based on completely unfounded and incorrect information.”
Furthermore, the parent company revealed that while beef flavouring was included in fries prepared in North America, these ingredients were omitted in markets like India with religious or moral restrictions against eating beef and other meat products.
Nonetheless, in June of 2002 McDonalds agreed to pay out a $10 million settlement to the 11 named defendants, and issued the following official apology:
“We regret we did not provide these customers with complete information, and we sincerely apologize for any hardship that these miscommunications have caused among Hindus, vegetarians and others. We should have done a better job in these areas, and we’re committed to doing a better job in the future.”
But do McDonald’s fries – at least the ones served in North America – actually contain beef? Well, it depends on how you define “beef.” The “natural flavouring” used in McDonald’s fries is made by hydrolyzing beef proteins into their constituent amino acids and adding various sugars and citric acid, producing a rich, meaty umami flavour. Whether or not this actually counts as beef is thus a matter of semantic and religious interpretation. Such ambiguity is common in the field of food science. For example, the molecule which gives bananas their distinctive flavour is called Isoamyl Acetate. According to FDA rules, if this molecule is extracted from actual bananas, then food manufacturers are allowed to refer to it as “natural flavouring.” If, however, it is synthesized from other chemicals, it must be labeled as “artificial flavouring” – even though in both cases the molecule is exactly the same. But while McDonald’s fries may in fact be vegetarian, one thing they are definitely not is vegan, for included among the 14 official ingredients is hydrolyzed milk.
The debacle over beef in fries would not be the last time McDonald’s faced the wrath of Indian Hindus. In August 2019, McDonald’s India announced on Twitter that all its restaurants were now certified Halal, the code of animal slaughter and food preparation followed by devout Muslims. Once again violent protests erupted across the country, with protestors inflicting more than $60,000 in damage against McDonald’s property. Activists complained that the move alienated the country’s Hindu majority, and that McDonald’s should also offer meat prepared according to jahtka, a Hindu slaughtering method that involves beheading an animal in one stroke. As Vishnu Gupta, president of the right-wing Hindu Sena party, stated:
“McDonald’s can’t force halal meat upon a vast section of Hindus who eat jhatka. Their sensitivities can’t be ignored. If McDonald’s can keep in consideration the sensitivities of a particular group, why is it ignoring the others? If Mcdonald’s doesn’t change its policy, and start serving both halal and jhatka in its outlets across India, soon our men will protest against the food chain on streets.”
However, according critics like activist Shabham Hashmi, these protests had less to do with McDonald’s itself and more with islamophobia and Hindu Nationalism, with the restaurant chain serving, as ever, as a lightning rod and convenient scapegoat for pre-existing tensions:
“It is an absolutely Islamophobic atmosphere which is existing in India now and each and every occasion is used by right-wing Hindus to attack Muslims. It’s the extreme right asserting themselves to convert India into a Hindu nation.”
But such controversies are part and parcel of being a giant multinational corporation, and McDonald’s will likely weather this storm as it has others and continue serving burgers, shakes – and yes, fries – to its billions and billions of customers around the globe.
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While rioting and vandalizing restaurants over beef flavouring in fries may seem like an extreme reaction, fears of beef contamination once triggered a nationwide uprising. From the mid 1700s onward the British East India Company and later the British Colonia Government recruited large numbers of native Indian troops known as sepoys to police their colonial holdings. Over the next century, resentment to British colonial rule steadily grew among the Indian population, fueled by punitive taxes, unfair economic policies, and other abuses. This simmering tension finally came to a boil in May 1857, triggered by, of all things, the issuing of a new pattern of rifle to the sepoys. Like previous smoothbore muskets, the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle was loaded from the muzzle using a paper cartridge, consisting of a bullet and gunpowder charge wrapped in a paper cylinder. To load the rifle, a soldier tore the cartridge open with his teeth, poured the powder down the barrel, crumpled the paper around the bullet, and rammed both down the barrel with a ramrod. Unfortunately, to help it slide down the barrel, the bullet for the 1853 Enfield was greased with a mixture of beef and pork tallow, meaning that soldiers risked ingesting this grease every time they loaded the rifle. This was abhorrent to Hindu and Muslim troops alike, and proved the last straw for the disgruntled sepoys. On March 29, 1857, sepoys at Barrackpore near Calcutta rose up against their British officers, sparking a rebellion that quickly spread across the subcontinent. What followed was a brutal year-and-a-half-long conflict that resulted in the deaths of 6000 British and 800,000 Indian troops and civilians, the dissolution of the East India Company, and the consolidation of British colonial rule in India. British reprisals against the rebellious sepoys was infamously brutal, with thousands being hanged or strapped to the mouths of cannons and blown apart. While generally referred to in the West as the Sepoy Mutiny, Indian Mutiny, or Indian Rebellion, the events of 1857-1858 are known in India as the First War of Independence, and proved a watershed moment in British-Indian relations and the first in a long line of rebellious acts that eventually resulted in India winning her independence less than 100 years later.Expand for References
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