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09/04/01 . VIJI SUNDARAM . India-West . North America  
Where's the Beef? It's in Your French Fries  
There's no denying it: McDonald's admits to using beef flavoring in its french fries.  

Anand Kulkarni of Los Angeles used to be a regular at McDonald's. So was his colleague, Hitesh Shah. Both men, software engineers at Innovative Software Consultants, Inc., were raised as vegetarians in India and planned to remain so all their lives, for both religious as well as ethical reasons. That's why they didn't think twice about walking into their local McDonald's and ordering a veggie burger, french fries and a soda, a modified version of the "Happy Meal" for kids. After all, the veggie burger contained nothing more than a toasted bun with tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, onion and cucumber pickle. And the French fries were nothing more than potatoes fried in vegetable oil. Perfectly kosher, right?

Or so they thought, until Shah, a Jain, read an article recently that the french fries at the fast food franchise contain beef.

Distressed that he had unwittingly violated his religious beliefs, Shah e-mailed McDonald's customer service department, asking it pointblank whether its french fries contained beef, and if they did, why was it not listed as an ingredient.

"Thank you for taking time to contact McDonald's with your questions regarding the ingredients in our french fries," responded Megan Magee of the company's Home Office Customer Satisfaction Department via e-mail.

"For flavor enhancement, McDonald's french fry suppliers use a miniscule amount of beef flavoring as an ingredient in the raw product," Magee wrote.

"The reason beef is not listed as an ingredient is because McDonald's voluntarily (restaurants are not required to list ingredients) follow the 'Code of Federal Regulations' (required for packaged goods) for labeling its products.

"As such, like food labels you would read on packaged goods . . . ., the ingredients in 'natural flavors' are not broken down. Again, we are sorry if this has caused any confusion."

Shah was understandably appalled when he read the e-mail. Strict followers of Jainism not only avoid eating animal products, they even avoid wearing any material made from an animal source, like leather. In fact, Jain monks go to the extent of wearing a mask over their nose and mouth so they will not inadvertently breathe in any insects.

"This is absolutely awful," Shah told India-West by telephone from Los Angeles. "My wife (Purvi) and I will never go back there again."

"It's not right on their part not to let customers know what goes into the french fries," said his colleague, Kulkarni. "Now that I know, I will avoid going there."

Cathy Gilbert, coordinator of McDonald's Customer Satisfaction Department in the company's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., confirmed that natural beef flavoring is used in the french fries. "We use something similar to beef broth, just to enhance the flavor," she told India-West.

Since 1990, McDonald's has been frying the frozen french fries it gets from its suppliers in vegetable oil, after consumers criticized it for frying them in beef tallow, a cooking medium rich in cholesterol. But the frozen potatoes and the cooking oil at McDonald's both contain "natural flavor," according to Eric Schlosser, author of the best-seller, "Fast Food Nation." When it stopped using tallow, McDonald's had to find a way to make up for the lost, albeit subtle, beef taste in the fries, hence the addition of the natural flavor, Schlosser says in his 270-page book.

The Food and Drug Administration does not require flavor companies to disclose the ingredients in their additives, nor do restaurants that buy those flavors have to divulge what those flavors contain, so long as they are GRAS (generally regarded as safe), Schlosser says. It is likely that some restaurants themselves may not know what goes into the flavors.

Schlosser's book began as a two-part investigative piece for Rolling Stone magazine, but evolved into a 270-page expose on "The Dark Side of the All-American Meal."

He said that in writing the book, it was not his intent to shut down the fast food industry. However, consumers should make informed decisions based on factors such as how fast food has influenced conditions in slaughterhouses, a subject he graphically describes in his book.

According to Schlosser, natural flavors must be derived "entirely from natural sources - from herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken, yeast, bark, roots, etc."

"Labelling foods as 'Natural favor' is a loophole to cover up" a variety of sins, Pat Fish of the Vegetarian Awareness Network, a national non-profit group, told India-West. Fish called McDonald's "the great Satan of the meat food industry, the omnipresent symbol of an uncaring fast food chain."

India-West surveyed other popular fast food restaurants to find out if their french fries have animal products hidden in them. Those served at Burger King "have no beef or any other animal product in them," said Chris Boesch, a spokeperson for the company. Nor do the french fries served at Wendy's, said Bob Bertini, a spokesman for that chain.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' vegan campaign coordinator Bruce Friedrich said that "people who are attempting to be vegetarians or lacto-vegetarians should stay away from McDonald's french fries and Vitamin D-fortified commercial milk, because the Vitamin D is synthesized from slaughtered animals."

According to Lige Weill, president of the Vegetarian Awareness Network, the veggie fajitas Taco Bell once served contained chicken and clam extract, but under pressure from his group, the clam extract was left out. It's been about two years since that item showed up on Taco Bell's menu.

Weill said Taco Bell's 7-layer vegetable burrito, which is served with guacamole laced with sour cream, contained gelatin, a jelly-like extract made by boiling the skin, hooves, horns or bones of animals. Taco Bell switched to gelatin-free guacamole a couple of years ago, said Laurie Gannon, the fast food chain's director of public relations. "Our guacamole is sour-cream free, and as you know, sour cream contains gelatin," she told India-West. It is unclear whether Taco Bell's switch to gelatin-free guacamole was a result of VAN's campaign.

Weill said that as long as the FDA keeps from defining the words "vegetarian" and "veggie," restaurants "can legally get away with" serving dishes that contain an animal-based product. Like Gannon was quoted as telling a Washington Post reporter a few years ago: "Our employees and managers are not nutrition experts. Our (veggie) fajita wrap was never advertised as a vegetarian item." She said thename "just means it has vegetables in it."

Fish believes that the presence of a vegetarian legal defense network would force restaurants and flavor manufacturers to have a "greater standard of disclosure," so vegetarians will not inadvertently be committing acts sacrosanct to their religious or personal beliefs.

"If we had such a network, we will be able to speak with one voice, " he said. Otherwise, we will be just continuing to spit in the wind."  
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