Big beef with big Mac

National | Hindus charge McDonald's deceived them into temptation; FDA may make it cheaper to fight allergies; and is foot-and-mouth disease finally under control in Europe?

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

Sacred tallow
McDonald's loves to see you smile, as the advertising jingle goes. So it stands to reason the fast-food chain hates it that some patrons are not smiling; they're suing. The beef is about, well, beef. More precisely, it centers on the Hindu worldview that cattle are sacred. Two Hindu customers in the United States sued McDonald's, claiming it mislead them into believing its French fries were vegetarian. The lawsuit charges McDonald's "intentionally failed to publicly disclose its continued use of beef tallow in the [French fry] cooking process under the guise of 'natural flavor.'" In 1990, in response to criticism from health activists, McDonald's announced it would cook its fries in vegetable oil instead of beef tallow. This month, in response to the lawsuit, company spokesmen countered that the fast-food chain never claimed U.S. fries are vegetarian. In a statement, McDonald's conceded its recipe includes "a miniscule trace of beef flavoring, not tallow." But even trace amounts are enough to upset a Hindu sacred cow, and the dispute is fast becoming international. Some politicians in India-where McDonald's uses absolutely no beef products-have gone so far as to propose expelling the Golden Arches from the country over this matter. Angry Hindu activists responded to the suit by trashing a McDonald's near Bombay, smashing furniture and lights. Demonstrators from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party surrounded another location, shouting slogans and smearing cow dung. Brij Sharma, one of the plaintiffs in the U.S. suit, told the Seattle Times an employee misinformed him that the fries were vegetarian. "I belong to a very highly respected Brahmin family," he told the paper. "It's making me feel sick. It is something like a question of saving our souls." Breathe easier
About 40 million Americans suffering from allergies will have easier, less expensive access to better medication if the FDA accepts a proposal to deregulate certain second-generation antihistamines, making them available over the counter. The savings could be nothing to sneeze at. Under an insurance company petition to the FDA, popular allergy drugs Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec would no longer require a doctor's prescription. Wellpoint Health Networks-which operates as Blue Cross of California, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, and UNICARE-approached the FDA in 1998, and this month an agency panel agreed and recommended deregulation. In Canada, Claritin is already available over the counter-for a fraction of its almost $2 per pill price in the United States. Some Americans even drive over the border to purchase the discounted pills. Cutting insurance companies out of the loop allows market forces to work, driving down prices to consumers. It's a good deal for insurance companies, too, since they would not have to shell out billions for allergic policyholders. Companies that make the drugs like their high profit margins in the United States and oppose the policy change, noting the expensive research that goes into making effective medications. Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec are some of the most successful new drugs in recent history. Unlike over-the-counter antihistamine drugs, they do not cause drowsiness and many consider them safer to use. Foot-and-mouth stomped out?
Experts say the headline-making epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease is now under control. An independent study supported the British government's claim that the virus' spread is now contained. Researchers at the Center for Tropical Veterinary Medicine at the University of Edinburgh say that although the disease has been under control and in decline since late March, health authorities should institute aggressive measures to prevent its return. Estimates of the costs involved in battling foot-and-mouth are about $2.6 billion, according to Standard & Poor's. Almost 3 million British animals died in the campaign to eradicate the disease, which spread to France, the Netherlands, and Ireland. The United States has been foot-and-mouth free since 1929. Yet animal-rights activists claimed the outbreak was good for livestock since it spared them the indignity of captivity and the slaughterhouse. PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said she hoped the disease would cross the Atlantic and attack America: "It's a peculiar and disturbing thing to say, but it would be less than truthful if I pretended otherwise." To prevent such a crisis, the Bush administration ordered inspection teams deployed at airports to prevent the disease from entering the country.

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