Tuesday, February 21, 2006

McDonald's now denies allergens

It has been just a week since McDonald's announced that their fries were not gluten free, as they had claimed for years. In those 7 days at least 3 lawsuits have been filed against McDonald's. They have now changed their mind again. McDonald's released a statement today stating that a top allergen expert had tested their fries and deemed them gluten and allergen free.

McDonald's statement:
“We understand the concern that individuals in the Celiac community and others with food allergies may have regarding foods that meet their individual needs. That is why we are eager to provide them with the most factual information we can.

“Scientific evaluation by one of the world’s leading experts on gluten sensitivity and allergenicity, Dr. Steven Taylor of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program of the University of Nebraska, has confirmed again that our fries are gluten free and allergen free.

“Based on this analysis, we believe the lawsuits filed are without legal merit.”

-Jack Daly, Senior Vice President, McDonald’s Corporation
This back-and-forth by McDonald's is fishy. And if it isn't fishy it is at the very least irresponsible and symptomatic of some serious corporate confusion.


Opposite George said...

I wonder if some of this fishiness is really just a bunch of poorly-handled backside covering.

It wouldn't be surprising if this is all an example of Corporate Legal going nuts in reaction to the new FDA rules. Note the original AP story doesn't say that the fries actuallly contain allergens. The story quotes a McDonalds spokesperson as saying "technically there are no allergens," and other not-really-convincing stuff that might well be true but sounds like hard-to-believe weaseling.

I'd refer to the original press release here too but it looks like the company's pulled it from their site. You're not helping yourself out here, Ronald! But I digress...

If I were a wagering man I'd bet this is what happened. Note I have no basis for this apart from the news stories I've seen and years of personal experience dealing with pathological bureaucracies. This is a work of behind-the-scenes fiction, that MIGHT explain the story as it's played out so far. Here we go:

Once upon a time...

McDonalds Legal finds out about new FDA rules and wonders if the company needs to make additional disclosures. They send some lawyers to meet with the head of Operations (or Nutrition or whichever appropriate department.) It turns out that there are wheat and dairy derivatives in the fries. There is no question that the company will have to change its disclosures, and Ops/Marketing/Nutrition has no problem with that.

Now Legal asks Operations the perfectly-innocuous question, "And how do you know there aren't any allergens there?" You know, just to cover themselves, complete the interview, and get on with the other 50 projects in their in box. Maybe Ops says they haven't had any complaints, and when they tested things a few years ago and there weren't any problems. Or maybe they say their suppliers told them they aren't there. Or something else. Whatever the answer, it isn't good enough Legal for Risk Management. The bottom line is, legally Ops DOESN'T know, and nobody ever thought about this before.

A coworker once described his feeling, as an interviewer in a similar situation, like this: it's as if the interviewee took a hand grenade out of his pocket, put it on the table, pulled the pin and then went on as if nothing had changed. Of course everything just changed.

Here's what happens when management puts the hand grenade on the table, always: Legal totally freaks out. In our case maybe Legal tells Marketing to pull the allergy-free claims until Ops can prove them to some standard. Ops complains that the tests will take time, and of course nobody started working on this until the last minute so Communications and Marketing both scream that this will kill business. Legal says "Tough." They're already worried about trouble with allergy sufferers, they don't want to get in more trouble with the FDA. None of these people are thinking perfectly clearly at this point, but Legal screams loudest to Management, which is enough to put them in charge of handling the issue. They make Communications issue a press release announcing the change.

Legal's in butt-covering mode now so they're reviewing the release with a microscope, and any judgement calls they make the wording favor limiting liability over artfulness of wording.

Looking back at the original story, it doesn't look like McDonalds actually said their fries contain allergens. It's more like they just couldn't guarantee they weren't there any more. And though that's a distinction smacking of sophistry it might be legally significant enough that it shut Legal up (IANAL.) But the story was not convincing (and when your main media coverage is through the business press, that's means it's a really, really unconvincing story.) That's why everybody read the story like this: "McDonalds says there's gluten in their fries." -- it's because their presentation really sucked. Mickey D's problem with the meat extract in fries a few years back didn't do anything to help their believability with the public either.

Anyway, the Celiac (and milk-allergic) folks understandably freak since the fries -- a food presented as safe for years -- suddenly and without warning get yanked off the safe list, and the company's assurances are pretty lame (as is the reporting.) Now, McDonalds hadn't changed the fries' formula, so you'd think if the fries really presented a major problem to gluten-intolerant people the Celiac Foundation would have heard of it before and possibly already have done testing and mounted several lawsuits (IANADr either so maybe it isn't that clear cut); unfortunately, one analytical tool people in panic mode lose is rationality.

I have no idea where the vegetarian suits are coming from -- I always thought it was well-known among vegetarians that the fries contain animal products, and the company has been (reluctantly) telling people that for years. McDonalds does say on their nutrition page that they don't certify ANY of their products, not even the juices, as being vegetarian, though when they started doing that I don't know. As you point out in a previous post, that suit smacks of some combination of opportunism and ignorance. Anyway, let's wrap this up...

It's a week or two later and the test results come back confirming, to Legal's satisfaction, that the fries don't contain allergens. It's too late though; thanks to the clumsy way they handled the original story it's impossible to undo the damage. People have had enough time to convince themselves that the company deceived them, whether or not that actually happened, and the facts just get in the way of a good story anyway. And that brings us to today.

If that's how things happened it would make a great business case study of how NOT to handle things. There are many things, IF that's how things happened, that could have been done differently, from organizational planning and reporting to marketing and PR, to minimize the problem. They might even have been able to deal with the forthcoming regulations in such a way as to improve their bottom line.

I can't wait to see how this all turns out.

Tehra said...

sure, maybe they were.... before they were fried in the same oil as their chicken. so, technically, they're can't be said to be lying. although, those who have recently been diagnosed with Celiac, for instance, perhaps don't realize that they cannot eat food that has even *touched* wheat/gluten. it's frustrating. i don't know, maybe McDonald's doesn't realize this either.