In 2011, Ahmed Ahmed, an observant Muslim, ate a chicken sandwich at a McDonald's restaurant in Dearborn, Michigan. That the location advertised it exclusively sold halal chicken products—and that it sourced those products from an approved halal provider—was a reassurance.
Fast forward to 2013, and McDonald's is paying Ahmed a hefty sum of cash to settle a case that alleges the halal claims amounted to false advertising, reports the Associated Press.
Dearborn, Michigan, and the greater Detroit area are home to about 150,000 Muslims, one of the largest populations of Muslims in the U.S. McDonald's caters to that sizable minority with its two halal locations in the city—the only two halal McDonald's in America. "Halal" is an Arabic word used to describe items (often food) that are permissible under Islamic law. Islamic law forbids pork consumption, and requires that other animals be slaughtered in the name of God. According to the case that Ahmed brought against McDonald's, those requirements weren't being upheld.
In 2011 Ahmed and his lawyer, Kassem Dakhlallah, wrote a letter to McDonald's Corp. and Finley's Management Co. alleging that Ahmed had "confirmed from a source familiar with the inventory" that the Dearborn McDonald's he ate at had sold non-halal food "on many occasions." After receiving no response, Ahmed filed a lawsuit.
The issue, Dakhlallah told the AP, did not stem from production, but that the restaurant used non-halal items on occassions when it ran out of halal food. Though they are denying any liability, McDonald's and Finley's Management Co. have decided to settle, paying approximately $700,000 to be shared by Ahmed, a Detroit health clinic, Dearborn's Arab American National Museum, and lawyers. Since it would be impossible to track down every Muslim who ate at either of the halal McDonald's in Dearborn (both were cited in the suit) to pay them restitution, both Ahmed and McDonald's agreed that a donation to charities supporting the Muslim community would suffice.
Daklallah said he believed this to be the first lawsuit related to McDonald's and halal food. But this is by no means the first time McDonald's has gotten itself into hot water over food transparency.
The AP reports that in 2002, McDonald's donated $10 million to Hindu groups and other organizations in the U.S. to settle lawsuits that accused the chain of falsely labeling French fries and hash browns as vegetarian. The fried foods were in fact cooked in vegetable oil that contained traces of beef, an additive used for flavoring purposes.
As consumers become increasingly aware of food-related issues, they're demanding that companies be more forthcoming with information—and McDonald's is feeling that pressure.
In August of last year, McDonald's made a bold and risky step toward transparency with its "Our Food. Your Questions." campaign, which invited consumers to ask any questions they had of McDonald's, promising to answer queries with complete and utter honesty. Consumers' questions ranged from the practical—"Is your beef actually 100 pure beef or is that just the name of the company?"—to the questionably serious: "Is there anti-vomit in the mcdonald food?" The company responded to all questions, as promised, but mostly with stock answers.
The Dearborn case and the company's attempt at making voluntary disclosures brings up a larger question: Is it possible for companies like McDonald's, with more than 34,000 locations worldwide, to truly be transparent when its bottom line is at stake?
Cara Rosaen, founder of Real Time Farms, a crowd-sourced food guide that enables consumers to trace their food to its source, suggests transparency is a necessary business practice for corporations like McDonald's—not just when appealing to consumers with particular dietary restrictions, but in marketing to everyone.
"If you want to be a company of the future, transparency should be your quid pro quo," Rosaen tells TakePart.
Rosaen told audiences at a 2012 TEDxManhattan talk that she founded Real Time Farms because she "wanted to be able to find [information about my food] somewhere that's not controlled by someone with a marketing interest." She pointed out in the TED talk that while McDonald's runs transparency campaigns to burnish its public image, it leaves many questions unanswered. And that's unacceptable.
"Companies need to be transparent about all parts of the process. We need to know what the animals are eating, where they are living, what medical treatments they are receiving," she tells TakePart.
The Dearborn case, she says, pleased her because it brings attention to the issue of transparency as a whole. "Ideally all companies should be transparent about everything so that people have a full choice. If you don't have all of the information, you can't make a full choice."
Still, "transparency" is one of those tricky, slippery words. Companies use it selectively and, oftentimes, in ways that are geared toward benefiting sales.
"McDonald's has a pattern of lying, or at least not full disclosure," says Michele Simon, a public health lawyer specializing in marketing and lobbying tactics and author of the book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. She tells TakePart that the 2002 settlement over fries is one example of the company's dishonesty. "The problem isn't just full disclosure; it's outright deception."
And that's where transparency falls short. Companies who are fully transparent aren't always the companies we need to hear from most. Can you imagine McDonald's granting the public access to information about the practices on its many factory farm suppliers? Seems unlikely.
Until honest, sustainable, and fair food is the norm, the onus falls largely on consumers to look out for their needs and values—from religious dietary requirements to other concerns, like sustainable sourcing or antibiotic-free meat.
Rosaen's advice to consumers is to "ask, ask, ask." She says asking restaurants where their food comes from is one of the most effective ways for people to demand transparency and exercise their consumer power, instead of relying on companies to provide the information in their advertising.
Simon echoes that sentiment: "Food that is truly healthy doesn't need a label," she says.