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Los Angeles-In litigation closely watched by the national restaurant industry, McDonald’s Corp. is seeking to consolidate about a dozen lawsuits alleging that the company provided misleading information to consumers that its french fries were not made of wheat-based proteins. A multidistrict litigation panel is expected to determine next month whether to consolidate the cases, most of which are potential class actions. The consolidation request excludes several lawsuits filed in state courts in Florida and California. The so-called “french fry actions” deal with a protein found in wheat, rye and barley called gluten, which causes intestinal problems for people with autism or celiac disease. The suits allege that McDonald’s made misleading statements on its Web site that its french fries did not contain wheat ingredients. On Feb. 13, McDonald’s changed its Web site to say that its fries were flavored with derivatives of wheat and dairy products. The change came less than two months after new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules for the packaged food industry became effective, requiring that the presence of certain allergens, such as gluten, be reported. Lawyers for restaurants are monitoring the McDonald’s cases. “Anytime a company like McDonald’s is brought to litigation over this, the rest of the industry is taking notice,” said Martin Orlick, a partner in the San Francisco office of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro who represents national and regional restaurant chains. Brian W. Smith, a partner at Smith & Vanture in West Palm Beach, Fla., said he has filed 10 cases in Florida state court that are expected to be consolidated separately from the federal cases. He also plans to file another 20 suits in state courts nationwide. Many of his cases involve children with autism or celiac disease. “McDonald’s had a Web site which listed gluten-free menu items,” he said. “They posted it on their Web site for a couple years. As a result of that, certain celiac groups had listed McDonald’s as a restaurant that’s safe for them to eat at.” Michael Pope, a partner in the Chicago office of McDermott, Will & Emery who represents McDonald’s, said, “the evidence will show that McDonald’s properly disclosed the information when they had it.” Effective on Jan. 1, the FDA began requiring food labels for proteins derived from eight types of allergenic foods including milk, peanuts and wheat. Because McDonald’s is a restaurant, the company did not have to comply with the new FDA regulations. But Anna Rozenich, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said that the company voluntarily disclosed the information because “we prefer that our customers have open and transparent communications.” McDonald’s has filed motions to consolidate all cases into a single district court, preferably the Northern District of Illinois, where the company is based, according to court filings.

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