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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 multi-district litigation panel is expected to determine next month whether to consolidate the cases, most of which are potential class actions. The consolidation request excludes another nine 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 claim 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 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. THOUSANDS OF PLAINTIFFS? Robert Shelist, a partner at Shelist & Schwartz in Chicago, said that most of the cases allege consumer fraud, although some are personal injury cases. He said that he represents three individuals with food allergies or celiac disease who would not have eaten french fries at McDonald’s if they had known they were not gluten-free. Krinsky et al v. McDonald’s, No. 06cv2064 (N.D. Ill.) He said that his case against McDonald’s, which seeks a class action of potentially millions of plaintiffs, might be just the beginning. “There may be other fast-food companies out there who haven’t come forward because they fear lawsuits,” he said. “It’s possible there are other fast-food companies facing the same scenario and just haven’t gone public.” Paul Heidenreich, a plaintiff attorney at Manhattan Beach-based Huskinson and Brown, represents a woman with celiac disease who had gastrointestinal problems on occasion after eating McDonald’s fries. Stepkowski v. McDonald’s, 06cv1848 (C.D. Calif.). “There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people with this condition,” said Heidenreich, who filed the case as a potential class action. “It’s theoretically possible there could be many more suits because there are so many people with this condition.” 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 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.” In the past few months, McDonald’s filed motions to consolidate all the cases into a single district, preferably the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois, where the company is based, according to court filings. Amanda Bronstad is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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